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Red Meat and Processed Meat

Red Meat and Processed Meat

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), released an evaluation result about the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat on 26 October 2015.

  • Processed meat (refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Examples include ham, sausages and luncheon meat) was classified as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer. The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
  • Red meat (refers to all mammalian muscle meat, including beef, pork and mutton) was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A), based 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 risk of developing colorectal cancer for an individual because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.

The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk. Processed meat and tobacco smoking have been classified in the same category as causes of cancer (Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are equally dangerous. About 34 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat. These numbers contrast with about 1 million cancer deaths per year globally due to tobacco smoking.

WHO issued a statement on 29 October reiterated that WHO’s 2002 “Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases” report advised people to moderate consumption of preserved meat to reduce the risk of cancer. The IARC’s review confirms the recommendation in the report. The latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.

Principles of Healthy Eating

A healthy balanced diet is a dietary pattern having grains as the largest portion of food, a lot of vegetables and fruit, and a moderate consumption of milk, meat and their alternatives.

In our daily diet, we should choose food items that are low in fat/oil, salt and sugar and high in dietary fibre. Therefore, it is recommended to have at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day and to reduce the intake of processed meat as it is considered as high in fat/oil and salt.

Moreover, the healthy eating principles also emphasise on having a variety of food, i.e. choosing different kinds of food. Apart from red meat, meat and alternatives also include poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, dry bean and soy products.

Practical Tips on Meal Arrangement and Meal Provision

  • For sectors arranging or providing meals to the pre-primary institutions, it is recommended to follow the healthy eating principles as well as to avoid providing processed meat. For details, please refer to the “Nutrition Guidelines for Children Aged 2 to 6”.
  • For sectors arranging or providing meals to the primary and secondary schools, it is recommended to follow the healthy eating principles as well as to limit the provision of processed meat for no more than two school days a week as it is classified as “Limited Food Items”. For details, please refer to the “Nutritional Guidelines on Lunch for Students”.
  • For other sectors involved in meal arrangement or with catering service, it is recommended to follow the healthy eating principles as well as to reduce the use of processed meat. Fresh/frozen lean meat and non-fried plain bean products are healthy alternatives. For details, please refer to the examples of healthier food ingredients and cooking methods.
  • For catering service in Residential Care Homes for the Elderly, healthy eating principles should be reinforced. It is advised to avoid providing foods with high salt, such as processed food like luncheon meat, barbecued pork. For details, please refer to the “Guidelines on Menu Planning for Residential Care Homes for the Elderly” (Chinese version only) .


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