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The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)’s final report on the link between eating processed meat and cancer is to be published soon. The preliminary report left some extremely concerned, while others were more sceptical, about the findings that eating processed meat can increase a person’s risk of colorectal cancer. IARC reported each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily (about two bacon rashers), increased colorectal cancer risk by 18%.

So what is it about processed meat that increases our risk of cancer, and is the risk the same for all types of such products? Firstly, processed meat can cause cancer due to its heme iron content. This is found in all meats and is an important part of our diets. However, excess amounts can increase the risk of cancer. Of course, sunshine helps make us vital vitamin D but too much of the sun can cause skin cancer.

Secondly, processed meat may contain cancer-causing chemicals such as N-nitroso compounds formed during processing but only if these meats contain added nitrite or nitrate salts. It’s important to point out we also get exposed to such compounds in fresh and smoked seafoods and in lower amounts in grains, dairy, oils and even alcohol. Thirdly, processed meat may contain cancer-causing chemicals known as heterocyclic amines that are formed during cooking. The amount present depends on the cooking method and how well the meat is cooked.

Clearly, not all processed meats are created equally. However, the report did not provide details of the risk of cancer associated with individual types of processed meat, as this data is not available. This important fact was either missed or deliberately under-reported by much of the media. Eating processed meat should not be considered a taboo but choosing the type you eat and how it is cooked is very important. Selecting products with the highest meat content with only seasonings or plant ingredients added is prudent, and not overcooking meat is really important.

Eating the right processed meat and cooking it correctly is not the risk some have portrayed. Like many things in life it’s about getting the balance right.

Chris Eliott is director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast