Warning to limit 'carcinogenic' red meat

Barnaby Joyce has played down World Health Organisation research linking processed meat to cancer. (AAP)

Australians should limit their intake of 'carcinogenic' red meat while eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, say experts.

Australians don't need to stop eating red meat but should limit their intake, say experts responding to international research showing it can cause cancer.

A World Health Organisation review has found that processed meats like sausages and ham cause bowel cancer, and red meat "probably" does too.

WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) analysed 800 studies from around the world.

Cancer Council Australia recently released research estimating that more than 2600 bowel cancers diagnosed nationally in 2010 were attributable to processed and red meat consumption.

The organisation's Kathy Chapman on Tuesday said red and processed meats were associated with around one in six bowel cancers diagnosed in Australia.

"It might be the high fat content, the charring in the cooking process or big meat eaters missing out on the protective benefits of plant-based foods or a combination of these factors," she said.

"Whatever the mechanism, eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains can help you to moderate your intake of processed and red meats and can also help to protect against cancer."

The National Health and Medical Research Council's recommends people eat no more than 65 to 100 grams of cooked red meat, three-to-four times a week.

Ms Chapman said lean red meat was a source of iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein, but heavily processed meat was nutrient poor by comparison.

But she also said the red meat risk should be put in a context, noting the Australian research had found 11,500 cancer cases each year are caused by tobacco, 3900 were linked to obesity and overweight and 3200 to alcohol

UNSW Professor Bernard Stewart, who chaired the IARC review group, says the evidence didn't support complete abstinence from red meat.

"We aren't recommending a ban on bacon or taking the beef off the barbecue altogether," he said.

"But this latest advice should help make Australians more aware of the cancer risks associated with long-term excess red meat and processed meat consumption."

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said Australians shouldn't be concerned by the WHO research.

"If you got everything that the WHO said were carcinogenic and took it out of your daily requirements, well, you are kind of heading back to a cave," he told ABC radio.

Veterans Affairs Minister Stuart Robert said the answer probably lay in the middle.

"I like bacon and eggs and you can't have a good Saturday morning breakfast with the kids without bacon and eggs, but I wouldn't be eating it every day," he told Sky News.

"Everything in moderation and generally you don't have a problem."

Meat & Livestock Australia noted the nation's red meat dietary guidelines, saying its consumption can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.

"Red meat such as beef and lamb is a critical, natural source of iron and zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 - essential nutrients needed to keep the body and brain functioning well," a spokesman said.

"Children and women are eating less than the recommended amount of red meat and one in five women have some form of iron deficiency.

"When it comes to prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, the evidence suggests a healthy, balanced diet and active lifestyle is critical - focusing on only one kind of food is not enough."

Source AAP

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