Consumption of Red and Processed Meat and Elevated Risk
of Cancer to Humans
Formation of carcinogenic substances, mechanisms of carcinogenesis and
risk assessment for colorectal and other types of cancer
Dpt of Chemistry, University of Athens, University Campus, 15784 Athens, Greece
Epidemiological studies established that diet and obesity are responsible for a considerable proportion
of human cancers. Studies in the last decade provided an overwhelming support that high consumption
of fresh red meat and processed meat are associated with an elevated risk of developing bowel cancer,
especially colorectal carcinoma, as well as stomach, pancreas and prostate cancers. Red meat is very
important for human diet, because of high biological value proteins, animal fat and important
micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron (both free iron and haem iron), selenium and zinc. In October,
2015, a Working Group at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon (France)
evaluated the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red and processed meat. Red meat includes all
fresh, minced and frozen beef, veal, pork and lamb. Processed red meat is any type that is preserved by
smoking, curing, salting, air-drying, heating, etc, and includes ham, bacon, sausages, tinned meat, etc.
The Working Group assessed more than 800 epidemiological (mostly prospective cohort studies) and
other studies that investigated the association of cancer with consumption of red or processed meat in
many countries, from several continents, with diverse ethnicities and diets. Epidemiological data from 14
cohort studies found positive associations for colorectal cancer. Findings were seen with high versus
low consumption of red meat in half of those studies, including a cohort from ten European countries
spanning a wide range of meat consumption, Sweden and Australia. Also, positive associations of
colorectal cancer with consumption of processed meat were reported in 12 of the 18 cohort studies,
including studies in Europe, Japan, and the USA. The working group used also other studies. A meta-
analysis of colorectal cancer in 10 cohort studies reported a statistically significant dose–response
relationship, with a 17% increased risk per 100 g per day (consumption) of red meat and an 18%
increase per 50 g per day of processed meat. Also, there were positive associations between
consumption of red meat and cancers of the pancreas and the prostate (mainly advanced prostate
cancer), and between consumption of processed meat and cancer of the stomach. The mechanistic
evidence for carcinogenicity of red and processed meat was assessed. Formation of carcinogenic
substances (including cooking at high temperature), genotoxicity, oxidative stress, lipid peroxidation
products and increases the bacterial mutagenicity of human urine after consumption of red meat was
established. Overall, the working group classified (according to standards of IARC Monographs) the
consumption of processed meat as ―carcinogenic to humans‖ (Group 1) on the basis of sufficient
evidence for colorectal cancer. Additionally, a positive association with the consumption of processed
meat was found for stomach cancer. The Working Group classified consumption of red meat as
―probably carcinogenic to humans‖ (Group 2A). These results were widely published all over the world,
appeared in the international news, newspapers, television and radio. This review examines the most
important findings of epidemiological studies, and explains why carcinogenic substances are formed in
red meet during the phase of processing, cooking and preservation. Finally, this review presents the
recommendations of scientists for the prevention of colorectal cancer by decreasing the amounts of
weekly consumption of red and processed meat.
Corresponding author. Prof. A. Valavanidis, firstname.lastname@example.org
Introduction: Diet , Nutrition, Obesity and Cancer
The relationship between diet, nutrition, obesity and cancer has advanced in the last
decades. Diet and dietary components play an important role on the development of cancer,
especially the cancers of the digestive tract, breast, prostate etc. Evidence from clinical trial
outcomes, epidemiological observations, preclinical models and cell culture systems have all
provided positive results for a positive association of diet and cancer.1-3
Cancer is the second most important factor of morbidity and mortality in developing
countries. Cancer varies worldwide and tends to change with migration and changes in
dietary and lifestyle factors. From 1980s, the Committee on Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer of the
National Research Council (USA) conducted a comprehensive evaluation for high fat diet
associated with increased susceptibility to cancer of different sites (particularly, breast, colon
and prostate). Epidemiological observations have led to the concept that environmental or
extrinsic factors (diet, smoking, sunlight, occupational exposure, alcohol, lifestyle factors, etc)
are the most important in carcinogenesis compared to genetic factors. Diet, nutrition and
obesity were found to play a major role in carcinogenesis. Diet and nutrition are viewed more
appropriately as modifiers, rather than initiators, of tumourigenesis. Caloric intake, type and
amount of fat (animal or vegetable), protein, red or processed meat, vitamins, minerals, fiber,
and other dietary constituents have been studied in regard to their influence on the
development of neoplasms. Epidemiological studies found that frequent consumption of
certain fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits and carotene-rich and cruciferous
vegetables, was associated with a lower incidence of cancers at various sites.4 Reports from
the IARC and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) have shown an association of
obesity with many types of cancer (endometrial, esophageal adenocarcinoma, colorectal,
breast, prostate and renal).5,6 Updated studies of meta-analyses confirm a prominent and
consistent inverse association provided by adherence to an Mediterranean Diet in relation to
cancer mortality and risk of several cancer types.7
Figure 1. The Mediterranean diet is considered appropriate for disease prevention and
healthy life until old age. Fruits and vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, beans, and low
consumption of red meat are considered very beneficial to human health.
Increased Red Meat Consumption in Human Diet and Health
From the 1990s researchers investigating the association of high intake of red and
processed meat and risk of gastrointestinal system, especially colorectal cancer, by
prospective epidemiological studies.8-10 Although red and processed meat intake in relation to
cancer risk has received considerable attention in recent years, intake of ―white meat‖ (poultry
and fish) has not been as extensively investigated in epidemiologic studies. The 2007 report
from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research
concluded that the evidence for poultry intake and cancer risk was ―too limited in amount,
consistency, and quality to draw any conclusions,‖ whereas the evidence for fish intake was
―limited to suggestive‖ of lower cancer risk and based primarily on studies of colorectal
cancer. More studies in recent years considered that poultry can be generally considered a
nutritious lean meat alternative to red meat. Also, the consumption of fish has potential
benefits to human health and is linked with anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic effects of
its long-chain n-3 fatty acids content.11-14 But in the last decade many more prospective
studies have reported an inverse association (decrease risk) between colon cancer risk and
prolonged consumption of poultry and fish. 15-17
Increased fresh red meat and processed meat consumption in developed and
developing countries has become an environmental and health issue in recent years. The
Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) published a report (―Livestock's Long Shadow ―) on
the environmental impact of livestock as a major stressor on many ecosystems and on the
planet as a whole. Globally livestock production is one of the largest sources of environmental
pollution, soil desertification, emissions of greenhouse gases and one of the leading causal
factors in the loss of biodiversity and leading source of water pollution because of animal
The scientific literature contains scientific evidence that links excess meat
consumption, particularly of red and processed meat, with heart disease, stroke, type 2
diabetes, obesity and certain cancers.19-22 The opposite is true for diets high in vegetables,
fruits, whole grains and beans that help prevent these diseases and promote health in a
variety of ways.23
Global Consumption of Fresh Red and Processed Meat
Meat production and consumption on a global scale have increased rapidly in recent
decades in developed and developing countries. Worldwide meat production has tripled over
the last four decades and increased 20% percent in just the last 10 years. Global annual meat
production is predicted to rise from a level of 218 million tones (1999) to 376 million tones by
2030. Worldwide, per capita/year meat consumption increased to 42 kg in 2010. People in the
advanced industrial countries consume on average 80 kg/year/person, more than double
compared to people in developing countries (32 Kg/year/person). Consumption is also
different in various countries (in 2002): USA (125 kg/person/year), Denmark 145 (the highest
in the world), France 100, Spain 120, Brazil 82, China 50, Germany 82, Greece 79
(Kg/person/year).24 The consumption of meat in Greece according to international food
statistics (ICAP Group) in 2010 was 905 million tones. The Greek production was 503 million
tones and imports 432 million tones. In Greece (from international statistics, 2002-2005) the
mean daily intake/person for total meat was 79 (men), 47(women), of which 55 g (m) and 31 g
(w) of red and processed meat. For comparison, Spain : total meat 170 g (m) and 99 g (w) of
which 126g (m) and 67g(w) red and processed, United Kingdom: total 108 g(m), 72 g(w) of
which 78 g(m), 46 g(w) red and processed meat.25
The USA is a typical developing country where meat consumption is very high. More
than half of the meat products Americans consume are red meat, and nearly 1/4 are
processed meats. In 2007 US people consumed daily ~240 g/capita/day total meat, of which
125 was red and processed meat, 85 poultry and 30 fish.26
Figure 2. Fresh read meat is considered a very important for human diet because it contains
high biological value proteins, micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron (both free iron and
haem iron) selenium and zinc. Processed meat is a broad category of meat products after
processing (sausages, salami, bacon, ham, hot dogs, corned beef, etc).
Fresh red meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, or goat meat—
including minced or frozen meat; it is usually consumed cooked. Processed meat refers to
meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other
processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or
beef, but might also contain other red meats, poultry, or meat byproducts such as blood.
Processed meat and poultry products are a very broad category of many different types of
products all defined by having undergone at least one further processing or preparation step
such as grinding, adding an ingredient or cooking, which changes the appearance, texture or
taste. The ready-to-cook category also includes uncooked smoked sausages that are mildly
cured through the addition of sodium nitrite, an ingredient that imparts a characteristic pink
colour and distinct taste. Processed meat like fresh is rich in protein and absorbable essential
vitamins and minerals including iron, zinc, and vitamin B6, B12, selenium, choline, thiamine,
niacin, and riboflavin.27
Epidemiological studies and meta-analysis of results showed that daily consumption
of high quantities of red and processed meat is associated with increasing risk of obesity.
Obesity has been established many years ago as a contributing factor for various cancers. A
systematic recent review (2014) and a meta-analysis were conducted with 21 and 18 studies,
respectively. Meta-analysis showed that consumption of higher quantities of red and
processed meats was a risk factor for obesity (Odds ratios, OR: 1.37, 95% Cl, Confidence
Iimits: 1.14-1.64). The analysis of the data revealed that red and processed meat intake is
directly associated with risk of obesity.28
The Report of IARC: Evaluation of Carcinogenicity of Red and
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, Lyon, France, established
in 1965) is the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO). The
objective of IARC is to promote international collaboration in cancer research and to bring
together skills in epidemiology, laboratory sciences and biostatistics to identify the causes of
cancer. IARC has the expertise in coordinating research on cancer across countries and
organizations on a global scale and has published more than 110 Monographs on the
Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. These monographs identify environmental
factors that can increase the risk of human cancer. Interdisciplinary working groups of expert
scientists review the published studies and evaluate the weight of the evidence. Since 1971,
more than 900 agents have been evaluated. The Monographs of Working Groups include
epidemiological evidence, animal bioassays, and mechanistic and other relevant data to
reach conclusions as to the carcinogenic hazard to humans from exposure to chemical
substances, physical and biological agents, environmental factors and occupations.
Evaluation of carcinogenic factors leads to
Classification in four groups (1, 2A, and 2B, 3, 4)
Group 1 Sufficient evidence in humans or sufficient
evidence in animals and strong mechanistic data in
Group 2A Limited evidence in humans and
sufficient evidence in animals
Group 2B Limited evidence in humans and less
than sufficient evidence in animals
Group 3 Inadequate in humans and inadequate or
limited in animals
Group 4 Lack of carcinogenicity in humans and in
animals (in vivo)
Figure 3. International Agency for Research on Cancer (Lyon, France), operates under the
auspices of the WHO. IARC convenes groups of expert scientists from around the globe to
evaluate the weight of the evidence that an agent, chemical compound, complex mixtures
(including individual foods), occupational exposures, physical and biological agents and
lifestyle factors, can influence the risk of cancer in humans.
In October 2015, 22 scientists from ten countries met at IARC (Lyon, France) to
evaluate the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. These
assessments in extensive details will be published in volume 114 of the IARC Monographs
(2015). Scientists from the experts group Véronique Bouvard, Dana Loomis, Kathryn Z
Guyton, Yann Grosse, Fatiha El Ghissassi, Lamia Benbrahim-Tallaa, Neela Guha, Heidi
Mattock, and Kurt Straif published a short paper-review: ―Carcinogenicity of consumption of
red and processed meat‖ in the journal Lancet Oncology (October 2015). The highlights of the
report are presented below and included references to scientific studies.
―......Red meat refers to unprocessed mammalian muscle meat—for example, beef,
veal, pork, lamb—including minced or frozen meat; it is usually consumed cooked. Processed
meat refers to meat (beef, pork, poultry, etc) that has been transformed through salting,
curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.
Processing of meat, such as curing and smoking, can result in formation of carcinogenic
chemicals, including N-nitroso-compounds (NOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
(PAHs. Cooking can also produce known or suspected carcinogens, including heterocyclic
aromatic amines (HAA) and PAHs High-temperature cooking by panfrying, grilling, or
barbecuing generally produces the highest amounts of these chemicals.29,30
The report included some statistics on the consumption of red and processed meat.
―...Depending on the country (high income developed mostly) red meat consumption varies
worldwide. A high proportion of people consumes meat every day. The mean intake of red
meat by those who consume it is about 50–100 g per person per day, with high consumption
equalling more than 200 g per person per day‖.31
―.....The Working Group assessed more than 800 epidemiological studies that
investigated the association of cancer with consumption of red meat or processed meat in
many countries, from several continents, with diverse ethnicities and diets. For the evaluation,
the greatest weight was given to prospective cohort studies done in the general population.
High quality population-based case-control studies provided additional evidence. The largest
body of epidemiological data concerned colorectal cancer. Data on the association of red
meat consumption with colorectal cancer were available from 14 cohort studies. Positive
associations were seen with high versus low consumption of red meat in half of those studies,
including a cohort from ten European countries spanning a wide range of meat consumption
and other large cohorts in Sweden and Australia.32–34 Of the 15 informative case-control
studies considered, 7 reported positive associations of colorectal cancer with high versus low
consumption of red meat. Positive associations of colorectal cancer with consumption of
processed meat were reported in 12 of the 18 cohort studies that provided relevant data,
including studies in Europe, Japan, and the USA‖.33, 35, 36,37,38
―....Supporting evidence came from 6 of 9 informative case-control studies. A meta-
analysis of colorectal cancer in 10 cohort studies reported a statistically significant dose–
response relationship, with a 17% increased risk (95% CI 1·05–1·31) per 100 g per day of
red meat and an 18% increase (95% CI 1·10–1·28) per 50 g per day of processed meat‖.39
―.....Data were also available for more than 15 other types of cancer. Positive
associations were seen in cohort studies and population-based case control studies between
consumption of red meat and cancers of the pancreas and the prostate (mainly advanced
prostate cancer), and between consumption of processed meat and cancer of the stomach.
On the basis of the large amount of data and the consistent associations of colorectal cancer
with consumption of processed meat across studies in different populations, which make
chance, bias, and confounding unlikely as explanations, a majority of the Working Group
concluded that there is sufficient evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the
consumption of processed meat. The Working Group concluded that there is limited evidence
in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat...‖
―......There is inadequate evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of
consumption of red meat and of processed meat. In rats treated with colon cancer initiators
and promoted with low calcium diets containing either red meat or processed meat, an
increase in the occurrence of colonic preneoplastic lesions was reported in three and four
―....The mechanistic evidence for carcinogenicity was assessed as strong for red
meat and moderate for processed meat. Mechanistic evidence is mainly available for the
digestive tract. A meta-analysis (2013) reported a modest but statistically significant
association between consumption of red or processed meat and adenomas (preneoplastic
lesions) of the colorectum that was consistent across studies‖.43 ―....For genotoxicity and
oxidative stress, evidence was moderate for the consumption of red or processed meat‖.44
Consuming well done cooked red meat increases the bacterial mutagenicity of human urine.
In three intervention studies in human beings, changes in oxidative stress markers (either in
urine, faeces, or blood) were associated with consumption of red meat or processed meat.45
Red and processed meat intake increased lipid oxidation products in rodent faeces.40
Substantial supporting mechanistic evidence was available for multiple meat components [N-
nitroso compounds (NOC), haem iron, and Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines (HAA)].
Consumption of red meat and processed meat by man induces NOC formation in the colon.
High red meat consumption (300 or 420 g/day) increased levels of DNA adducts putatively
derived from NOC in exfoliated colonocytes or rectal biopsies in two intervention studies.46,47
―.....Meat heated at a high temperature contains HAA (highly genotoxic), and the
extent of conversion of HAA to genotoxic metabolites is greater in man than in rodents. Meat
smoked or cooked over a heated surface or open flame contains PAHs. These chemicals
cause DNA damage, but little direct evidence exists that this occurs following meat
―....Overall, the Working Group classified consumption of processed meat as
―carcinogenic to humans‖ (Group 1) on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer.
Additionally, a positive association with the consumption of processed meat was found for
stomach cancer. The W orking Group classified consumption of red meat as ―probably
carcinogenic to humans‖ (Group 2A). In making this evaluation, the Working Group took into
consideration all the relevant data, including the substantial epidemiological data showing a
positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer and the strong
mechanistic evidence. Consumption of red meat was also positively associated with
pancreatic and with prostate cancer‖.
Figure 4. The IARC carcinogenic classification into groups 1, 2A, 2B, 3 and 4 is a standard
procedure depending on the evidence of scientific studies. Working groups of IARC include
cancer and toxicology experts decide on the associations of scientific data with cancer risk.
Why Does Meat Consumption Increases the Risk for Cancer of Digestive
After the IARC announcement, it was obvious that people will be questioning the
carcinogenic potential of fresh red meat as a natural product. Studies give several reasons:
Red and processed meat are high in saturated fat and cholesterol content (which increase
risk for cardiovascular diseases but also promote lipid peroxidation and inflammation, both
promoters of genotoxicity mechanisms), red meat has high energy density, and contains high
amounts of iron and haem-iron that can act in initiation reactions of carcinogenesis. Also,
high-temperature cooking (panfrying, barbequed, etc) can form carcinogenic compounds,
such as heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Curing substances in processed meat, such as sodium nitrite, potentially can form N-nitroso
compounds which under certain digestive conditions can be carcinogenic.
Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines (HAAs or HCAs) and Polycyclic Aromatic
Hydrocarbons (PAHs), N-nitroso compounds (NOC) are chemicals formed when muscle
meat, including beef, pork, fish, or poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods. Curing
and smoking meat for processed meat products increases the concentration of PAHs.
Figure 5. The National Cancer Institute (USA) advise people to be aware of red meat and
cooking at high temperatures. Some carcinogens and mutagen are formed during cooking
Studies showed that panfrying at high temperatures, deep-frying, charcoal grilling,
and roasting, produces conformational changes in protein structure and HAAs, which are
potent mutagens and carcinogens. Metabolic behaviour of HAAs is very unique, they interfere
in the activity of many enzymes, modify the metabolic pathways, and lead to the mutagenic
adduct formation of DNA.48
These chemicals (HAAs, PAHs, N-nitroso compounds, NOC) contribute to
carcinogenic effects because they are involved in mechanisms of inflammation and oxidative
stress.49 In laboratory experiments HAAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks
of proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures.
The organic chemical constituents of meat burn or their chemical molecules breaks down at
high temperatures. Under high temperatures complex series of chemical reactions called
Maillard reactions take place in meat. The Maillard reactions take place between amino acids
and reducing sugars that gives browned food its desirable flavor. Meat steaks, pan-fried
dumplings, cookies, breads, and many other foods undergo this reaction. Amino acids of
meat react with reducing sugars (glucose, fructose, and lactose) in the presence of heat in
excess of 155 °C (310 °F) to produce a range of poorly characterized molecules responsible
for those flavours we love to chase. Prolonged heat or temperatures too high will quite
suddenly change those precious golden browns to tarry black, burnt food (acrid smelling
smoke). Tar is well known that contains a high amount of carcinogens and stable free radicals
embedded in the porous carbonaceous material (very similar to the tar of cigarette smoke).
The browning reactions that occur when meat is roasted or seared are complicated and are
followed by a variety of other chemical reactions, including the breakdown of the tetrapyrrole
rings of the muscle protein myoglobin.50,51
PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip
onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of
the meat. PAHs can also be formed during other food preparation processes, such as
smoking of meats.52,53 PAHs and HAA become capable of damaging DNA only after they are
metabolized by specific enzymes in the body, a process called ―bioactivation.‖ Studies have
found that the activity of these enzymes, which can differ among people, may be relevant to
cancer risks associated with exposure to these compounds.54,55
Examples of HAAs. IQ: 2-amino-3-methylimidazo[4,5-
f]quinoline; MeIQ: 2-amino-3,4-dimethylomidazo[4,5-
Figure 6. Examples of chemical structures of heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAAs or HCAs)
and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are formed during cooking. These
compounds have the potential for mutagenic/carcinogenic activity.
