Processed Meat Consumption and the Risk of Cancer: A Critical Evaluation of the Constraints of Current Evidence from Epidemiological Studies

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Based on a large volume of observational scientific studies and many summary papers, a high consumption of meat and processed meat products has been suggested to have a harmful effect on human health. These results have led guideline panels worldwide to recommend to the general population a reduced consumption of processed meat and meat products, with the overarching aim of lowering disease risk, especially of cancer. We revisited and updated the evidence base, evaluating the methodological quality and the certainty of estimates in the published systematic reviews and meta-analyses that examined the association between processed meat consumption and the risk of cancer at different sites across the body, as well as the overall risk of cancer mortality. We further explored if discrepancies in study designs and risks of bias could explain the heterogeneity observed in meta-analyses. In summary, there are severe methodological limitations to the majority of the previously published systematic reviews and meta-analyses that examined the consumption of processed meat and the risk of cancer. Many lacked the proper assessment of the methodological quality of the primary studies they included, or the literature searches did not fulfill the methodological standards needed in order to be systematic and transparent. The primary studies included in the reviews had a potential risk for the misclassification of exposure, a serious risk of bias due to confounding, a moderate to serious risk of bias due to missing data, and/or a moderate to serious risk of selection of the reported results. All these factors may have potentially led to the overestimation of the risk related to processed meat intake across all cancer outcomes. Thus, with the aim of lowering the risk of cancer, the recommendation to reduce the consumption of processed meat and meat products in the general population seems to be based on evidence that is not methodologically strong
Original languageEnglish
Article number3601
Issue number10
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Bibliographical note

This article belongs to the Special Issue Towards Better Dietary Guidelines: New Approaches Based on Recent Science.

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