Fresh links between meat and cancer

Meat eaters have a higher risk blood, bladder and stomach cancers, but not bowel cancer, a major new study has found.

The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, found that meat-eaters had a significantly higher risk of stomach cancer than those who do not eat meat, confirming earlier studies.

It also discovered a “striking difference” in the risk of some cancers of the lymph and blood, something which has not been reported before. Vegetarians were found to be 45% less likely to develop cancer of the blood and 75% less likely to develop multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, than meat eaters.

However, the study revealed that there was no increase in the risk of bowel cancer amongst meat eaters. This is significant because previous studies have linked meat-eating to bowel cancer, which is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK.

The authors of the report have urged “caution” over the findings, warning that while the link between vegetarianism and reduced risk of blood cancer seems “significant”, it is not possible to draw strong conclusions from one single study.

It is unclear whether there are mutation-causing compounds in meat, or if vegetables offer special protection.

A spokesperson for Cancer Research UK, which funded the research, said: "These interesting results add to the evidence that what we eat affects our chances of developing cancer. We know that eating a lot of red and processed meat increases the risk of stomach cancer.

"But the links between diet and cancer risk are complex and more research is needed to see how big a part diet plays and which specific dietary factors are most important.”

Industry leaders have questioned the methodology behind the study, pointing out that the link between diet and cancer is complex, with compounding factors such as smoking, alcohol intake and obesity.

The study was based on 61,000 British men and women who scientists followed over 12 years. During this time, 3,350 of the participants were diagnosed with cancer. Of these, 9.5% ate fish but no meat, 24% were vegetarian and 68% were meat eaters.