Sodium nitrite (NaNO2) is a compound that is used to ―cure‖ meats. Cured meats
have a characteristic colour, unique taste and a longer shelf life. Centuries ago, nitrate was
used to cure meats (before refrigeration) for preventing the growth of the bacteria Clostridium
botulinum, which causes the very deadly disease botulism. In the 20th century, meat
processors used sodium nitrite because it was more reliable in its effects. No cases of
botulism have been linked to these products in the U.S. Cured meats contribute very little
nitrite to the total diet – less than 5%. The major source of human nitrite exposure is
vegetables, especially root vegetables like beets and leafy greens. These foods contain
nitrate and when nitrate reacts with your saliva in the mouth, it becomes nitrite. In the 1970s,
a single study that was later discounted cast a dark cloud over nitrite, alleging that its use in
cured meats could cause cancer. In response, the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP)
began a multi-year rat and mouse feeding study to determine if nitrite posed a health risk. In
May 2000, a panel of experts reviewed NTP’s findings and concluded that nitrite was safe at
the levels used and did not belong on the national list of carcinogens.56
The Underlying Mechanisms for Red Meat Carcinogenesis
Scientists studying mechanisms of carcinogenesis have investigated several
hypotheses that have been proposed for the association of red and processed meat
consumption with cancers of the digestive tract, especially colorectal cancer. Tests have
observed that there is higher intestinal mutagenic load among people who consume high
amounts of red and processed meat The suggested candidate mechanisms of induced
colorectal carcinogenesis are mainly three: i) increased N-nitrosation and oxidative load
leading to DNA adducts and lipid peroxidation in the intestinal epithelium, ii) proliferative
stimulation of the epithelium through haem (or heme) or food-derived metabolites that either
act directly or subsequent to conversion and iii) higher inflammatory response, which may
trigger a wide cascade of pro-malignant processes.57
Formation of Nitrosyl haem in the Digestive Tract
In foodstuffs and in the gastro-intestinal tract, nitrosation and nitrosylation do not have
the same consequences on consumer health. Nitrosylation is adding a nitrosyl ion NO− to a
metal or a thiol. For example with iron (Fe) leads to nitrosyl iron Fe-NO (e.g., in nitrosylated
haem). Nitroso- compounds (NOC) where a N=O group is attached to an organic moiety.
Such as nitrosoalkanes (R-N=O), nitrosamines [R1N(-R2)-N=O], and alkyl nitrites (RO-N=O).
Nitrosation is adding a nitrosonium ion NO+ to an amine (R-NH2) leading to a nitrosamine.
These reactions occur at acidic pH, particularly in the stomach.
NO2− + H+ HO-N=O (nitrous acid)
HONO + H+ H2O + NO+ (nitrosonium ion)
C6H5NH2 + NO+ → C6H5N(H)N=O + H+ (N-phenylnitrosamine)
Meat processed by curing contains nitrite and has a pH of around 5, where almost all
nitrite is present as NO2−. Sodium ascorbate is also added to cured meat (Vitamin C) which
inhibits nitrosation of amines to nitrosamine, because ascorbate reacts with NO2− to form NO.
Ascorbate and pH 5 thus favour nitrosylation of haem iron, forming nitrosyl-haeme, a red
pigment when included inside myoglobin, and a pink pigment when it has been released by
cooking. It participates to the "bacon flavour" of cured meat: nitrosyl-haem.58-60
Nitrosylated-haem (or heme)
Reactions of NO, Hb =haemoglobin
Figure 7. Nitrosylation. Haem-iron reactions in the haemoglobin are considered to initiate
carcinogenesis through lipid peroxidation, which is a typical process of inflammation and
initiation of DNA damages.
Haem iron, heterocyclic amines, and endogenous N-nitroso compounds are proposed
to explain the carcinogenic potential of red and processed meat, but their relative contribution
is unknown. A study with rats and mice aimed at determining (at nutritional doses) which is
the main factor involved in the mechanism of cancer promotion by red meat. The molecular
mechanisms (genotoxicity, cytotoxicity) were analyzed in vitro in normal and Apc-deficient cell
lines and confirmed on colon mucosa. Haem-iron increased the number of preneoplastic
lesions, but dietary HAAs and NOC had no effect on carcinogenesis in rats. Dietary
haemoglobin increased tumour load in Min mice. Genotoxicity was also observed in colon
mucosa of mice given haemoglobin. These results highlighted the role of heme-iron in the
promotion of colon cancer by red meat. The initiation of carcinogenesis from haem-iron could
is suggested to occur through lipid peroxidation.61 Another study with 21 healthy male
volunteers investigated levels of NOC with high red meat diet, vegetable protein, ferrous iron
and haem iron. The results showed that endogenous N-nitrosation occurred from digestion of
haem and red meat but not inorganic iron or protein.62
Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies (566,607 individuals, 4,734 cases of
colon cancer) explored the role of haeme iron of red meat in the promotion of colon cancer.
