There's been a lot of buzz about the World Health Organization's (WHO) announcement that processed (e.g., bacon and salami) and red meats (including beef, pork and lamb) can increase chances of colorectal (colon) cancer if eaten regularly and in large quantities The WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) designated processed meats as carcinogenic to humans (referred to as Group 1) and unprocessed red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), the strongest position taken by a leading health organization on the cancer-causing aspects of meat. Hold on, though: the story is more complex than simply "meat will give you cancer."
1. Eating Bacon for Breakfast This Morning Does Not Equal Cancer
While the IARC's conclusions are significant, it doesn't automatically mean that that your bacon-heavy breakfast this morning equals death by cancer. Confusion over the IARC group classifications has created some consternation because of a general lack of clarity about the classifications. They are based on the strength of evidence that a substance (i.e., meat, tobacco, alcohol) can cause cancer - and are not a statement of cancer risk to an individual. This crucial point can't be lost - some news reports made it seem as though the WHO's announcement meant that eating an Italian sub was as risky as lighting up or knocking a few back, both of which are orders of magnitude riskier. (It also put on display how poor scientists are at communication.)
2. The Kind of Meat You Eat and the Way it's Prepared Makes All the Difference
What IARC determined is that eating 50 grams of processed meat daily (the equivalent of one hot dog per day) increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 17 percent and that eating 100 grams of unprocessed red meat daily (the equivalent of a quarter pound hamburger per day) increases the risk by 18 percent. The risks that processed meats pose come from potentially carcinogenic compounds used in salting, curing, fermentation and smoking that make processed meat taste good and reduce spoilage. In the case of red meat, potential elevated cancer risk comes from how it's prepared, including whether the meat is barbecued, grilled or seared.
3. Choosing Less and Better Meat is the Takeaway
US meat consumption, especially beef, has been on the decline for the past few years. This steady decline is largely due to health concerns - and this latest WHO report is no exception - but is also about the sustainability of meat and its large environmental footprint. Assessing risk for you, your family and the environment is tricky with so much research and information to weigh. So is there an environmentally conscious and healthy way to eat meat? Try this simple rule: "Less meat, better meat." Choose unprocessed, sustainably-raised meats from local farmers instead of pre-packaged, processed meat products. Add more fruits, vegetables, beans and grains to your plate. (Ponder that the average American eats 45 percent more meat than recommended by the USDA.) And keep in mind, as the researchers did, that unprocessed red meat does have healthy proteins and nutrients. Consider the new WHO announcement as just one more factor to consider when assessing what you and your family should eat.
Listen to The Takeaway discussion between Maureen Ogle and Mark Bittman about the WHO study and the broader implications it may have on meat consumption.
Image "matt's bacon dogs with hot sauce" by Jenni Konrad on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.