Colorectal Cancer and Meat — What's the Connection?

Are those steaks and hot dogs bad for you?

Several studies have found a connection between eating red and processed meat and colorectal cancer.  But the reason for that connection hasn’t been clear.

To answer the question, researchers collected detailed information about the type of meat eaten by a large group of over 300,000 men and women and how the meat was  cooked.

Linking that information to data on meat iron content, chemicals used in processing meat, and chemicals produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures, they were able to  find that heme iron, nitrates and nitrites, and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) from high-temperature cooking increase risk for colon and rectal cancer.

Among 300,948 patients enrolled in a large, prospective trial,  2,719 developed colorectal cancer.  When researchers ranked diets from those who ate the least red and processed meat to those who ate the most, they found:

  • Heme iron was associated with a 13 percent increase in risk.
  • Nitrates from processed meats increased risk by 16 percent.
  • HCAs produced during high temperature cooking raised risk by 19 percent.

Generally, risks were higher for rectal cancer than for colon cancer, with the exception HCA proteins, which only increased colon cancer risk.

  • Heme iron is available in the diet from meat, poultry and fish.  Nonheme iron comes from plants, including lentils and beans.  It is also added to enriched cereals, flour, and grain.
  • Nitrates and nitrites are used to process meat into bacon, hot dogs, and sausage.
  • HCAs are produced during high temperature cooking like grilling.

Amanda J. Cross and her associates concluded,

In conclusion, we found a positive association for red and processed meat intake and colorectal cancer; heme iron, nitrate/nitrite, and heterocyclic amines from meat may explain these associations.

SOURCE: Cross et al.,Cancer Research, Volume 70, Number 6, March 15,2010.


  1. Kate Murphy says


    I hope in addition to diet you are getting annual colonoscopies to find colon or rectal cancer early so it can be treated successfully.

    Lynch syndrome cancers develop rapidly so exams every year are critical.

    I also have Lynch syndrome with a history of three colon cancers,as well as three other cancers associated with Lynch.

    My best to you and your family.

  2. Jennifer Martin says

    I found this very interesting, I have Lynch Syndrome, I am 55 years old, stopped eating eggs and anything with eggs in it at 8 years old, have been vegetarian since the age of twelve, the only animal by product I have is milk in tea and occasionally cheese – now it is not made with rennet, I have never supplemented my diet with soya replacement products and am not the lentil eating type either!.
    Lynch syndrome has been passed down from my paternal Grand Mother, my Father having died from complications following bowel surgery 4 years ago at the age of 82.

    My eldest brother living in Australia had bowel cancer in his early 40’s, it was 7 years ago that his daughter a Doctor suggested it might be Lynch Syndrome and set the research in motion. So my 2 older brother’s have had bowel cancer and partial bowel removal, a younger sister had bowel cancer and full bowel removal, she had had cervical cancer and underwent a full hysterectomy as well, my youngest sister had a full hysterectomy following endrometrial cancer. My siblings are all meat eaters!.
    Six years ago due to ‘abnormalities’ I too underwent a hysterectomy proved later to be negative.
    And of my two younger brothers one does not have the gene and one will not be tested.

    This may or may not be relevant but I tend to have a rather quick transition wouldn’t say irritable bowel,- but nothing stays in there long!.

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