The relative risk was 18% for subjects in the highest category of haem iron (from fresh and
processed meat) intake compared with those in the lowest category. Analysis of experimental
studies in rats with chemically-induced colon cancer showed that dietary haemoglobin and
red meat consistently promote aberrant crypt foci, a putative pre-cancer lesion. Although the
mechanisms are not known, scientists propose a catalytic effect on the formation of N-nitroso
compounds and cytotoxic/genotoxic aldehydes through lipoperoxidation.63
Figure 8. Red and processed meat is considered as one of the dietary factors for increasing
risk of colorectal cancer of the digestive tract. The compounds formed during cooking and
curing are able to be metabolised into cancer causing substances in the colon and rectum.
Epidemiological Evidence of Red and Processed Meat Consumption and
A large epidemiological study (it was included in the IARC report, reference No. 20)
evaluated the role of diet, but especially red meat consumption, for the most important causes
of mortality, namely cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Scientists observed prospectively
and for 23 years, 37,698 men (from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, USA, 1986-
2008) and for 28 years 83,644 women (Nurses' Health Study, USA, 1980-2008).The number
of people was 2.96 million person-years of follow-up. Researchers validated food frequency
questionnaires (every 4 years) about fresh red and processed meat consumption. The study
documented 23,926 deaths (including 5,910 CVD and 9,464 cancer deaths) during 2.96
million person-years of follow-up. The pooled hazard ratio (HR) of total mortality for a 1-
serving-per-day increase was 13% for fresh red meat and 20% for processed red meat. The
corresponding HRs were 18% and 21% for CVD mortality and 10% and 16% for cancer
mortality. Scientists estimated that substitutions of red meat with fish, poultry, nuts, legumes,
low-fat dairy, and whole grains were associated with a 7% to 19% lower mortality risk. In
conclusion, the researchers found that greater consumption of unprocessed (fresh) and
processed red meats is associated with higher mortality risk. Compared with red meat, other
dietary components, such as fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, and whole
grains, were associated with lower risk. These results indicate that replacement of red meat
with alternative healthy dietary components may lower the mortality risk.21
The number of studies on red and processed meat and risk of cancer increased
substantially in the last years and some aspects of pathogenesis has been explored. A recent
study used data from two large cohorts in the USA (Nurses’ Health Study with number of
women participating 87,108, 1980-2010, and Health Professionals follow-up Study, 47,389
men, 1986-2010) to establish subtypes of colon and rectum cancers (CRC). The results
showed that processed meat intake was positively associated with risk of CRC, particularly
A recent study investigated the association of red and processed meat, seafood and
poultry and risk to prostate cancer. Associations were examined in a consortium of 15 cohort
studies (follow-up, 52,683 incident prostate cancer cases, including 4,924 advanced cases,
were identified among 842,149 men). Results do not support a substantial effect of total red,
unprocessed red and processed meat for all prostate cancer outcomes. For seafood, no
substantial effect was observed for prostate cancer regardless of stage or grade. Poultry
intake was inversely associated with risk of advanced and fatal cancers.65
Prostate cancer risk and red meat was investigated in another recent study. A
comprehensive literature search was performed and 26 publications from 19 different cohort
studies were included. Random effects models were used to calculate summary relative risk
estimates (SRREs) and additionally, meta-regression analyses and stratified intake analyses
were conducted to evaluate dose-response relationships. No significant relative risks were
observed for any of the meat cooking methods, HAA, or heme iron analyses. Dose-response
analyses did not reveal significant patterns of associations between red or processed meat
and prostate cancer. In conclusion, the results do not support an association between red
meat or processed consumption and prostate cancer.66
Other epidemiological studies for the association between red and processed meat
intake and the risk of breast cancer have yielded inconsistent results. A recent review was
conducted for a comprehensive meta-analysis (14 prospective studies) to evaluate the
association of red and processed meat intake with breast cancer risk. The results indicated
that increased intake of red and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of breast
Can we Reduce Risk of Cancer with Changes in Our Diet?
