Bacon© Food and Drink Rex Shutterstock

Scientists have criticised a report linking processed meats such as bacon, sausages and ham, with an increased risk of cancer in humans.

According to the report by the World Health Organization (WHO) a 50-year-old man has a 0.68% risk of developing colorectal cancer in the next 10 years.

Eating processed meat increases that risk to just 0.8%.

The report suggested the act of processing – smoking or adding salt or preservatives – could be to blame for the increased risk rather than red meat itself.

See also: Study calls for cut in red meat consumption

It said that red meat was “probably carcinogenic” but admitted there was only limited evidence for this.

The report is based on advice from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

But Ian Johnson from the Norfolk-based Institute of Food Research said it was wrong to put red meat on the same list as known carcinogens such as tobacco and alcohol.

“It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke,” said Prof Johnson.

“Tobacco smoke is loaded with known cancer-causing chemicals and increases the risk of lung cancer 20-fold,” he said.

“It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke”
Ian Johnson, Institute of Food Research

The WHO attributes about 34,000 deaths a year to eating high levels of processed meat.

But smoking kills one million people a year and alcohol is linked to 600,000 deaths annually.

“Although there is epidemiological evidence for a statistically significant association between processed meat consumption and bowel cancer, it is important to emphasise that the size of the effect is relatively small, and the mechanism is poorly defined,” Prof Johnson said.

And he added: “Some studies showed bowel cancer rates were similar in both vegetarians and meat-eaters.

“Vegetarianism does not cut the risk of contracting bowel cancer in the same way that refraining from smoking cuts the risk of lung cancer.”

Cancer Research UK’s Tim Key also played down the risk of red meat eating.

“This decision doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat, but if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down,” Prof Key said.

“Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn’t going to do much harm – having a healthy diet is all about moderation.”