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Red Meat and Colorectal Cancer: Understanding the Relationship

photo of red meat | GI NorthAn international panel of experts convention organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded on October 26th, 2015 stated that consumption of processed meat such as bacon, hotdogs, and ham increases the risk of colon cancer and that eating other red meats “probably” increases this risk as well. This panel did not provide any specific guidelines on the consumption of red meat. However, its conclusions support recommendations given by other scientific organizations such as the dietary guidelines advisory committee that has for long discouraged the consumption of red and processed meat. This report may also influence other health organizations such as the European Food Safety Commission.

Nonetheless, the conclusions of this panel sparked strong responses, with remarkable resistance from meat industries, while some environmental groups asked that labels be placed on meat. But, what component in these foods can lead to cancer? The staffs at GI North would like to let you know that many studies have been carried out on this subject.

Burnt or Charred Meat?

There is a common notion that burnt or charred food, especially meat, can cause colorectal cancer (CRC). Some evidence points to this end. However, there are some possible explanations why this is not the major factor. The chemicals produced when red and white meat is burnt are the same, but white meat is not associated with bowel cancer. There are great variations in the way meat is prepared around the world. But, the link between red meat is somehow universal. Again, although the chemicals involved in charring meat are known to cause DNA damage in the lab, this cannot be proof of carcinogenicity in the real world.


The link between being overweight and developing colon cancer is well known. But, there is a big variation between being fat and eating fat. Overweight people are more susceptible to certain kinds of cancer, including CRC. But studies show that people who eat less fat, rather than “skinny” people, have a reduced CRC risk. In fact, a Swedish study showed that women who ate the highest quantity of fatty foods had lower CRC risk regardless of their weight. Thus, it is unlikely for the fat contained in the red meat to cause CRC.

Nitrite and Nitrate Preservatives

Proof suggests that processed meats such as pate, ham, sausages, and bacon, and tinned meat such as Spam are more strongly associated with CRC than red meat. Processed foods often have nitrogen-based preservatives to prevent them from spoilage during transport and storage. This evidence is patchy, but cannot be ruled out completely. A 2006 study in Sweden showed that women who consumed high levels of foods containing nitro-based preservatives had higher rates of CRC.


Haem is the pigment contained in hemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen around our bodies and makes our blood red. It is also responsible for making red meat “red.” Scientists found that haem is broken down in the gut to form N-nitroso compounds. These have been shown to cause damage to the DNA of cells in the digestive system lining. And the damage to the DNA is the first step towards cancer. A complication then occurs; when the gut lining senses damage, it signals to the existing cells to divide faster to facilitate the production of new cells. This expedited cell division may also increase the risk of developing cancer because, as the cell divides, it has an increased risk of making a copy error in its DNA.

Considering all the evidence, it seems the haem breakdown is responsible for the increased risk for CRC in red meat eaters. This is the main reason many scientific and health organizations discourage people from eating excess amounts of red meat. If you suspect that you are suffering from colorectal cancer, or have any complications in your gastrointestinal system, consult the specialists at GI North where Dr. Cofrancesco and Dr. Quijano will attend to you. GI North serves the residents of Cumming, GA area as well as Alpharetta, Roswell, Canton, and Suwanee. Dr. Quijano also speaks fluent Spanish, and will be of great benefit to all the Spanish-speaking patients in these areas.

© 2015 GI North Gastroenterology Services. All rights reserved.

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