From epidemiological and other studies has been found that diet and nutrition can
explain as much as 30%–50% of the worldwide incidence of colorectal cancer. Research
evidence focus on dietary animal fat, fresh red and processed meat, dairy, as well effects of
nutrients such as calcium, folate, and vitamin D. The most important factors in reducing risk
for cancer is to change dietary habits and especially reducing down daily consumption of red
and processed meat, reduce daily consumption of animal fat, increase fruit, vegetables and
fiber intake, reduce obesity.68,69
The EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study (an
ongoing multicentre prospective cohort study designed to investigate the associations
between diet, lifestyle, genetic and environmental factors and various types of cancer)
showed that dietary fibre intake was inversely associated with colorectal cancer risk, but
results from some large cohort studies do not support this finding. Scientists in a recent study
explored whether the association remained after longer follow-up with a near threefold
increase in colorectal cancer cases, and if the association varied by gender and tumour
location. Their results showed that the association between total dietary fibre and risk of
colorectal cancer risk did not differ by age, sex, or anthropometric, lifestyle, and dietary
variables. Fibre from cereals and from fruit and vegetables were similarly associated with
colon cancer; but for rectal cancer, the inverse association was only evident for fibre from
cereals.70,71,72,73 A number of epidemiological studies in the last decade have reported
inconsistent associations between cruciferous vegetable (cauliflower, cabbage, garden cress,
broccoli, brussels sprouts) intake and colorectal cancer. A meta-analysis in 2013 provided
evidence that high intake of CV was inversely associated with the risk of CRC and colon
cancer in humans.74 Greek scientists investigated the association of adherence to
Mediterranean diet with colorectal cancer risk in the European Prospective Investigation into
Cancer and nutrition study. The results of the study showed that reduced risk and
Mediterranean diet are more evident among women, mainly for colon cancer risk. These
findings suggested that following a Mediterranean diet may have a modest beneficial effect on
colon cancer risk.75
Most health authorities in developed countries advise people who eat more than 90 g
(cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day to cut down to 70 g or lower and to replace
red meat with white meat (poultry and fish). Some studies showed that increased daily white
meat (poultry, fish) intake and an equal decrease in red meat was associated with a
statistically significant reduced (3%-20%) risk of cancers of the esophagus, liver, colon,
rectum, anus, lung, and pleura. As the dietary recommendations intend, the inverse
association observed between white meat intake and cancer risk may be largely due to the
substitution of red meat. Scientists suggested that simply increasing fish or poultry intake,
without reducing red meat intake, may be less beneficial for cancer prevention.17, 76,77,78
High daily intake of fresh red meat (beef, lamb and pork) and processed meat
(sausages, ham, bacon, etc) has been increased globally in the last decades. In the same
period scientists were alarmed to discover an increase of gastrointestinal cancers, especially
colorectal cancer. Large prospective epidemiological studies in the last decade investigated in
a systematic way the association of high daily red meat consumption and colorectal cancer.
The majority of scientific results were positive and can be explained by a number of factors,
such as carcinogenic substances, mechanisms of inflammation in the colon, oxidative stress
and lipid peroxidation. A higher risk has been recorded by epidemiological studies for eating a
lot of red processed meat that increased risk of bowel (colorectal) cancer.
Most health authorities in developed countries advise people who eat more than 90 g
(cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day to cut down to 70 g or lower. Although red
meat is a good source of protein, fat and provides vitamins and minerals, higher consumption
on a daily basis increase the risk for gastrointestinal cancer at old age in humans. The IARC
monograph (25.10. 2015) highlighted the risk of colorectal cancer and the scientific
epidemiological and other studies behind these findings.
In the last decade a variety of studies showed that diets rich in high-fiber plant foods
such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits offer a measure of protection. Fiber
greatly speeds the passage of food through the colon, effectively removing carcinogens, and
fiber actually changes the type of bacteria that is present in the intestine, so there is reduced
production of carcinogenic secondary bile acids. Plant foods are also naturally low in fat and
rich in antioxidants and other anti-cancer compounds. Also, poultry and fish (white meat)
consumption has been proved to reduce risk for bowel cancer in the long term. People who
ate an 80g portion of fish a day reduced their bowel cancer risk by a third compared to people
who ate less than that in a week. Fish oils are especially rich in polyunsaturated omega-3
fatty acids, but there is no strong evidence that these can reduce the risk of cancer. Poultry
consumption has been steadily increasing in developed countries and the replacement of red
meat has been proved beneficial in reducing risk to gastrointestinal cancers.
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