World Health Organization reports cancer risk in meats


Baby got bacon.

Bacon burgers, bacon cheese fries, bacon covered in chocolate—all contribute to the 93 billion pounds of meat and poultry produced in 2012, reported the North American Meat Institute (NAMI).

Americans devour these meats at a rate of 270.7 pounds per person in 2007, NPR said, a full 100 pounds more than the world average of 102.5 pounds.

But on October 26 of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a stern warning: meat consumption can increase consumers’ risk of getting cancer.


Illustration by Visual Editor Madison Krell

Its International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) investigates suspected carcinogens, or substances that cause cancer, and categorizes them in one of five groups. These include: Group 1, carcinogenic to humans, Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans, Group 2B, possibly carcinogenic to humans, Group 3, not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans, or Group 4, probably not carcinogenic to humans.       

IARC shocked Americans with its classification of processed meat as Group 1 and red meat as Group 2.

Processed meat encompasses any that is smoked, cured, salted, fermented or otherwise preserved or enhanced, WHO said. Red meat refers to beef, veal, pork, horse, goat, etc.

Junior Matt Deskins said bacon and steak are his favorite meats and that he eats them daily, and new research is not enough to make him change his diet.

“Meat is not going to give me cancer,” Deskins said. “If it gives me cancer, I was going to get cancer regardless, no matter where it came from.You can’t live your life in fear. I’m not going to be afraid of ‘Oh, I’m going to get cancer if I eat meat.’”

Like processed meat, smoking tobacco is also a Group 1 carcinogen, and in the ensuing panic, “Bacon dangerous as cigarettes” and “Hot Dogs Will Kill You” headlines ran rampant.

WHO said this classification does not equate the dangers of smoking and bacon but that it determines classification based on “the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.”

The current report holds, however, that daily portions of 50 grams of processed meat increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Registered dietician and Health Coach at TriHealth Diane Dew said it is important to remember that while WHO conducts such research, it does not advise consumers how to modify their diets.

“The organization that generated the report is a ‘research organization that evaluates the evidence on the causes of cancer but does not make health recommendations as such,’” Dew said. “The actual implementation and recommendations for eating practices are left up to organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.”

Dew said the “everything in moderation” ideal continues to apply in this instance, even as slight modifications may improve an American diet.

“Often there is room for improvement in anyone’s diet but going ‘cold turkey’ can be difficult in giving up entire foods or food groups,” Dew said. “Therefore, if someone is consuming processed meats they should aim to decrease their intake. If someone has processed meats perhaps one time per month, they too should consider what the health implications are for themselves, but would this fit the ‘moderation’ rule.”

NAMI said the media had an alarmist reaction to this data and that meat is a long-standing part of modern diets. In a press release, the institute’s president and CEO Barry Carpenter said both sides to meat consumption should be considered before it is declared dangerous.

“Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health,” Carpenter said.

A balanced diet can be flexible, Dew said, depending on how an individual chooses to meet his or her need for protein.

“Protein is made of 20 building blocks and these building blocks are essential to life,” Dew said. “We refer to the building blocks as amino acids. What isn’t essential to life is getting these building blocks from meat. When protein comes from meat, it is considered complete and has all 20 building blocks. When protein comes from plant sources, typically two separate plant sources must be consumed together to offer the complete 20 building blocks. Examples of this include peanut butter and jelly on bread or red beans and rice.”

Dew said she recommends that readers of this report look at their own diets and ask themselves whether or not they are getting the nutrition they need. Moderation may be achieved through Meatless Mondays or consumption of plant-based proteins, but not all meat needs to be abandoned.

“The bottom line (is that) if someone is enjoying bacon as an occasional item this would constitute moderate,” Dew said.


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