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Processed meat is making headlines now that the World Health Organization has declared that it causes cancer.
In a statement released Monday, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a research division of the World Health Organization, announced that it is classifying processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen to humans — a group that also includes smoking tobacco and asbestos exposure.
The IARC also labeled red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” meaning it is likely to cause cancer as well.
The IARC says the term applies to “all mammalian muscle meat” and specifically calls out the following:
In a press release, the IARC defines processed meats as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.”
Most processed meats contain pork or beef, the IARC says, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal (an animal’s organs or entrails), or meat by-products.
The organization specifically lists these as examples of processed meats:
- hot dogs
- corned beef
- beef jerky
- canned meat
- meat-based preparations and sauces
While the “processed” definition is clear for meats like bacon and sausage, it’s less so for other forms of meat that undergo some form of processing.
“Most chicken nuggets fall into this category, as they are highly processed,” Alissa Rumsey, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Health.
Some — but not all — lunchmeat is also considered “processed.” Per Rumsey, it includes:
- (as well as the ham and corned beef listed by the IARC)
But Rumsey says cuts of lunchmeat that are cooked and then sliced like roast beef, turkey, and chicken aren’t considered “processed.”
Have a ham sandwich here and there? New York City registered dietitian Jessica Cording tells Yahoo Health that you shouldn’t panic.
“If these foods are not currently part of your diet, no reason to start,” she says. “However, one strip of bacon once in a great while is not going to kill you.” But she discourages eating these foods as part of your daily diet.
The IARC had a similar message, noting that the individual risk of developing colorectal cancer from eating processed meats is “small” but increases with the amount of meat a person eats.
If you have a child who can’t live without his chicken nuggets, Rumsey recommends looking for brands that offer less processed versions like Bell & Evans or Applegate Farms — or, if you have the time, you can make them yourself.
Instead of panicking over the news, Cording suggests using it as a reason to look for new things to eat and to experiment with healthier foods you might not have thought to try otherwise.