Getting to the meat of the matter
The oversimplified food scare of the week is a report from the World Health Organization about the slight increased risk of colorectal cancer from eating certain types of meats. Original Report. The meats with the most credible science regarding risk are smoked and processed meats, but the report also took a tentative swipe at red meat, processed or not. Does meat cause colon cancer? Here are some details and perspectives to keep in mind while you decide what to do with the warning:
- Problems with the report. The recommendations were a bit vague and cautious because no study has proven the connection. Although a large number of studies were reviewed for the report, in the end it was based the opinion of experts who did not all agree. I am concerned about a common bias in studies. It is well known that folks who consume a lot of meats and especially processed meats do not eat as many vegetables and fiber as other folks. They also often have other bad habits like drinking and eating junk. Therefore, the broad averages in population studies dilute the health statistics of the folks who exercise, filter their water, avoid sugar, eat vegetables and whole grains, etc. but also eat some red meat and bacon.
- The study defines processed meat as…”meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by products such as blood.” Examples include bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausage, corned beef, beef jerky, canned meat and lunch meat like baloney.
- Exceptions. Those terms are kind of broad. For example just because the deli slices freshly roasted turkey thin for sandwiches doesn’t make that processed food. In my cupboard I have a package of organic beef jerky that has no chemicals. It is just dehydrated meat with added spices. Again, not processed food. Raw pork belly doesn’t fit the definition and it is sometimes used like bacon, but note that it is “red meat”, so keep reading. “Uncured bacon” seems to be in a gray area because it is not preserved with artificial nitrates, but instead uses nitrates that occur naturally in the likes of celery extract or sea salt. These distinctions were not allowed for in the studies.
- Quantity. “The experts concluded that each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.” A 50-gram portion is roughly a bit more than the weight of one hot dog and the biggest concern is with 10 servings a week of processed food. Although they said that the risk increases as more is eaten, researchers only cautioned consumers to moderate their intake, not to cut out the foods entirely. In my opinion, there are sufficient health concerns about the chemicals in some of these processed products that I would recommend avoiding frequent intake. That is a tough assignment in this era when you might even be offered a cupcake with bacon in it. A corny dog at the State Fair?…go for it. By the way, Applegate Corn Dogs are uncured beef, gluten free and have relatively clean ingredients.
- Stats. The highest rates of colon cancer worldwide are in Korea, Slovakia and Hungary. Happily the US didn’t rank in the top 20. The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer in the US is 5%. Those who eat a lot processed meat theoretically increase their risk to 5.9%. The report estimates that “34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat.” That number translates to 1 in every 206,000 people. By comparison, smoking kills 1 in 1,200.
- Red meat defined. The report includes “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.” In the opinion of the panel it is “probably” cancer-causing based on “limited evidence”. There have previously been hints that diets high in red meat may influence pancreatic and prostate cancer. (The study bias I mentioned in the first bullet also applies here and there are more confounders in the next item.)
- The red meat story. Red meat contains excellent protein and a lot of other nutrients. The studies never look at organic meat that does not contain hormone and antibiotic residues. Nor do they make sure the cows aren’t eating GMO grain. Commercial meat is higher in inflammatory omega-6 fats in contrast to grass fed meat which is higher in anti-inflammatory omega-3. Those factors would surely skew the results just as the poor conditions in big agribusiness feed lots foster food contamination and infection with Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV) which has been linked to breast cancer. Study
- There are some issues with even the best red meat. Perfectly good meat can develop carcinogenic compounds when charbroiled or cooked at very high heat. Red meat is red because of the iron it contains. Although iron is a blessing to younger folks, older men especially can store too much iron (high ferratin in the blood) and that creates trouble. Read this great article on the topic by Bill Sardi about helping with that and testosterone with simple fixes like donating blood.
My bottom line: Sugar is a worse risk for cancer (and every other disease) than is meat consumption. With fish we have to worry about mercury contamination and with chickens (except organic) it is hormones. It is very difficult for vegetarians to avoid deficiencies. So, what to eat? I say, eat a wide variety of foods because they all have their pluses and minuses. Buy the best quality protein sources you can afford and don’t ruin them with high heat. And, be sure to get plenty of vegetables even if you were brought up as a meat and potatoes person. Washing processed meats down with sodas makes matters worse, but coffee may actually improve your odds.