The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) raised eyebrows this week after confirming that nitrites and nitrates in processed meat products, like ham and sausage, increase the risk of colon cancer. As a result, officials urged citizens to reduce how much processed meats and charcuterie they eat.
“Every day, we are exposed to nitrites and nitrates through our diet,” the agency says in a statement online. “In light of current knowledge on their effects on human health, ANSES recommends reducing the population’s exposure to these substances by taking proactive measures to limit dietary exposure.”
ANSES said it has “identified several courses of action,” including “reducing the use of nitrites as additives in delicatessen meat.” The agency says that “over half” of exposure to nitrates is “related to the consumption of delicatessen meat due to the nitrite additives used to prepare it.” After analyzing data, ANSES says that the higher the exposure to nitrites and nitrates, “the greater the risk of colorectal cancer in the population.”
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The statement and subsequent plan to reduce nitrates and nitrites in foods has raised a lot of questions about the link between deli meats and colon cancer. Here’s what you need to know.
So, what is the link between charcuterie and colon cancer?
The levels of these compounds in foods and meat products are regulated and monitored by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that high levels of nitrates have been linked to a slew of health issues, including heart problems, cancer, and blood disorders.
The link between processed meats and colon cancer isn’t new. In fact, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends limited red meats and processed meats. “It is not known if there is a safe level of consumption for either red or processed meats,” the ACS states. “In the absence of such knowledge, while recognizing that the amount of increased risk isn’t certain, the ACS recommends choosing protein foods such as fish, poultry, and beans more often than red meat, and for people who eat processed meat products to do so sparingly, if at all.”
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that processed meat is in Group 1 (“carcinogenic to humans”) and that red meat is in Group 2A (“probably carcinogenic to humans”), based on evidence for increased risks of colorectal cancer.
Why might charcuterie raise your risk of colon cancer?
It’s not entirely clear. “Nitrates themselves are stable in the body,” says Jamie Alan, Ph.D., associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, noting that they can be converted to nitric oxide in your body, which causes vasodilation (a.k.a. the dilation of your blood vessels which decreases your blood pressure).
“Nitric oxide is not the harmful compound that causes cancer though,” Alan says. “Nitrates can also make compounds called nitrosamines, which have been linked with an increased risk of cancer.”
It likely comes down to the nitrosamines, Alan says. “When one is exposed to nitrosamines at higher than recommended [amounts] and for long periods of time, the chance for developing cancer is increased,” she says. “These compounds are present at low levels in drinking water and many foods, but are higher in processed and cured meats.”
Nitrosamines “can damage DNA, which can lead to cancer if the DNA is not properly repaired by the body,” she says.
But there may be more than nitrates at play here, says Anton Bilchik, M.D., Ph.D., surgical oncologist and division chair of general surgery at Providence Saint John’s Health Center and chief of medicine at Saint John’s Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California. “Processed food is high in fat,” he says. “It’s a pro-inflammatory food. That can have an impact on the immune system and the body, raising your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and cancer.”
Is it safe to eat any charcuterie meat?
The ANSES recommends that French citizens have less than 150 grams (a little more than five ounces) of deli meat a week. And, according to the IARC, every 50-gram portion of processed meat you eat daily increases your risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%.
But Bilchik points out that there’s more to the development of colorectal cancer than deli meat, and that eating charcuterie is just one of several factors that can raise your risk. With that, he recommends that you “try to avoid processed food as much as possible.” He adds, “having bacon every two weeks is unlikely to be a problem, but having it every day could be an issue.”