The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer now classifies processed meat as a group 1 carcinogen, putting it in the same category as alcohol, tobacco and arsenic.
Their ruling is based on data compiled from hundreds of studies which links processed meats to colorectal cancer, according to CNNMoney.
Processed meats generally include pork or beef products that are salted, cured or smoked to enhance flavor or to preserve it. Some processed meats may also include poultry.
The report outlined that eating 50 grams of processed meat a day, which is about the same as eating two slices of ham, can increase the risk of cancer by as much as 18%. However, the report also stresses that the risks are relatively small to begin with and that the carcinogenic classification does not mean that processed meats are as equally dangerous as cigarettes or alcohol.
Red meat and other unprocessed meats like lamb were categorized as group 2A carcinogens, meaning they are “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Red meat has long since been linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer, though the organization still maintains that red meat has “nutritional value.”
Christopher Wild, who heads WHO’s cancer agency, said in a statement:
“These results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
Meanwhile, meat industry officials have greeted the report with criticisms. Betsy Booren, president of scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, said:
“They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.”
According to the Guardian, Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel and emeritus professor of neurobiology at Cardiff University, said:
“What we do know is that avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer. The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high alcohol intakes.”
Diets high in processed meats cause approximately 34,000 deaths per year from cancer worldwide. WHO’s latest data shows that in 2012, there were approximately 8.2 million total deaths from cancer.