The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has announced a monograph evaluating the alleged link between red and processed meat consumption and cancer. According to an October 26, 2015, press release, 22 experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 epidemiological studies about this association, with the greatest weight given to “prospective cohort studies done in the general population.”
Published in The Lancet Oncology with a detailed assessment to follow in volume 114 of the IARC Monographs, the initial summary concludes that red meat—which includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat—is “probably carcinogenic to humans” “based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.” In addition, the meta-analysis purportedly found that meats “transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes” are “carcinogenic to humans” “based on sufficient evidence that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” The working group also estimated that “each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”
Meanwhile, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) issued an October 26 news release describing the IARC report as “alarmist.” As NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter explained, “Red and processed meat are among 940 agents reviewed by IARC and found to pose some level of theoretical ‘hazard.’ Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by IARC not to cause cancer…IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don’t breathe air (Class I carcinogen), sit near a sun-filled window (Class I), apply aloe vera (Class 2B) if you get a sunburn, drink wine or coffee (Class I and Class 2B), or eat grilled food (Class 2A).”
In the wake of extensive media coverage that prompted a #Bacongeddon social media campaign, WHO also released a statement clarifying that people do not need to stop eating red and processed meats but should reduce their intakes. “The health risks of processed meat are vastly different of those of cigarettes & asbestos. Cigarettes & asbestos has [sic] no safe level of exposure,” the agency tweeted. “Meat provides a number of essential nutrients and, when consumed in moderation, has a place in a healthy diet.”
In addition, the BBC published a special report dissecting several food studies that have caused undue alarm due to sensationalist reporting. The article focuses on scientific claims that allegedly associate bacon and “diet” soft drinks with cancer; wheat with Alzheimer’s disease; butter, cheese, coffee, eggs and full-fat milk with heart disease; and pasteurized milk with immune disorders. “[W]hen the media (and ill-informed health gurus) exaggerate the results of a study without providing the context, it can lead to unnecessary fears that may, ironically, push you towards less healthy foods choices,” opines the article about the recent IARC kerfuffle. “In a nutshell? The odd English breakfast may not do you as much good as a bowl of granola—but nor is it gastronomic asbestos.” See BBC, October 30, 2015.