Red and processed meats, what about cancer?

Cancer is a leading cause of morbidity and death in the world: on average every year there are about 14 million new cases and 8.2 million cancer-related deaths. Even more important is that it is expected that the number of new cancer cases will grow by almost 70% over the next two decades, up to 22 million new cases per year, probably making cancer the leading cause of mortality in the world.

The five most common types of cancer are those of the lung, prostate, colorectal, gastric, and liver cancers in men; breast cancers, colorectal, lung, cervix and stomach are the five most common types of cancer in women. The cause of their origin is due to many different environmental, genetic and behavioural factors.

Although there is still a dark side, it has now been established that the interaction between genetics and environment promotes carcinogenesis. In particular, certain physical carcinogens (such as ultraviolet and ionising radiation) and biological (viral, bacterial or parasitic infections) interact with behavioural risk factors like obesity and food, insufficient consumption of fruits and vegetables, lack of physical activity, the use of tobacco and alcohol, to promote the transformation of a normal cell into a malignant cell. A phenomenon which can be amplified in genetically susceptible individuals.

Among the various factors, eating habits play an important role in increasing or reducing the risk of various cancers. Although the causal link between diet and cancer is complex and can hardly be revealed due to the fact that diets are characterised by many different foods and nutrients, there is consistent evidence that certain foods can be more harmful than others.

Despite the rampant progress of scientific knowledge, however, pockets of disinformation caused by prejudice and health simplifications still exist, and are not always correctly spread by some mass media. And therefore food is often classified into “good” and “bad”, which confuses consumers even more.

In fact, no product can be considered good or bad for your health, but should be evaluated for the nutrients that it brings to the daily diet, keeping in mind not to exceed the daily limit for each category of food in a balanced diet. It must in fact always be remembered that cancer diseases are extremely complex as:

  • there are more than 100 types of cancer for which the causes are not always known;
  • people’s diet contains an almost imponderable number of different components, some of which may decrease or increase the risk of developing cancer;
  • the development of a tumour occurs over a long period of time, making it very difficult to establish a secure and trusted relationship between cause and effect;
  • many questions about diet and cancer remain unanswered, and studies are often based on tests done on laboratory animals with no direct evidence in humans;
  • recommendations for a proper diet that reduces the risk of cancer should be based on relevant scientific evidence, and not referred to a single case study.

Meats are certainly among the most controversial foods because of the excessive consumption, particularly of red and processed meats contributes to the risk of cancer. But it is necessary to remember that cancer, as mentioned above, can be caused by several different factors.

The Sustainable Meat Project

The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.