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Nitrates and Colorectal Cancer: Is There Really a Link?

processed meat

After many people questioned evidence of a link between processed meat and cancer of the bowel, colon and rectum, scientists have published a study of their meta-analysis on the classification of processed meat as a carcinogen.

Dr. Brian Green, Dr. William Crowe ,and Professor Chris Elliot OBE (from the Institute for Global Food Security, IGFS) found that there’s not the same risk of cancer in all processed meats. First, they reviewed all the current U.S. studies. After reviewing the studies that related the consumption of processed meat with cancer risk, they found that the studies were inconclusive. Half of the studies concluded that there is a link to colorectal cancer.

When they focused on the study that tested the consumption of processed meat containing sodium nitrite, evidence of a CRC link jumped from half to just under two-thirds—65%.

colorectal cancer

“When we looked at nitrite-containing processed meat in isolation—which is the first time this has been done in a comprehensive study—the results were much clearer, almost two-thirds of studies found a link with cancer,” explained Research Fellow Dr. William Crowe.

In 2015, the World Health Organization classified all processed meats, like bacon, sausage, salami, prosciutto, as carcinogens.

British and Irish sausages aren’t processed with nitrites.  Also on the market are new types of bacon and ham processed without nitrites. 

When the WHO gave the statement back in 2015, they did not specify whether it was for meat processed with nitrates or without nitrates. On the basis of their meta-study’s results the researchers agree that the health risk of both forms of processed meat needs to be identified separately.

This study helped clarify some doubts for the general public and the food industry, according to Professor Chris Elliott OBE. He said, “Because there have been conflicting claims in the scientific community and the media about which types of meat may be carcinogenic, this study couldn’t have come at a better time. It brings much-needed rigor and clarity and points the way for further research in this area.”



The Department of Health recommends that people not consume more than 70g of processed meats with nitrates or red meat each day. It is important to remember that we must maintain a balanced diet for a healthy life.

“There is more research to be done before we can definitively prove causality regarding processed meat and cancer—there are so many variables when it comes to people’s diets. But based on our study, which we believe provides the most thorough review of the evidence on nitrites to date, what we can confidently say is that a strong link exists between nitrite-containing processed meat, such as frankfurters, and CRC,” said Dr. Brian Green. 

IGFS researchers continue to investigate evidence with a preclinical study to test the association between processed meat with nitrates and colorectal cancer.


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