A common sense approach to red meat, cured/processed meat and cancer-risk scaremongering

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Monday, 14 December 2015.
Tagged: balanced diet, health, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, IARC, meat, nutrition, WHO

A common sense approach to red meat, cured/processed meat and cancer-risk scaremongering

By now you must have become aware of the red meat/cured/processed meat scare that resulted from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) report. The media as a whole went into a frenzy over it. Here’s the non-hysterical version...

What did the report actually say?

The report evaluated 800 different studies on cancer in humans. Their findings actually boil down to a bottom line succinctly articulated by Dr Christopher Wild, Director of IARC who said “These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat”.

What does it mean?

In other words, the status quo has not changed. Dietitians have known for a few years of the dangers of processed meats (think bacon, corned beef, salami, sausages, ham, hot dogs and frankfurters) and have advocated for these products to have a reduced role in our diets, due to their high content of salt, saturated fat, nitrites/nitrates. Plus the fact they're a form of old-world pre-refrigeration 'processing' that we don't need to use anymore. Fresh, red meat from the butcher 3 or 4 times a week isn’t going to kill you. What’s more it will provide you with many vital nutrients including iron, zinc and essential amino acids from its quality protein.

Why all the panic?

The panic resulted from the fact that red meat was classified as being in Group 2A. This means that it is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. In the Q&A released by IARC, they stated that “In the case of red meat, the classification is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence.

Same Group, Different Danger Level

Processed meat was classified in Group 1, meaning it is regarded as carcinogenic to humans. Group 1 also contains highly dangerous materials like tobacco and asbestos. Hence the panic. What was not reported well is that while they are in the same group they do not pose the same danger. Tobacco and Asbestos are several orders of magnitude more dangerous than processed meat.

According to IARC’s Q&A “about 34 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat”. Not insignificant but not as catastrophic as either Tobacco (6 million deaths) or Asbestos (107,000 deaths).

Selective reporting

The newspapers went into a frenzy over this report. But did you know that alcohol – which is also a Group 1 carcinogen - is responsible for 3.9 million deaths each year and is responsible for 5.9 per cent of overall deaths worldwide? Somehow those figures never made it to the headlines. While not all of these deaths were related to cancer.

An IARC report concluded that “There is sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption causes cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus, colorectum, liver (hepatocellular carcinoma) and female breast. Also, an association has been observed between alcohol consumption and cancer of the pancreas.

What should you do?

  • Reduce your red meat intake to 3 or 4 meals per week to total 650g raw weight a week. That translates to 3 larger serves (3 x 200g raw) a week such as when you eat a roast or steak or chops. Or you may prefer 2 larger (2 x 200g raw) plus 2 smaller (2 x 100g raw) such as a steak sandwich or stir-fry.
  • Include lots of vegetables and salads in your diet which are full of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals which help keep you healthy. Reduce the amount of processed meats you and your kids consume to the odd ham sandwich and bacon with egg for a weekend breakfast.

If you want to know more, you can read the Q&A put out by IARC here. Or the release here.

 If you'd like to read the original paper, see The Lancet Oncology paper in Oct 2015.

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.