People should continue to enjoy steak, sausages and bacon, experts have said, as they claimed there is no proof red and processed meats cause cancer.
In a controversial move, a team of researchers branded the evidence linking red meat with serious health problems as weak, saying people should carry on as they are - enjoying on average three to four portions of red and processed meat per week.
Their new guidance flies in the face of recommendations from health organisations including the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), which has told people to avoid processed meat altogether or eat very little of it.
The WCRF gathered a team of organisations - including from the World Health Organisation - to hit back at the latest findings, saying there is good evidence of a link between red and processed meat and bowel cancer.
At present, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) recommends that anyone who eats more than 90g of red or processed meat per day should try to cut down to 70g or less.
But in the new study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a team of international experts said those claims were based on very low-quality evidence.
They came to the same conclusion about the risks from eating red and processed meat as other researchers, but said the findings were so weak they did not warrant people being told to cut down.
The team, which included 14 experts from seven countries, said their analysis offered the "most up-to-date evidence on the topic".
Study author Bradley Johnston, associate professor at Dalhousie University in Canada, said: "We cannot say with any certainty that eating red or processed meat causes cancer, diabetes or heart disease."
Mr Johnston said the team found no real benefit from cutting down below this level.
He said: “From 12 randomised controlled trials enrolling about 54,000 individuals, we did not find a statistically significant or an important association in the risk of heart disease, cancer or diabetes for those that consumed less red or processed meat.”
While there was some evidence for a small reduction in risk for those consuming three fewer portions a week, “the certainty of evidence was low to very low,” he added.
“Our bottom line recommendation – which is a weak recommendation based on low-quality evidence – is that for the majority of people, not everyone, continuing their red and processed meat consumption is the right approach.”
Dr Giota Mitrou, director of research at the WCRF, said the new interpretation of the research “could be putting people at risk by suggesting they can eat as much red and processed meat as they like without increasing their risk of cancer.
“However, this is not the case.
“The message people need to hear is that we should be eating no more than three portions of red meat a week and avoiding processed meat altogether.
“We stand by our rigorous research of the last 30 years and urge the public to follow the current recommendations on red and processed meat.”
- Science Editor Tom Clarke Even reported on the red meat link to bowel cancer back in April.
Tim Key, professor of epidemiology and deputy director of the cancer epidemiology unit at the University of Oxford, said: “There’s substantial evidence that processed meat can cause bowel cancer – so much so that the World Health Organisation has classified it as carcinogenic since 2015.
“Today’s new publication reports results essentially identical to the existing evidence, but describes the impact very differently, contradicting the general consensus among cancer research experts.
In April, a separate study led by Oxford University and funded by Cancer Research UK, found that even small amounts of red and processed meat – such as a rasher of bacon a day – can increase the risk of bowel cancer.
They estimated that eating three rashers of bacon a day rather than just one could increase the risk of bowel cancer by 20%.
For every 10,000 people in the study who ate 21g a day of red and processed meat (about a rasher of bacon or a slice of ham), 40 were diagnosed with bowel cancer.
The comparable figure for those who ate 76g a day (about half a steak), was 48.
Cancer Research UK said about 5,400 of the 41,804 cases of bowel cancer seen each year in the UK could be prevented if people did not eat processed meat at all.
Emma Shields, Cancer Research UK’s health information manager, said: “Processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer – there’s a mass of evidence that shows this.”