Yet Another Cancer Scare Over Red Meat – Is There Anything to It?

January 13th, 2016 by Holly Cornish

To the horror of bacon lovers everywhere, the World Health Organization recently claimed those tasty, meaty, fatty breakfast strips are carcinogenic. Besides bacon, they also handed down a guilty verdict on sausages, jerky, hot dogs, and any other kind of processed meat.

Then the WHO went beyond that and proclaimed ALL red meats probably have some carcinogenic properties. The list of offenders was made up of beef, pork, veal, and lamb.

For folks in a hurry this morning, I’ll give my quick take first, then I’ll go into the evidence for and against this never-ending health scare over meat. . .

Continued below. . .

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I eat bacon or other processed meats maybe four or five times a year – usually when I’m traveling or I’m someone’s houseguest. I’m pretty confident such moderate consumption won’t kill me.

Other red meats I eat maybe once or twice a week. But it’s rare for me to eat conventionally grown meats. I eat organic meats free of antibiotics and hormones, and (I hope) free of pesticides and herbicides that could be in the food the animals consume.

I suspect (warning: no proof here) that the cancer link which keeps turning up is the result of these contaminants, and is not endemic to animal products as such. But in any case, I eat moderate amounts.

The evidence: Who says they’re dangerous?

The WHO’s evidence comes from the combined efforts of 22 scientists from 10 countries who reviewed studies that linked processed meat and red meat consumption to cancer. Their conclusion was that regular feasting on these staples is a bona fide way to bump up your risk for colorectal cancer.

The researchers combed through over 800 epidemiological studies that looked at links between cancer and consumption of either red meat or processed meat. The studies varied across countries, ethnic groups, and diets.

A full 14 of these studies showed positive associations between high red meat consumption and colorectal cancer. Similar positive associations of colorectal cancer and processed meat were reported in another 12 studies.

The scientists were even able to determine a statistically significant dose-response relationship. That meta-analysis shows that every 100 grams (about 3 ½ ounces) per day of red meat gives you a 17% increased risk of colorectal cancer. Every 50 grams per day of processed meat increases your risk by 18%.

Colon cancer is not the only worry. Fifteen other types of cancer were positively associated with red and processed meats. These included pancreatic and prostate cancer as well as cancer of the stomach.

The data, along with the fact that consistent associations were found in studies with different populations, were enough for the WHO Working Group to feel confident in declaring processed meat is a carcinogen.

With red meat, the story was slightly different. Unlike processed meat, in this case the WHO people could not completely rule out chance, bias, and confounding evidence. They warn only of “limited evidence for carcinogenicity” and say that red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Bingo. That’s pretty much what I thought, and it’s the reason I don’t worry about moderate consumption of organic red meats.

But processed meat gets the full sentence without hesitation: “Carcinogenic to humans.”

Nutritional value versus carcinogenic risk

Let’s specify what the scientists meant by red meat. For their research purposes, they were referring to unprocessed mammalian muscle meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, or goat meat). These meats can be minced or frozen, and are usually cooked before being eaten.

Processed meat, on the other hand, is meat that gets transformed through salting, curing, smoking, fermentation, or any other method used to step up flavor. Processed meat also tends to keep longer. Most processed meat consists of pork or beef but could include other red meats or meat byproducts (like blood).

Red meat has a lot of good nutritional value, especially if you want to add protein, B vitamins, iron, or zinc to your diet. Processed meat doesn’t usually rank as high on the nutritional barometer since curing or smoking can alter nutrients.

I lend some credence to the theories that, genetically, some people are suited to consume meat and some aren’t. I certainly find meat agrees with me. Some people don’t. There are lots of hypotheses on body types, blood types, and so forth, but not much evidence.

But nobody is genetically programmed to benefit from processed meat.

There’s some evidence against processed meat at the molecular level, and this is one reason I find the cancer claims more persuasive. The process of curing or smoking meat can prompt tiny carcinogenic chemicals to form, like N-nitroso-compounds (NOC) or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Cooking can bump up these carcinogenic levels even further, especially if you grill or pan-fry your meat.

Should you completely cut bacon out of your diet?

What does this mean for your grocery list? Since this news first surfaced, bacon buffs and doubters have argued that “everything” gives you cancer, including the air you’re breathing right now. Shrug it off and enjoy life, is their take.

That’s tempting, except for this: We’re told that the arm of the WHO that studied this issue won’t evaluate something for cancer risk until a vetted group of international scientists and experts recommends making it a priority. In this case, it means they saw some compelling evidence against bacon and its cohorts.

It’s also not true, as angry meat-eaters have shouted, that bacon is being touted as dangerous as smoking. When you’re looking at cancer risk, smoking is far more dangerous than a sausage patty at your local diner.

Oncology researcher Bernard Stewart from the University of New South Wales is a WHO Working Group member. He says processed meat and red meat could raise your risk of cancer twofold, and that’s a worst-case scenario. Smoking a pack a day over a lifetime bumps your cancer risk up to 50-fold.

Like so many pleasures in our world, moderation is the key. If you’re the type to scarf down three strips of bacon and a sausage link every morning at breakfast, cut back. The risk of colorectal cancer is small, but it does increase with each helping.

The findings about red meat do encourage me to eat smaller portions on the one or two days each week when I indulge. Eight ounces once a week sounds pretty safe. A 16-ounce porterhouse, less so. And, let me say again, I eat organic meat.

You might also look into healthy, locally made high-protein sausage as an alternative. Or, consider variations on bacon—like the strain of seaweed recently patented by researchers at Oregon State. When cooked, it has twice the nutritional value of kale…and reportedly tastes just like bacon. I can’t personally vouch for bacon seaweed, but it’s nice to know we may someday have healthy alternatives.

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