Should you quit red and processed meat to prevent cancer?

On Monday 26th October, the WHO announced a link between red and processed meat and cancer. At Mammoth Hunters we’re delighted. This announcement has given publicity to something we’ve often stressed in our blogs:  the difference between real and processed meat.

It’s essential for us to recognise the importance of where our food comes from. A frankfurter is NOT the same as a sausage made from a free-range grass-fed cow that hasn’t been given antibiotics and has been mainly fed on grass.
However, in our view, the story has been sensationalised as usual. It has been reported in a way to maximize the impact of the headlines rather than to better inform people and has caused an unnecessary alarm. So we thought we should make things clear by going beyond the catchy headlines and looking at what the report actually says.

What did the WHO really say about eating processed meat and red meat?  

who world health organization
According to the WHO article from the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC):

  1. The level of evidence on the relation between cancer risk and eating processed meat (sausages, bacon, processed meat products, sausages etc…) is Grade 1, which means that there is enough evidence to recommend not eating this food. The link between cancer and red meat is Grade 2a, which means that there is limited evidence of a risk between this food and the development of some kind of cancer.
  2. For each individual, the risk of developing cancer of the colon from eating processed meat continues to be small, but this risk increases according to the amount of meat consumed. Considering the very large numbers of people who eat processed meat such as bacon and sausage, this study is vitally important because it could have a direct influence on public health.

Limitations of this study

Having said this, we’d like to emphasize that like any scientific study we have to be sure to interpret it correctly and be aware of its limitations.  So now I want to explain a few more points to you:

  1. Correlation doesn’t mean causality. This is the big conceptual problem with epidemiological studies. The WHO has found that, statistically, when consumption of red meat goes up, the cancer risk goes up too. But it doesn’t tell us why.  It could be that it isn’t the meat that’s the problem, but the way it’s cooked (as we will see below).
  2. In the majority of epidemiological studies on food, the data isn’t objective – this phenomenon is called ‘under-reporting’: patients taking part in a study tend to report that they eat less than they really do, especially of foods that they think may be unhealthy.
  3. Human health doesn’t depend on one variable alone. Eating well and badly is one factor. But your health also depends on other factors such as whether you are sad or happy, are surrounded by petrochemicals or have a genetic susceptibility to suffer from an illness. Not to mention the fact that everyone’s gut processes foods differently. Isolating one variable for analysis in a study is like cutting off a finger to analyse its function!
  4. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? There’s a popular view that meat isn’t good for you. So, the ones who have cut back on their meat consumption are likely to be the same who adopt other healthy habits like cutting back on smoking, eating more vegetables or exercising more. So maybe adopting a healthier lifestyle reduces the risk of cancer? You can read a good article on this subject here, at this

How do processed and raw meat increase the possibility of cancer?

processed meat

As well as making a positive contribution to the debate, this WHO article suggests that there are different mechanisms for generating cancer. i.e. the way carcinogens are formed:

  1. Formation of nitrosamines in the intestine:  Cured or processed meat (such as bacon or sausages) contains many of the precursors of nitrosamines and it has been shown that these can give rise to carcinogenic metabolites when eaten. The iron in red meats can also act as a precursor to nitrosamines.
  2. Formation of carcinogenic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons during the smoking or curing process.
  3. Formation of carcinogenic compounds while meat is being cooked at a high temperature.  Grilling, sautéing, braising or browning of red meat are all processes with the potential to create heterocyclic amines, and aromatic polycyclic hydrocarbons where there is contact with the flame.  The higher the temperature the more carcinogens in the meat as a result.

So how should we eat red meat?

red meat
The WHO however, joins with this study in recognising the importance of eating red meat for the nutritional benefits it can bring to the population. So, without eating an excessive amount of this food, we need to find a way of balancing out the possible side effects of eating meat.
Here are some suggestions for you:

  • Slow cooking, stewing, gentle steaming – all these methods produce fewer carcinogens.  This is vitally important because cooking at high temperatures can create particles that are potentially damaging for our health, as we said before.
  • Eat green vegetables, such as broccoli, with red meat can reduce the carcinogenic potential of compounds linked to red meat.
  • Eat anti-oxidant rich foods with meat inhibits the growth of carcinogens.  Drink tea, eat black chocolate and berries, enjoy spices rich in phytonutrients such as turmeric.
  • Eat prebiotic fibers and resistant starch. The original summary from the WHO refers to a study on red meat and colon cancer.  What is interesting about this study is that adding 40 grams of prebiotic fibers to every 300 grams of red meat  was enough to eliminate all colorectal cancer indicators.
  • Eat meat from grass-fed animals.  Meat from animals put out to pasture contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy fatty acid with cancer-preventing properties.  Furthermore when the animal is fed in this way this type of meat can contain a high level of natural anti-oxidants. Some of these anti-oxidants such as lutein are associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer in humans. Animal studies also show an active capacity to reduce colon cancer.
  • This only goes to show that our health doesn’t depend on one factor alone, such as eating red meat.  If it’s eaten responsibly (especially by choosing good quality meat), accompanied by vegetables including root vegetables, you could avoid its bad effects and your body will receive the nutrients it needs.


The appearance of this WHO study is great news and a step forward on the journey that we humans must take to eat real, unprocessed food. A hot dog is NOT the same as a sausage made from free-range, grass-fed meat. The studies show this, not to mention our own common sense as well.
As we’ve noted, these current studies have significant limitations and we suggest to better rely on the most important intervention study ever conducted: the struggle of our physiology to adapt to our environment. Meat is a food that has been present from the beginnings of our history as a species, and has been key to the development of our characteristics.  That said, it’s important to stress that the meat that helped us along in our evolutionary development was never processed, and we ate more of the offal than the muscle.
When we’re talking about health we can’t look one nutrient in isolation from a generally healthy environment. Eat your meat with vegetables and live in touch with nature as far as you can. Avoid stress, get as much sleep as you need, spend time in the sun and do more exercise in accordance with the paleo way of life.
Final note:
This article has been written in haste, in the middle of the annual Paleotraining summit we are holding in Lanzarote. So it wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the help from Regenera and Paul Oller. Also some very interesting blogs such as loquedicelacienciaparaadelgazar and Luciaredondo and, of course, the excellent work of the Mammoth Hunters team.

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