Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat: What about environmental contaminants?

Environ Res. 2016 Feb;145:109-115. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2015.11.031. Epub 2015 Dec 6.


In October 26, 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a press release informing of the recent evaluation of the carcinogenicity of red and processed meat consumption. The consumption of red meat and processed meat was classified as "probably carcinogenic to humans", and as "carcinogenic to humans", respectively. The substances responsible of this potential carcinogenicity would be generated during meat processing, such as curing and smoking, or when meat is heated at high temperatures (N-nitroso-compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic aromatic amines). However, in its assessments, the IARC did not make any reference to the role that may pose some carcinogenic environmental pollutants, which are already present in raw or unprocessed meat. The potential role of a number of environmental chemical contaminants (toxic trace elements, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans, polychlorinated biphenyls, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, polychlorinated diphenyl ethers, polychlorinated naphthalenes and perfluoroalkyl substances) on the carcinogenicity of consumption of meat and meat products is discussed in this paper. A case-study, Catalonia (Spain), is specifically assessed, while the influence of cooking on the concentrations of environmental pollutants is also reviewed. It is concluded that although certain cooking processes could modify the levels of chemical contaminants in food, the influence of cooking on the pollutant concentrations depends not only on the particular cooking process, but even more on their original contents in each specific food item. As most of these environmental pollutants are organic, cooking procedures that release or remove fat from the meat should tend to reduce the total concentrations of these contaminants in the cooked meat.

Keywords: Carcinogenicity; Cooking; Dietary exposure; Environmental contaminants; Meat and meat products.

MeSH terms

  • Carcinogens, Environmental / isolation & purification
  • Carcinogens, Environmental / toxicity*
  • Cooking*
  • Diet
  • Environmental Pollutants / isolation & purification
  • Environmental Pollutants / toxicity*
  • Food Contamination / analysis*
  • Humans
  • Meat Products / analysis*
  • Red Meat / analysis*
  • Spain


  • Carcinogens, Environmental
  • Environmental Pollutants