Are red and processed meat cancer risk factors?

Are red and processed meat cancer risk factors?

Cancer is the second most significant cause of morbidity and mortality in developing countries. It changes globally and is liable to vary with modifications in lifestyle and dietary factors. It has been concluded through the research that the high fat diet is a significant cancer risk factor. It is linked with augmented vulnerability to develop cancer of various body parts.

The association between diet, obesity and cancer has been considered significant in the last decades. Diet has a considerable role in the development of cancer, particularly the cancers of prostate, digestive tract and breast. Data from clinical trial results, epidemiological interpretation, cell culture systems and preclinical models have shown positive outcomes for a positive link of diet and cancer.

Studies propose that the environmental or extrinsic factors such as diet, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco products, occupational exposure and sunlight are the most significant in carcinogenesis in comparison to the genetic factors.

The nutrition, diet and obesity were observed to have primary function in carcinogenesis. Diet and nutrition are examined more aptly as modifiers than initiators of tumorigenesis. The intake of calorie in the form and quantity of fat, protein, red or processed meat, fiber, minerals, vitamins and other dietary components have been studied to find their role in the development of neoplasms.

The connection between red and processed meat consumption and cancer development has received significant attention in recent times. The increased consumption of red meat and processed meat has become a health problem in recent years.

To understand the connection briefly, in this article we will discuss
• How meat consumption increases the risk of cancer development?
• Role of Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons as cancer risk factors
• Can we reduce risk of cancer with changes in our diet?

• How does meat consumption increase the risk of cancer development in the digestive tract?


Many studies from various countries have shown the association between meat consumption and increased risk of various types of cancer. Red and processed meat are high in cholesterol and saturated fat that are responsible for increasing the risk of cardiovascular disorders and also promotes the inflammation and lipid peroxidation(both supporters of genotoxicity mechanisms). The red meat has high energy density and it has high amounts of haem-iron and iron, which can perform in initiation reactions of carcinogenesis.

Moreover, the high-temperature cooking used in barbequed and panfrying can form carcinogenic compounds like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA). Curing substances used in processed meat like sodium nitrite can form N-nitroso compounds that can be carcinogenic under some digestive conditions. Sodium nitrite (NaNO2) is a compound used to cure meats. Cured meats have a typical taste, colour and a longer shelf life.

• Role of Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons as cancer risk factors


The cancer is caused by the potentially carcinogenic compounds, which are present in meats, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, N-nitroso compounds and heterocyclic amines

They are the chemicals formed when muscle meat such as beef, poultry, pork or fish is cooked with the help of high-temperature. Curing and smoking meat for processed meat products elevates the concentration of PAHs.

Studies demonstrate that the high temperature pan frying, deep-frying, roasting and charcoal grilling causes changes in protein structure and HAAs that are strong carcinogens and mutagens. The metabolic behaviour of HAAs is very distinctive. They hinder the activity of various enzymes, change the metabolic pathways and cause the mutagenic adduct formation of DNA.

These chemicals (PAHs, N-nitroso compounds, HAAs) are involved in the carcinogenic effects as they are contributing in mechanisms of oxidative stress and inflammation.

The laboratory research shows the formation of HAAs when the amino acids, creatine and sugar react at high temperatures. The creatine is a substance found in muscles.

The organic chemical constituents of meat burn at high temperatures and the chemical molecules break high temperatures, which leads to a complex series of chemical reactions known as Maillard reactions occurring in meat.

The Maillard reaction occurs between amino acids and reducing sugars. Prolonged heat will rapidly change the golden brown food to burnt food.

Tar is known for its high amounts of carcinogens and stable free radicals. The browning reactions, which take place on roasting the meat, are followed by various chemical reactions.

PAHs are formed when meat is directly grilled on the open fire. The flames contain PAHs, which get stuck to the meat surface.

PAHs and HAA can damage DNA when they are metabolized by particular enzymes in the body.

• Can we reduce risk of cancer with changes in our diet?


According to the studies diet and nutrition can contribute to 30%–50% of the occurrence of colorectal cancer globally. The most significant thing in decreasing the risk of certain cancers is to modify your dietary habits and particularly decrease the daily consumption of red and processed meat, animal fat and increase the consumption so fiber, fruit and vegetables and decrease obesity.

Epidemiological studies concluded that the regular intake of specific fruits and vegetables, particularly carotene-rich and cruciferous vegetables and citrus fruits was related with a lower occurrence of cancers at different parts.

You can follow some ways to eat less processed and red meat. You can make following small changes to reduce your meat consumption:

• Pick a day or days in your week when you will not have any meat.
• Choose the dishes, which use fresh fish or chicken rather than processed or red meat.
• Use lentils or beans instead of meat in your usual dishes
• Decrease the portions of your meat consumption or you can replace the some quantity of meat with veggies
Switching to more expensive or organic meats will not help to prevent cancer. It will be better to reduce the consumption of all types of meat and processed meat if you want to reduce the risk of breast cancer and many other cancer types. Little modifications in diet can save lives.

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