Does processed meat cause cancer?

Contributed by: Chloe Ong

A recent study by the World Health Organization suggested that processed meats could cause cancer just as much as smoking. What does it mean for us in Singapore? Is it safe to eat processed meat? Parkway Cancer Centre Dietitian Chloe Ong gives us the lowdown.

Red meat is any meat that is red when it is raw. It therefore includes meat from all mammals – beef, lamb, pork, deer and horse. Poultry such as duck and goose are also red meat.

Processed meat refers to any meat that is not sold fresh – that is, it has been cured, smoked, salted, or preserved in any way. Examples include Chinese sausages, hot dogs, ham, canned meat (such as luncheon meat and corned beef), bak kwa (preserved dried pork), salted fish, anchovies, and dried shrimp.

Recently, the World Health Organization reported that 50g of processed meat a day could increase a person’s chances of cancer of up to 18 per cent. This is equivalent to two small sausages (7.5cm each), two slices of ham (10cm²), or one slice of bak kwa.

Processed meat is said to cause damage to the cells lining a person’s bowels, because of a compound found in all processed meats called N-Nitroso.

The damage causes the other cells in the bowel lining to replicate more in order to heal. This replication increases the chance of errors developing in the cells’ DNA that may lead to cancers.

As of now, there is no official guideline on the recommended intake of processed meat. But we should try to limit our intake of processed meat. The guideline for red meat is to eat no more than 500g of cooked red meat in a week (according to the World Cancer Research Fund).

Of course, the best dietary advice is to take everything in moderation. Consume lots of fibre (fruits and vegetables), and reduce your intake of red meat, processed meat and salt.

By Charmaine Ng


What’s processed meat?

Processed meat is meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding chemicals such as sodium nitrite. It includes:

  • Ham, bacon, salami, hot dogs.
  • Canned meat such as corned beef and luncheon meat.
  • Chinese sausages, bak kwa (preserved dried pork).
  • Salted fish, anchovies, dried shrimp.


POSTED IN Cancer Prevention, Nutrition
TAGS cancer diet & nutrition, healthy food & cooking