New Study: This Type of Meat May Increase Risk for Cancer of the Mouth

Updated: Apr. 10, 2024

Grilling season has arrived, which means the takeaways from this new European study are sizzling with time-sensitivity.

The connection between relative high meat consumption and certain types of cancer has been well established. The World Health Organization classifies processed meat—like bacon, sausage, and other cured meats—alongside smoking and asbestos as a “Group 1” carcinogen (but notes that processed meat consumption should be limited, unlike smoking and asbestos exposure, which both should be avoided completely).

Most organizations concerned with cancer prevention agree that people should limit processed meat, as it is linked with cancers of the colon, stomach, and other sites of the body. Now new research reveals how even some fresher animal protein can lead to a heightened risk for yet another type of cancer.

A new study was conducted by chemistry and cancer researchers at the Medical University of Silesia in Katowice, the largest medical school in Poland, and subsequently published in the journal Nutrients on April 7, 2024. 

The research team reported: “Oral cancer is one of the world’s research priorities due to the ever-increasing incidence rate,” highlighting this trend among younger adults. They theorized that this rise could be connected with an increase in red meat consumption. Past research has shown that when red meat is heated (which, of course, is done to destroy pathogens and make it safer and more palatable), chemical compounds form that can lead to cancerous changes in the digestive tract. High heat and longer cooking times can increase these compounds. 

The study involved two groups of Polish citizens who completed food questionnaires about their eating habits. The first group had been diagnosed with oral cancer between 2022 and 2023 with an average age of 67. Meanwhile, the control group consisted of people with no diagnosis of cancer or other chronic disease with an average age of 53.

When the two were compared, researchers found that while smoking, drinking alcohol, and infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) correlated with the highest risk of oral cancer, red meat consumption also increased risk. The higher the total intake of meat, the more the risk for oral cancer increased.

Higher levels of red meat, in particular, increased risk—but the risk increased even further when it was processed. Smoked meat most of all was associated with the highest risk of developing oral cancer versus fried, roasted, and boiled meat. 

Surprisingly, grilled meat didn’t show as high of a connection, but researchers theorized that it’s likely because Polish culture generally only grills meat on certain occasions. More studies would have to be done outside of the tested population to see if that correlated with other areas of the world where grilling is more popular, as it’s known to develop carcinogenic compounds. For instance, in Brazil, consuming grilled meat four or more times per week was connected with increased oral cancer rates, they noted.

The study did have some good news: consuming vegetables seemed to have a protective effect against oral cancer.

Overall, the researchers concluded that “limiting the consumption of meat products and modifying the methods of preparing meat dishes may … reduce the risk of developing oral cancer.”

This aligns with the overall message of the American Institute for Cancer Research, which advises people to consume as little processed meat as possible and to limit fresh, cooked meat to a maximum of 18 ounces per week.