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A recent study has explored the cancer risk from chemicals used in processed meat. The research found that nitrates used to cure meats can release chemicals that increase the risk of colorectal cancer, Digital Journal reported.

The study, completed at Queen’s University Belfast in the UK, uncovered a “direct link between nitrates used to produce bacon and dangerous chemicals called nitrosamines,” Digital Journal explained.

The carcinogenic effect of nitrosamines was explored in studies previously, and named a “worldwide concern”. Nitrosamines have been linked to gastric and oesophageal cancer, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, fatty liver disease, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.

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The curing of food is intended to slow the rate of spoilage. Adding nitrates or nitrites is one method used to do this. These additives have been confirmed to be sources of N-nitroso compounds, “which are known carcinogens”, Digital Journal commented.

The lead researcher of the study, Professor Chris Elliott, said that the latest research has shown “there is a direct link” between the nitrates and the formation of nitrosamines, which have cancer-causing properties.

He concluded: “This means that when people consume bacon – which is currently cured with nitrites in the UK – they could be increasing their risk of contracting cancer.”

The findings add to the growing bank of research linking meat intake with various forms of cancer. The paper highlighted the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s previously reported same verdict in regard to processed meat and cancer. The organization suggested that for every 50g portion of processed meat eaten per day (roughly two bacon rashers), the risk of contracting colorectal cancer is increased by 18%.

Similarly, red and processed meat consumption has been associated with a 70% increased risk of rectal cancer. Another recent study found that those who ate more processed meat had a higher chance of developing breast cancer.

Elliott added that it would be “beneficial” to reduce intake of additives from processed meat, noting, “it is estimated that more than 50 per cent of bowel cancer cases are preventable and lifestyle changes such as improved diet could help.”

The researchers commented that plant alternatives, such as green tea polyphenols, should be considered for increasing food quality and preserving food items. Elliott stated that the use of natural alternatives could “contribute to a reduction in cancer risk” and should be further investigated.