It’s not a surprise to most of us in the health world–processed meat is not healthy for you. Cancer agencies and other health agencies have long been telling the public to limit consumption of processed and red meats. But to hear the World Health Organization (WHO) label it a Group 1 carcinogenic this week is a bit of a big deal. The meat industry is a huge one with lots of money and lots of power and input. And they are not happy with processed meat cancer Group 1 labelling.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is the cancer agency for the WHO. With a working group of 22 experts from 10 countries, they looked carefully at the accumulated research (more than 800 studies!) on the effects of processed meats and red meats on cancer.
Processed Meat Cancer Risk
What the IARC concluded was that there is sufficient evidence that processed meat is carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), particularly for colorectal cancer. So, why is it such a risk? The curing and salting of meat is what creates cancer-causing chemicals such as polycylcic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Processed meats include:
- bacon (the kick-back from people on this one is huge–I’ve personally never understood the bacon-love thing)
- hot dogs
- sliced meat
- corned beef
- beef jerky
- canned meat
- meat-based preparations and sauces
For each 50g portion of processed meat daily, your risk for colorectal cancer increases by 18%. To put that into perspective, 50g is about 2 slices of bacon, and Group 1 carcinogenic is the same category as tobacco and asbestos.
However, experts also note that the processed meat cancer risk is not nearly as high as that of smoking. About 6-7% of Canadians will develop colorectal cancer, according the the Canadian Cancer Society. So, with a daily 50g serving of bacon, a 7% risk rises to 8.26% (this is an 18% increase from a person’s baseline risk). By comparison, smoking increases your risk of lung cancer by 2500%! And, of course–as the meat industry is keen to point out–cancer is a complex disease with more than one cause.
But still, the processed meat cancer risk is important to consider.
The Global Burden of Disease Project suggested that 34,000 global cancer deaths each year are connected to diets rich in processed meat, according to the IARC.
Red Meat Cancer Risk
Red meat was also investigated and was found to fit the category of probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), mostly colorectal cancer, but also possible connections to pancreatic and prostate cancer.
Considering that the average American ate 71.2 lbs of red meat in 2012 (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture), there is a lot of money that the meat industry does not want to lose. So, they are already on the attack, with the North American Meat Institute stating that the recent report is “dramatic and alarmist overreach.”
My favourite quote, however, is from Bonnie Liebman, the nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The meat industry, which is attacking the IARC, has less credibility than the Flat Earth Society. IARC is the gold standard for rigor, comprehensiveness, and reasonableness — all qualities in short supply in the meat industry and its friends in Congress.”
Should you be scared?
For many of you, no, I don’t think so, and neither do many health experts. But, if you have a higher cancer risk already, if you suffer from other diseases, if you eat lots of red meat and processed meats…then yes, time to make a change. General health recommendations are for 3 or fewer servings of red meat per week, and rare inclusion of processed meats.
Before this report came out, my husband and I had already decided to do “No Meat November” because of animal and environmental reasons. “Meatless May” was a great success for us, as we got to try so many delicious foods. We already don’t eat pig and rarely eat processed meats or red meat, so this report changes nothing for my habits.
Traditional Chinese Medicine does not recommend everyone stop eating all meat. However, traditionally, meat was consumed more like a condiment, not the main dish. It was also all wild, organic, and eating its natural foods (not “feed” and drugs) prior to landing on our dinner plates.
Of course, each of us has individual health needs, so what do you think about what you’ve read, and will it change anything for your food choices?