Do cold cuts cause cancer?
May 28, 2009 9:40 AM   Subscribe

I've seen several news articles (including this one) over the past few years highlighting studies that suggest a link between processed meats and cancer. Does the preponderance of scientific evidence suggest that people should stay away from foods like deli meats and hot dogs, even in moderation?
posted by zembla3 to Health & Fitness (14 answers total)
Note that meat in general had much of the same effect in that study. BBC story:
It was found that those who ate the most processed meat had a 67% increased risk of developing the disease compared to those with the lowest intake.

People who ate a lot of pork and red meat also increased their pancreatic cancer risk by around 50%, compared to those who ate less meat.
Also some comments in there about this still being up in the air and needing more research, from the UK top cancer doc.
posted by smackfu at 9:49 AM on May 28, 2009


Processed meats specifically are associated with higher risks, particularly of colorectal cancer.

This search returns a number of peer-reviewed studies to check out.
posted by methylsalicylate at 9:51 AM on May 28, 2009

needing more research, from the UK top cancer doc.

Hmm. I'm not a 'top UK cancer doc', more a 'relatively decent UK cancer epidemiologist' myself, but I would take such comments more as justifying a higher research budget than as any actual doubt about processed meat being a contributor to colorectal cancer. Even large-scale metaanalyses of multiple peer reviewed studies show a moderate, and statistically significant, risk.
posted by methylsalicylate at 9:55 AM on May 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, that was sloppy of me: "Deputy Director of Cancer Research UK's Epidemiology Unit".
posted by smackfu at 9:57 AM on May 28, 2009

smackfu: ah, another epidemiologist? Then I would definitely call that an appeal for more research funds than an actual expression of doubt ;)
posted by methylsalicylate at 9:59 AM on May 28, 2009

It depends on what kind you buy. I would be concerned if you were buying the supermarket of deli brands every day. But the stuff you buy in stores like Whole Foods or Hay Day is as "bad" as buying meat from a butcher.
posted by Zambrano at 10:00 AM on May 28, 2009

[Couple comments removed. Please try to focus on the specific question re: processed meats; let's avoid a general eat-meat-or-don't bull session.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:10 AM on May 28, 2009

The thing I always wonder about these types of nutritional studies is covariance. What else did they control for? Because it seems likely that people who eat more sandwich meats would generally have "less healthy" eating habits: they probably also eat less fruits and vegetables, eat more fast food, etc.
posted by lunasol at 10:21 AM on May 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Many processed meats are smoked, and burning/charring/etc. is a particular risk factor for cancer. My family is Norwegian on one side, a culture that loves smoked and processed meats, fish, etc. -- and has the world's highest rates for esophagus cancer last I saw.
posted by msalt at 11:01 AM on May 28, 2009

Fooducate occasionally writes about nitrates in processed foods, especially meat. I found this post to be a good starting point.
posted by Happydaz at 12:03 PM on May 28, 2009

You can find a very comprehensive review of the research on diet and cancer by the UK's World Cancer Research Fund at (see "The Expert Report; you will have to give them your name and email to download the PDF). Relevant portions:

Regarding colorectal cancer and red meat, which may or may not include processed meats:

"A substantial amount of data from cohort and case-control studies showed a dose-response relationship, supported by evidence for plausible mechanisms operating in humans. Red meat is a convincing cause of colorectal cancer." (121)

Regarding colorectal cancer and processed meat:

"There is a substantial amount of evidence, with a dose-response relationship apparent from cohort studies. There is strong evidence for plausible mechanisms operating in humans. Processed meat is a convincing cause of colorectal cancer." (123)

"Meta-analysis [on five studies] gives a summary effect estimate of 1.21 per 50 g/day..." (123)

Regarding other cancers (oesophageal, lung, stomach, and prostate) and processed meat, they write that there is limited (and sometimes inconsistent) evidence that processed meat is a cause.
posted by holympus at 7:18 PM on May 28, 2009

