Eating processed meat such as ham, sausages, and bacon, can increase your risk of bowel cancer, research shows – but three in five meat-eaters are not aware of this.
And 27% of those who regularly eat processed meat claim they are not worried about the effect it could have on their health – with one in four, of the 2,000 adults polled, consuming more than 50g a day.
The global research, carried out by World Cancer Research Fund, found that when this amount is eaten on a regular basis, it increases the risk of bowel cancer by 16%, compared to the likelihood for those who don't eat processed meat.
Four in five of those surveyed said they are meat-eaters, and eat an average of 40g of processed meat a day – although 25% admitted they have no idea what goes into making processed meat.
Processed meat is defined as any meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives – such as ham, bacon, and sausages, as well as luncheon meats.
Certain chemicals added to meat to preserve it, such as nitrates and nitrites, react with the body when eaten.
It is this reaction, among other things, which contributes to the increase in risk of bowel cancer.
The research was commissioned for World Cancer Research Fund’s Cancer Prevention Action Week, which runs from 20th-26th February, and this year aims to highlight the link between processed meat and bowel cancer.
Analysis of global research, carried out by the charity, indicates that processed meat consumption is linked to 14.5% of male and 10% of female bowel cancer cases.
Despite this, 58% of adults believed they eat about the right amount of processed meat, and only one in four (24%) felt they had too much.
Dr Helen Croker, head of research interpretation at World Cancer Research Fund, said: “We know bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, and that 54% of bowel cancer cases could be prevented.
“Our analysis of global research also shows that those who regularly eat processed meat have an increased risk of bowel cancer.
“We want to raise awareness of this, and highlight steps that people can take to help reduce this risk.
“The work we do centres around prevention – which is why we carried out this research, to understand how many people are aware of the link between processed meat and bowel cancer, and how we can help people reduce this risk.
“This Cancer Prevention Action Week, we are encouraging people to take part in the Great British Sarnie Swap and to reduce how much processed meat they eat – helping to lower their risk of bowel cancer, by swapping the processed meat in their sandwiches for heathier and affordable alternatives.”
The research also found just 53% have even a rough idea of what goes into making processed meat – with just 50% and 43% aware that a sausage sandwich and ham sandwich, respectively, contain processed meat.
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The poll, carried out by OnePoll, found bacon was the most commonly consumed processed meat (66%) by meat-eaters, followed by sausage (65%) and ham (63%).
And bacon (15%) is the nation’s favourite sandwich filling, along with cheese (14%) and egg mayo (13%).
It also revealed the main reasons people liked processed meat were for the taste (55%), cost (44%), and convenience (41%).
However, almost half of meat-eaters (48%) would be willing to reduce the amount of processed meat they eat, with 67% of adults open to reducing their consumption in favour of healthier alternatives.
To help with this, the charity is encouraging people to take part in its Great British Sarnie Swap, and has a fact sheet and quiz to help cut out the confusion around processed meat.
Matt Lambert, health information and promotion manager at World Cancer Research Fund, said: “It’s great to see that many people want to swap out processed meat for alternatives.
“We want to help people make changes to their diet by giving them some healthier swap ideas.
“Consider ingredients such as chopped boiled eggs, tinned fish, or hummus with roasted vegetables. You could also use up any leftover roast chicken for a next-day sandwich.
“We know that in the current economic climate, cost is a big factor when choosing food, which is why our website has a number of affordable and healthy sandwich filling ideas.”
TOP TIPS TO EAT LESS PROCESSED MEAT:
- Check the ingredients list for words like nitrate, nitrite, cured, or salted. If you see these words, it’s processed meat.
- Reduce your portion sizes of processed meat – for example, if eating ham, have one slice rather than two.
- If you tend to eat processed meat most days, why not challenge yourself to have more days meat-free?
- Include more plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, and chickpeas, soya-based food like tofu and tempeh, plain nuts and seeds, and grains like quinoa.
- Swap processed meat for chicken and turkey or fish (white or oily). This will also help you to eat less saturated fat.
- Choose more vegetables, pulses, and wholegrains, and make these the focus of your meals. Adding herbs, spices, or a squeeze of lemon boosts the flavour.
- Use smoked paprika to lift the flavour of dishes.
- Instead of ham or other processed meat in sandwiches, wraps, and salads, choose canned fish such as tuna, or boiled eggs, hummus, peanut butter (no added salt or sugar), avocado, cheese (like cheddar and cottage cheese), roasted vegetables, or leftover home-cooked meat, such as roast chicken.
- For a healthier fry-up, rather than bacon or sausages with your eggs, add more grilled mushrooms and tomatoes – or why not try halloumi or avocado?
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