Bacon, burgers and sausages were this week deemed to be as big a cancer threat as cigarettes, according to global health chiefs.
The warning saw processed meat added to the list of items classified as carcingogenic to humans by the World Health Organisation.
It means dietary favourites, including salami, chorizo and smoked ham, rank alongside arsenic and asbestos, when it comes to the potential cancer risk.
Officials said just 50g of processed meat a day – less than one sausage – increases the risk of bowel cancer by almost a fifth.
The report also classified red meat as ‘probably carcinogenic’ – one rank below – but added that it had some nutritional benefits.
Experts are now urging the public to avoid processed meat where possible and to have a bean salad for lunch rather than a BLT.
Processed meat has been preserved, for example by smoking, and includes ham and pate, as well as burgers and mince if they have been preserved using salt or chemical additives.
Experts think the substances added during processing cause cancer.
These include preservatives such as nitrates and nitrites – as well as substantial amounts of salt.
Fresh red meat is also strongly linked to cancer and the WHO categorised it one level below processed meat, as ‘probably carcinogenic’.
But it also provides many nutritional benefits and is high in protein, iron and vitamin B12, which prevent tiredness and infections.
Twenty-two experts at the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, from 10 countries, took the decision after reviewing more than 800 studies that investigated the links between red meat and processed meat and various different types of cancer.
Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic, based on sufficient evidence in humans that consumption causes specifically colorectal or bowel cancer, they concluded.
The classification of red meat as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ was observed mainly in relation to colorectal cancer, but links were also seen for pancreatic and prostate cancer.
The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
‘For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,’ said Dr Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme.
‘In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.’
Dr Christopher Wild, director of IARC added: ‘These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat.
‘At the same time, red meat has nutritional value.
‘Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.’
But, in light of the news, which has attracted widespread reaction, the IARC has revealed its list of 116 things that can cause cancer.
The list features the known obvious culprits, tobacco smoke, secondhand smoke, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic, to name a few.
But, there are also a number of everyday activities and items that feature that are almost impossible to avoid, including the air we breathe.
And the list also features various health conditions, such as hepatitis B and C as well as HIV.
Here, we reveal all those things, which are classified alongside processed meat in the IARC’s group one, carcinogenic to humans category – those that definitely cause cancer:
1. Tobacco smoking
2. Sunlamps and sunbeds
3. Aluminium production
4. Arsenic in drinking water
5. Auramine production
6. Boot and shoe manufacture and repair
7. Chimney sweeping
8. Coal gasification
9. Coal tar distillation
10. Coke (fuel) production
11. Furniture and cabinet making
12. Haematite mining (underground) with exposure to radon
13. Secondhand smoke
14. Iron and steel founding
15. Isopropanol manufacture (strong-acid process)
16. Magenta dye manufacturing
17. Occupational exposure as a painter
18. Paving and roofing with coal-tar pitch
19. Rubber industry
20. Occupational exposure of strong inorganic acid mists containing sulphuric acid
21. Naturally occurring mixtures of aflatoxins (produced by funghi)
22. Alcoholic beverages
23. Areca nut – often chewed with betel leaf
24. Betel quid without tobacco
25. Betel quid with tobacco
26. Coal tar pitches
27. Coal tars
28. Indoor emissions from household combustion of coal
29. Diesel exhaust
30. Mineral oils, untreated and mildly treated
31. Phenacetin, a pain and fever reducing drug
32. Plants containing aristolochic acid (used in Chinese herbal medicine)
33. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – widely used in electrical equipment in the past, banned in many countries in the 1970s
34. Chinese-style salted fish
35. Shale oils
37. Smokeless tobacco products
38. Wood dust
39. Processed meat
42. Aristolochic acids and plants containing them
44. Arsenic and arsenic compounds
49. Beryllium and beryllium compounds
50. Chlornapazine (N,N-Bis(2-chloroethyl)-2-naphthylamine)
52. Chloromethyl methyl ether
54. 1,4-Butanediol dimethanesulfonate (Busulphan, Myleran)
55. Cadmium and cadmium compounds
57. Methyl-CCNU (1-(2-Chloroethyl)-3-(4-methylcyclohexyl)-1-nitrosourea; Semustine)
58. Chromium(VI) compounds
60. Contraceptives, hormonal, combined forms (those containing both oestrogen and a progestogen)
61. Contraceptives, oral, sequential forms of hormonal contraception (a period of oestrogen-only followed by a period of both oestrogen and a progestogen)
64. Dyes metabolized to benzidine
65. Epstein-Barr virus
66. Oestrogens, nonsteroidal
67. Oestrogens, steroidal
68. Oestrogen therapy, postmenopausal
69. Ethanol in alcoholic beverages
71. Ethylene oxide
72. Etoposide alone and in combination with cisplatin and bleomycin
74. Gallium arsenide
75. Helicobacter pylori (infection with)
76. Hepatitis B virus (chronic infection with)
77. Hepatitis C virus (chronic infection with)
78. Herbal remedies containing plant species of the genus Aristolochia
79. Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (infection with)
80. Human papillomavirus type 16, 18, 31, 33, 35, 39, 45, 51, 52, 56, 58, 59 and 66
81. Human T-cell lymphotropic virus type-I
83. Methoxsalen (8-Methoxypsoralen) plus ultraviolet A-radiation
84. 4,4′-methylene-bis(2-chloroaniline) (MOCA)
85. MOPP and other combined chemotherapy including alkylating agents
86. Mustard gas (sulphur mustard)
88. Neutron radiation
89. Nickel compounds
90. 4-(N-Nitrosomethylamino)-1-(3-pyridyl)-1-butanone (NNK)
91. N-Nitrosonornicotine (NNN)
92. Opisthorchis viverrini (infection with)
93. Outdoor air pollution
94. Particulate matter in outdoor air pollution
95. Phosphorus-32, as phosphate
96. Plutonium-239 and its decay products (may contain plutonium-240 and other isotopes), as aerosols
97. Radioiodines, short-lived isotopes, including iodine-131, from atomic reactor accidents and nuclear weapons detonation (exposure during childhood)
98. Radionuclides, α-particle-emitting, internally deposited
99. Radionuclides, β-particle-emitting, internally deposited
100. Radium-224 and its decay products
101. Radium-226 and its decay products
102. Radium-228 and its decay products
103. Radon-222 and its decay products
104. Schistosoma haematobium (infection with)
105. Silica, crystalline (inhaled in the form of quartz or cristobalite from occupational sources)
106. Solar radiation
107. Talc containing asbestiform fibres
110. Thiotepa (1,1′,1′-phosphinothioylidynetrisaziridine)
111. Thorium-232 and its decay products, administered intravenously as a colloidal dispersion of thorium-232 dioxide
114. Vinyl chloride
115. Ultraviolet radiation
116. X-radiation and gamma radiation