To eat or not to eat: Processed meat


Image: David Blackwell

If you missed last week’s media uproar following the World Health Organisation’s announcement that processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans”, then lucky you. Not only will you have missed the unanimous vegetarian chorus of ‘I told you so’ on Twitter, but you will also have enjoyed that breakfast bacon in peace without the nagging feeling that it could well kill you. Alas, the British love-affair with meat is over, or so some people would like you to believe. Before you throw out that freezer bag of sausages, let’s clarify exactly what the WHO’s warning entails.
Firstly, the recent misconception is that eating red meat is as big a cancer risk as smoking. The Global Burden of Disease Project estimated that 34,000 cancer deaths worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat, whereas around 1 million are attributable to smoking.
Clearly, then, while processed meat has been placed in Group 1, ‘carcinogenic to humans’, alongside tobacco and asbestos, this doesn’t mean that it yields an equal risk of causing cancer. Instead, it indicates the strength of evidence supporting processed meat as a cause of cancer. Another warning is in regards to the difference between non-processed and processed meat. Processed meats include pork, beef, poultry and offal which have been transformed to improve preservation. Whereas there is sufficient evidence that processed meats are carcinogenic, evidence for the carcinogenicity of red meat is limited. This should however by no means be taken as an excuse to eat steak over sausages though, as health organisations have warned against eating too much red meat due to its high fat and salt content compared to other protein sources.

So how does WHO suppose we should respond to this news? Given that experts conclude each 50g serving of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent, eliminating processed and red meat from the diet may initially seem sensible. It is, however, important to remember that red meat is a good source of iron, Vitamin B and Vitamin D, and that deficiencies in these can be severe. Until a recommendation has been issued, the general consensus is that meat intake should be limited and consumed in moderation, which has been the agreed advice  for many years.

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