Meat intake could have links to cancer, though further variables must be assessed to determine specific risk, according to experts at the National Food Institute (DTU) of Denmark.
The team reviewed a range of studies on meat and cancer risk following last year’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) summary which banded meat with cigarettes and asbestos in a list of carcinogens.
However, though they agree with IARC that meat does have some mechanisms which could cause cancer, the Danish reviewers do not specify whether the risk is high or low, whereas IARC list meat as Group 2a – “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
Variables such as eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, avoiding over-cooking meat, limiting intake amounts and reducing added nitrates all affect and could mitigate the risks, senior advisor at DTU Heddie Mejborn told FoodNavigator.
The institute hoped to better understand IARC’s summary in preparation for release of the full report, she said. IARC is yet to release the full data, though it was originally anticipated in 2015.
It is hoped the new Danish review – commissioned by the Danish Agriculture and Food Council – will help prepare the local meat industry on how to react when the full IARC monograph is published, Mejborn added.
“They wanted to see if (the risk) is as high as IARC say, so they can make their own conclusions,” she said.
Publication of the IARC full report could, for example, lead to some minor changes in public advice over meat consumption in Denmark, Max Hansen, DTU senior advisor told us.
However, it is unlikely Denmark would bring out new regulations as a result of the data, he said.
In its summary, IARC said it based the classification on “limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect”.
This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.
The summary also led to WHO categorisation of processed – for example bacon, sausages and ham – meats as Group 1 carcinogenics, a more definite cancer-causing agent than Group 2a red meat.
Healthy consumption and nitrate issues
The WHO are now looking into meat consumption as part of a healthy diet. Despite talk of risk, meat is still an important source of iron, protein and vitamins, Mejborn said.
Danish dietary and World Cancer Research Fund guidance suggests consumption of no more than 500 g of red meat per week, and eating processed meat as little as possible.
The Danish research, IARC’s study and others also suggest the nitrate added to processed meats is particularly carcinogenic. Nitrate is added to such foods to avoid risk of contamination and resulting diseases such as botulism.
Lower caps allowed
However, Denmark has special EU permission to set lower caps on maximum levels of nitrates allowed in processed meats, Hansen said, adding high standards of hygiene mean there have been no issues with botulism.
Other producers of processed meats could also follow suit to improve risk factor, Mejborn added, noting cancer studies done in Denmark do not show the same links between cancer and meat.
However, more research is needed into nitrates in meat, the team noted.
“Most of the research on nitrates was performed in the 1980s,” Hansen said, noting an update is needed. The studies should, in particular, focus on nitrosamines – some of which are known carcinogens – since nitrate in itself is not overly problematic, he said.