Junkfood science has a good post on the issue of nitrates. She also had a good take on all of those red meat leads to premature death studies that were so popular recently. I personally don't buy that there is a strong relationship between meat/cold cuts and cancer, and I suspect that it is all covariance effects as lunasol mentioned above.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:42 PM on May 28, 2009

With due respect to the skepticism of ch1x0r, lunasol, and Sandy Szwarc (who is making a valid point regarding media coverage of scientific literature, although in a harmful manner), hunches about "covariance effects" constitute absolutely no evidence that consumption of processed meats does or does not raise an individual's risk for cancer, and in this case I think these unexamined hunches may be leading you to disagree with something that is as true as true gets in the modern Western world: by all of the best available scientific evidence, carried out by researchers who are well aware of covariance, red and processed meats raise an individual's risk for colorectal cancer. Here is the relevant research. These people all know about covariance:

8. Bostick RM, Potter JD, Kushi LH, et al. Sugar, meat, and fat intake, and non-dietary risk factors for colon cancer incidence in Iowa women (United States). Cancer Causes Control 1994;5:38-52.
9.Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA, et al. Relation of meat, fat, and fiber intake to the risk of colon cancer in a prospective study among women. NEngl J Med 1990;323:1664-72.
10. Giovannucci E, Rimm EB, Stampfer MJ, et al. Intake of fat, meat, and fiber in relation to risk of colon cancer in men. Cancer Res 1994;54:2390-7.
14. English DR, MacInnis RJ, Hodge AM, et al. Red meat, chicken, and fish consumption and risk of colorectal cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2004;13:1509-14.
15. Norat T,Bingham S, Ferrari P, et al. Meat, fish, and colorectal cancer risk: the European Prospective Investigation into cancer and nutrition. JNatl Cancer Inst 2005;97:906-16.
16. Kato I, Akhmedkhanov A, Koenig K, et al. Prospective study of diet and female colorectal cancer: the New York University Women’s Health Study. Nutr Cancer1997;28:276-81.
17. Pietinen P, Malila N, Virtanen M, et al. Diet and risk of colorectal cancer in a cohort
of Finnish men. Cancer Causes Control 1999;10:387-96.
18. Larsson SC, Rafter J, Holmberg L, et al. Red meat consumption and risk of cancers of the proximal colon, distal colon and rectum: the Swedish Mammography Cohort. Int J Cancer2005;113:829-34.
19. Wei EK, Giovannucci E, Wu K, et al. Comparison of risk factors for colon and rectal cancer. Int J Cancer2004;108:433-42.
21. Tiemersma EW, Kampman E, Bueno de Mesquita HB, et al. Meat consumption, cigarette smoking, and genetic susceptibility in the etiology of colorectal cancer: results from a Dutch prospective study. Cancer Causes Control 2002;13:383-93.
27. Chao A, Thun MJ, Connell CJ, et al. Meat consumption and risk of colorectal cancer. Am Med Ass 2005;293:172-82.
69. Khan MM, Goto R, Kobayashi K, et al. Dietary habits and cancer mortality among middle aged and older Japanese living in Hokkaido, Japan by cancer site and sex. 2004;5:58-65.
84. Flood A, Velie EM, Sinha R, et al. Meat, fat, and their subtypes as risk factors for colorectal cancer in a prospective cohort of women. AmJEpidemiol 2003;158:59-68.
85. Goldbohm RA, van den Brandt PA, van ‘t Veer P, et al. A prospective cohort study on the relation between meat consumption and the risk of colon cancer. Cancer Res1994;54:718-23.
posted by holympus at 8:32 PM on May 28, 2009

Personally, I still say, "All things in moderation, including moderation". People have been eating cured meat provisions for centuries, now, and have been mostly line for it.

"Nitrate-free" cold cuts have become increasingly available lately, and might well be a healthier way to go. Or, you can cure your own stuff if you want it less "processed". Oh, what fun I would have if I had a basement...
posted by Citrus at 8:06 AM on May 29, 2009

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