So here we go again. The headlines yesterday were all a buzz with “World Health Organization Links Processed Meat to Cancer” and “Processed Meat as Bad for You as Smoking.” Is it true? What are we supposed to eat if it is?
And, as importantly, what the heck do bananas and cars have to do with ANY of this?!
The announcement, from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – a group of international experts who scrutinized more than 800 studies — is significant. And their work was published in the Lancet Oncology, a highly respected, peer-reviewed journal.
But what does this report mean in practice? How much meat is it sensible to eat? And how many cases of cancer are linked to meat consumption?
Here’s a quick 2-minute CBS News recap though that puts some of it in perspective right away.
So What’s the Hubub?
According to Cancer Research UK
What are red meat and processed meats?
‘Red’ meat is (as you might expect), any meat that’s a dark red colour before it’s cooked – this obviously means meats like beef and lamb, but also includes pork.
‘Processed’ meat is meat that’s not sold fresh, but instead has been cured, salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in some way (so things like bacon, sausages, hot dogs, ham, salami, and pepperoni). But this doesn’t include fresh burgers or mince.
Both of these types of meat are distinct from ‘white’ meats, like fresh chicken or turkey, and fish (neither of which appear to increase your risk of cancer).
Banana Skins and Cars – Huh?
“IARC does ‘hazard identification’, not ‘risk assessment’.
“That sounds quite technical, but what it means is that IARC isn’t in the business of telling us how potent something is in causing cancer – only whether it does so or not”, he says.
To take an analogy, think of banana skins. They definitely can cause accidents, explains Phillips, but in practice this doesn’t happen very often (unless you work in a banana factory). And the sort of harm you can come to from slipping on a banana skin isn’t generally as severe as, say, being in a car accident.
But under a hazard identification system like IARC’s, ‘banana skins’ and ‘cars’ would come under the same category – they both definitely do cause accidents.
What’s the Bottom Line?
Processed meat IS a garbage food-like-substance (not food) but let’s get real putting it in the same category as smoking. It’s not even close. (See the infographics below) And don’t even think about lumping red meat in the same category as processed meats.
The take-home point, in my opinion, is this: Processed ANYTHING is more likely to cause cancer if you’re consuming it regularly. Eat real food. And if you’re eating processed whatever most days of the week? Stop it. Eat that crap infrequently and then the research will have no clue what to say about you.
For further reading on this subject:
World Health Organization: Meat and Cancer
Bacon – Good, Bad or Ugly?
478 Other Foods That May Cause Cancer
Is Everything We Eat Associated with Cancer?