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Do red meat and sausages increase the risk of developing colon cancer? How much meat can you still eat or is it better to do without it? We answer the most important questions on the topic.

Status: November 30, 2015

A report from the International Cancer Research Agency (IARC) - a sub-organization of the World Health Organization (WHO) - has caused much controversial discussion and confusion in the last few days. Is Eating Meat As Harmful As Smoking? How much meat can you eat without hesitation?

We have summarized the six most frequently asked questions and answers for you.

1. What is processed meat?

Processed meat is meat that has been modified through processing such as salting, smoking, maturing or fermenting or other processes in order to improve the taste or to make it durable. It usually contains pork, beef or poultry, but also offal. Sausage products, ham, minced meat products and canned meat are processed meat.

2. What is red meat?

Red meat means beef, lamb and pork. This does not include poultry meat and fish.

3. How safely is processed meat or red meat causing colon cancer?

IARC scientists have investigated the certainty with which it can be said that red meat or processed meat can cause colon cancer. To do this, they analyzed over 800 studies and summarized the results. The security or evidence of the statements was assessed.

Processed meat was classified in Category 1 "Carcinogenic to humans".

That means: there issufficient, convincing Evidence that processed meat causes colon cancer in humans. Substances such as tobacco smoke and asbestos also fall into the same group. However, this means Notthat meat consumption causes just as many cancer cases as smoking, for example. But the scientific evidence of its carcinogenic effects is equally strong.

Red meat was classified in Category 2 as “likely” to be carcinogenic in humans.

That means: the evidence is not as certain as with processed meat.

4. What is the risk of developing colon cancer from eating meat?

The evidence that processed meat causes colon cancer is as good as that of tobacco smoke. However, the risk of developing colon cancer from eating meat is much lower than developing lung cancer from smoking. This graphic shows this clearly.

While 86 percent of all lung cancer cases in the UK are caused by smoking, only 21 percent of all colon cancer cases are caused by consuming processed and red meat. This means that there must be many other possible triggers for colon cancer. Overall, scientists estimated in 2011 that around 3 out of 100 cancer cases (around 8,800 per year) in Great Britain are caused by eating too much red and processed meat, but 19 out of 100 cancer cases are caused by smoking (around 64,500 cases per year).

5. How much is the risk of colon cancer for people who eat more processed meat than others?

The IARC study shows that the risk of colon cancer increases the more processed meat is eaten. The researchers estimate from the data that with an additional 50 grams of processed meat per day, the risk of developing colon cancer increases by 18 percent. That sounds like a lot, but it is important to ask: 18 percent of what? So what's the risk of developing colon cancer in your life?

In Germany, the risk of developing colon cancer is slightly different for men and women. On average, 70 out of 1,000 men but only 57 out of 1,000 women will ever develop colon cancer in their lifetime. For men who eat 50 grams more processed meat per day than the population average, the risk would increase by 18 percent to around 82-83 out of 1,000, i.e. 12-13 additional cases per 1,000 men (for women: from 57 out of 1,000 to about 67 out of 1,000 women, i.e. about 10 additional cases).

6. Can red or processed meat even be recommended if you want to eat healthily?

“The dose makes the poison” - this old finding by Paracelsus also applies to meat consumption according to today's knowledge. An occasional meal of meat is unlikely to increase your risk of cancer. However, those who eat large amounts of red and processed meat over the years are exposed to an additional risk.

How much meat is exactly safe with regard to the risk of colon cancer, unfortunately this question cannot be answered to this day. What is certain, however, is that the less meat you eat, the lower the risk. However, the guide values ​​for the quantities vary from country to country.

If you include other health and ecological considerations in addition to the risk of colon cancer, the German Nutrition Society (DGE) recommends not eating more than 300 to 600 grams of meat per week, i.e. 40 to 80 grams per day. However, the reality is different: In Germany, men eat over 1,000 g of meat, meat products and sausage products per week. Women are at the upper limit of just under 600 grams per week.

If you would like to find out more about the study and its results, important questions and answers about the IARC study will be answered here - but only in English.

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