Does Bacon and Other Processed Meat Cause Cancer?

Here's what you should know about the link of red and processed meat and cancer.

In October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO)—conducted a comprehensive review of studies examining the association between processed meat, red meat, and cancer. They declared that processed meat is a carcinogen with one of the most powerful links to colon cancer.

Based on the data reviewed, researchers found that every daily 50-gram portion of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. Processed meats include meat that's been cured, salted, smoked, or preserved—including ham, bacon, and sausages. A 50-gram portion is nearly two ounces, about two breakfast sausage links. 

You're not alone if you're feeling freaked out by that news. But protecting yourself from cancer is more complicated than banning bacon and steak from your diet. 

Here's what there is to know about red and processed meat and its link to cancer.

Are There Carcinogens in Red and Processed Meat?

The job of the IARC is to determine how likely foods, chemicals, and other items are to cause cancer. Once identified, they classify them into one of five categories including:

  • Carcinogenic to humans
  • Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • Not classifiable
  • Probably not carcinogenic

Is Processed Meat Carcinogenic?

Items that fall under the "carcinogenic to humans" category are the ones that have the most evidence supporting that they do cause cancer. The researchers classified processed meat as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans, along with:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Formaldehyde
  • Asbestos
  • Tanning beds

Even though those items are in the same category, it does not mean they are equally harmful. For instance, smoking is much more likely to cause cancer than eating processed meat. Instead, the categorization means that the evidence that processed meats cause cancer is as strong as the evidence that smoking causes cancer.

Is Red Meat Carcinogenic?

The researchers classified red meat (like beef, pork, and lamb) as Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans. In other words, the evidence linking red meat to cancer is not quite as strong as processed meats. 

Evidence suggests a link to colorectal cancer, but the research is limited.

Will You Get Cancer From Eating Red or Processed Meat?

That classification does not 100% guarantee that you will get colon cancer by eating bacon every morning. 

Cancer experts may say that bacon and other processed meats are now in the same dangerous boat as cigarettes. But frequency plays a role. The more you're exposed to anything in this category, the greater the risk. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide whether you want to eat those foods. And if so, how often.

Does It Matter How the Meat Is Cooked?

More cancer-causing substances are formed when red meat is cooked at high temperatures, like grilling, barbecuing, and frying. 

Research by the National Cancer Institute (NIH) shows that even white fish cooked at high temperatures may also be linked to cancer risk, especially when cooked for longer.

There are a few ways to curb the formation of these cancer-causing substances, such as:

  • Cut the meat into smaller portions to reduce cooking time
  • Flip the meat often
  • Cook the meat with a microwave before exposing it to high temperatures
  • Remove charred pieces of meat
  • Avoid directly exposing the meat to an open flame

What Foods Should You Eat?

The overall makeup of your meals is still what's most important. You can't eliminate cancer risk, but certain foods protect against it. 

Generally, you want to have a well-balanced diet. You should eat vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts and seeds.

At the same time, besides red and processed meat, consider cutting back on other processed foods, refined grains, beverages, and foods high in added sugar. The worst eating patterns—not just for cancer risk but nearly every chronic disease—combine meat with other highly processed foods, excess sugar, and a lack of plants.

What Can You Do To Lower the Risk?

For some people, giving up red or processed meat may be easy. But for meat lovers, it may be difficult to go cold turkey. 

Since the risk of cancer increases the more meat you eat, you may want to consider cutting back. Because of the lack of data, the WHO cannot recommend a specific amount of meat that is safe to consume. But reducing your intake can be a great start.

Consider thinking of red and processed meat as an occasional treat. That could mean a few strips of bacon at Sunday brunch or a few slices of pepperoni pizza on Friday night—but not both, and none during the week. This strategy will likely create some balance and help lower the risks.

A Quick Review

Unfortunately for bacon lovers, there is a risk of cancer associated with red and processed meat. Other than the known risk, there is limited research regarding the amount of red and processed meat you should eat. However, the risk of cancer does increase the more you eat red and processed meat.

It's recommended that you cut back on the red and processed meat in your diet and instead focus on eating a well-balanced diet with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and protein to reduce the risk of cancer

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  1. World Health Organization. IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat.

  2. World Health Organization. Agents classified by the IARC Monographs, volumes 1–132.

  3. American Cancer Society. Known and probably human carcinogens.

  4. World Health Organization. Cancer: Carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat.

  5. National Cancer Institute. Chemical in meat cooked at high temperatures and cancer risk.

  6. American Cancer Society. American cancer society guideline for diet and physical activity.

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