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Red meat 'linked to cancer risk'

There are health concerns over red meat

A major study has found fresh evidence of a link between red and processed meat and bowel cancer, scientists say.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) looked at the dietary habits of over 500,000 people across Europe over 10 years.

Those eating over two 80g portions of red meat a day were a third more likely to get bowel cancer than those eating less than one portion a week, it found.

EPIC's study is reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.


    There are 17 cases per 10,000 50-year-olds a year among the group eating more than two portions of red meat a day

    There are 12 cases per 10,000 50-year-olds a year among the group eating less than one portion of red meat a week

Since it began, 1,330 people have developed bowel cancer.

The study also found a low fibre diet increased the risk of bowel cancer.

Eating poultry had no impact but the risk for people who ate one portion or more of fish every other day was nearly a third lower than those who ate fish less than once a week.

Strong evidence

Lead researcher Professor Sheila Bingham, of the MRC Dunn Human Nutrition Unit in Cambridge, said: "People have suspected for some time that high levels of red and processed meat increase risk of bowel cancer, but this is one of the largest studies worldwide and the first from Europe of this type to show a strong relationship."

Professor Bingham said there were several theories about why red meat should increase the risk of bowel cancer.


    In England and Wales the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with bowel cancer is 1 in 18 for men and 1 in 20 for women

    18,500 cases in men and over 16,000 cases in women are newly diagnosed each year
    If the cancer is caught at an early stage, eight out of 10 cases can be treated

She believes the most likely explanation is that compounds called haemoglobin and myoglobin, which are found in red meat, trigger a process called nitrosation in the gut, which leads to the formation of carcinogenic compounds.

Alternatively, the problem might be caused by compounds called heterocyclic amines, carcinogenic compounds created in the cooking process.

However, these compounds are also found in poultry, which has not been linked to an increased cancer risk.

Professor Tim Key, of the charity Cancer Research UK, said: "This study strengthens evidence that bowel cancer risk can be cut by increasing fibre in the diet and reducing consumption of red and processed meat."

The researchers defined red meat as beef, lamb, pork and veal.

The Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) said people in Britain ate well below the 160g per day consumption levels that were used to class high intake in the study.

Mike Attenborough, MLC technical director, said: "Once again this points towards the need for moderation and balance in what we eat."

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council, Cancer Research UK and the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

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