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Berginski: New Meat Report Needs Context

By Staff | Oct 30, 2015

A recent report by the World Health Organization places processed meats in the same category of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) as smoking and asbestos. Some of you might be thinking, “WHAATT?? Please tell me this isn’t some sick Halloween prank, is it? No? It’s real?”

All right, calm down. Since the report’s release earlier this week, some alternative news websites upped the scare factor when they wrote headlines for their coverage on it. While these sites may have succeeded in getting hits, they failed to provide the right context.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the WHO’s cancer research arm, classified processed meats – meats that have been salted, cured and/or smoked to enhance or preserve flavor; like bacon, ham, beef jerky, hot dogs and sausage – as “carcinogenic” (cancer-causing) after a review of 800 international studies, and concluded that eating 50 grams per day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. In fact, the IARC put processed meats in the same category of carcinogens as tobacco, asbestos and certain pesticides.

Oh, and before you say “Well steak is better then, it’s natural.” The IARC says that red meats – beef, veal, venison and pork – are “probably carcinogenic to humans” too. You’re probably thinking, “Damn it, that’s all the good stuff!”

Here’s where things start getting shaky. One, the math. Eating 50 grams in one go (which would be like 2 strips of bacon) isn’t going to suddenly bump your colorectal cancer risk by 18 percent, you would have to eat that much (or more) everyday. In fact, the American Cancer Society estimates that the overall lifetime risk of someone developing colorectal cancer is 5 percent. An 18 percent increase bumps that up to 5.9 percent.

Another thing about that study: Red and processed meats are classified as such based on the strength of evidence, not the level of risk. The reason for a “probably carcinogenic” rating for red meat was that there was limited evidence of it being a cause, and strong evidence of it supporting a carcinogenic effect. The study did not mention what specifically about them causes cancer; it could be how the meats were cooked/treated, where and how the meats were raised prior to slaughter and processing, other environmental factors or even how the human body processes it.

At the same time, we know exposure to asbestos causes mesothelioma and other lung cancers. We also know that smoking can cause cancers of the lungs, throat, stomach, kidney, bladder, liver, pancreas, cervix, colon and rectum. To say that eating bacon is as bad as smoking cigarettes or being exposed to asbestos fibers in the air is like saying a horseshoe is similar to a hand grenade; while both are in the same categories [the latter being “when almost counts”], their levels of danger wildly differ.

The study also doesn’t take into account the habits of people eating said meats, you know, whether or not they smoke too much, drink too much or exercise enough. It also doesn’t mention whether or not the meat eaters consume enough fruits and vegetables.

In fact, the IARC said that red meats still have some nutritional value.

If you go to your doctor right now, and this is a real shot in the dark, odds are he or she will probably tell you that if you’re eating a lot of processed foods, or more red meat than you should be, you should cut back on the amount you eat everyday. Otherwise the report technically won’t stop people from eating bacon, ham, beef jerky or sausage, or even steaks, burgers and ribs. And us being responsible for our own bodies, it really shouldn’t either.

In the right hands and in the right context, the IARC’s report is useful. But the way it’s been presented is wrong.

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