Almost six in 10 Brits are unaware that processed meat could increase the risk of bowel cancer

World Cancer Research Fund is encouraging Brits to swap out the bacon in their sarnie.

20 February 2023

  • Research reveals confusion over what processed meat is
  • More than two-thirds of Brits are open to the idea of swapping processed meat in favour of healthier, affordable alternatives
  • World Cancer Research Fund’s Cancer Prevention Action Week runs 20th – 26th February, focusing on the links between processed meat and bowel cancer
  • It highlights the steps people can take to reduce their risk including joining the Great British Sarnie Swap

New research released today reveals that more than half (57%) of Brits are unaware that bowel cancer can be a consequence of eating processed meat. The research was commissioned by World Cancer Research Fund as part of Cancer Prevention Action Week (20th-26th February). This year the campaign focuses on the steps that people can take to reduce their risk of bowel cancer, highlighting its strong link with processed meat.

Surveying 2,000 UK adults, the results expose the confusion around processed meat. It found that just over half (53%) of respondents had only a rough idea of what goes into making processed meat, and a quarter (25%) admitted they had no idea. When asked which of the following needs to happen for meat to be considered processed, under a third (31%) of all respondents said it had to be cured, less than a quarter said it had been smoked (23%), and only around half (52%) correctly thought it had chemical preservatives added.

In fact, processed meat is defined as any meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives. It includes ham, bacon, sausages, corned beef, and sliced luncheon meats. When eaten, certain chemicals that are added to meat to preserve it, such as nitrates and nitrites, react with the body. This reaction, among other things, contributes to the increased risk of bowel cancer. Previous analysis of all global research in this area by World Cancer Research Fund indicates that processed meat consumption is linked to 14.5% of male and 10% of female bowel cancer cases.

The recent omnibus research also revealed:

  • Of the 80% of respondents who ate meat, bacon was the most consumed processed meat, with two-thirds (66%) saying they ate it, followed by sausage (65%) and ham (63%).
  • 58% of meat-eaters believed they ate about the right amount of processed meat, and almost a quarter (24%) felt they had too much.
  • On average, meat-eaters ate around 40g of processed meat a day, with a quarter (25%) eating more than 50g per day.
  • Almost one in five (18%) said they ate a sandwich containing processed meat three times a week.
  • However, when asked about processed meat in popular sandwich fillings, half (50%) were unaware that a sausage sandwich contained processed meat and only 43% considered a ham sandwich to contain it – which could indicate we are unknowingly eating more than we realise.

The research also reveals that people do want to reduce how much processed meat they eat – with almost half (48%) of meat-eaters saying they are likely to reduce their consumption of processed meat, and more than two-thirds of adults (67%) willing to reduce their consumption in favour of healthier alternatives.

The Great British Sarnie Swap

As part of the charity’s Cancer Prevention Action Week campaign, and to help reduce confusion around processed meat, World Cancer Research Fund has created a useful fact sheet and quiz. The charity is also running the Great British Sarnie Swap, encouraging people to swap the processed meat in their sandwiches with affordable alternatives such as tuna, or boiled eggs.

Dr Helen Croker, Head of Research Interpretation at World Cancer Research Fund, said:

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, but 54% of these cases could be prevented. Our analysis of global research shows that eating even very small amounts of processed meat on a regular basis will significantly increase people’s risk of bowel cancer. So this Cancer Prevention Action Week we are encouraging people to reduce how much processed meat they eat and help lower their risk of bowel cancer by swapping the processed meat in their sandwiches for healthier and affordable alternatives.

Out of a list of 38 options, bacon topped the poll as the nation’s favourite sandwich filling (15%), closely followed by cheese (14%) and egg mayo (13%). The main reasons given for choosing processed meat were its taste (55%), cost (44%), and convenience (41%). World Cancer Research Fund’s sarnie swap offers a host of affordable and healthy alternatives for people to swap out, with some handy tips on how to reduce processed meat consumption.

Matt Lambert, Health Information and Promotion Manager at World Cancer Research Fund, said:

It’s great to see that many people want to swap out processed meat for alternatives, and we want to help people make changes to their diet by giving them some healthier swap ideas. Consider ingredients such as chopped boiled eggs, tinned fish, or hummus with roasted vegetables. You could also use up any leftover roast chicken for a next-day sandwich. We know that in the current economic climate, cost is a big factor when choosing food, which is why our website has a number of affordable and healthy sandwich filling ideas.

Visit World Cancer Research Fund’s website here to find out more and get inspiration for your own sarnie swap. You can also learn more about the link between processed meat and cancer, particularly bowel cancer.


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Notes to editors

To eat less processed meat, World Cancer Research Fund also has the following tips:

  • Check the ingredients list for words like nitrate, nitrite, cured, or salted. If you see these words, it’s processed meat.
  • Reduce your portion sizes of processed meat – for example, if eating ham, have one slice rather than two.
  • If you tend to eat processed meat most days, why not challenge yourself to have more days meat-free?
  • Include more plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, and chickpeas, soya-based food like tofu and tempeh, plain nuts and seeds, and grains like quinoa.
  • Swap processed meat for chicken and turkey or fish (white or oily). This will also help you eat less saturated fat.
  • Choose more vegetables, pulses, and wholegrains, and make these the focus of your meals. Adding herbs, spices, or a squeeze of lemon boosts the flavour.
  • Use smoked paprika to lift the flavour of dishes.
  • Instead of ham or other processed meat in sandwiches, wraps, and salads, choose canned fish like tuna, boiled eggs, hummus, peanut butter (no added salt or sugar), avocado, cheese (like cheddar and cottage cheese), roasted vegetables, or leftover home-cooked meat such as roast chicken.
  • For a healthier fry-up, rather than bacon or sausages with your eggs, add more grilled mushrooms and tomatoes. Or why not try halloumi or avocado?

This online survey of 2000 UK adults was commissioned by World Cancer Research Fund and conducted by market research company OnePoll, in accordance with the Market Research Society’s code of conduct. Data was collected between 12 – 19 January 2023. All participants are double-opted in to take part in research and are paid an amount depending on the length and complexity of the survey. This survey was overseen and edited by the OnePoll research team. OnePoll is a company partner of the MRS and has corporate membership to ESOMAR.

About World Cancer Research Fund

World Cancer Research Fund examines how diet, nutrition, body weight, and physical activity affect your risk of developing and surviving cancer. As part of an international network of charities, we have been funding life-saving research, influencing global public health policy, and educating the public since 1982. While society continues searching for a cure, our prevention and survival work is helping people live longer, happier, healthier lives – free from the devastating effects of cancer. and TwitterFacebookInstagram & LinkedIn.

Preventing Cancer. Saving Lives.