The news broke yesterday, and as expected, there was a great deal of hooplah from all sides: Red and Processed meats might cause cancer, according to experts at the International Agency of Research for Cancer (IARC). Collectively, the animal agriculture industry groaned: this could turn people away from our product. What can we do to make sure that the general population understands IARC’s ruling, and doesn’t head for the hills and proceed to eat kale for the rest of their lives?
First, lets look at the actual ruling itself. You can access the actual release from IARC here. Altogether, it sounds pretty dire if you don’t know what you’re looking at (I’m no medical doctor, so I have no idea what all this means). However, the important takeaways are that red meats (red meat is classified as beef, pork, wild game and bison, fresh, without added preservatives) are classified in Group 2A, and that processed meats (this is a huge group: from sausages and hot dogs to spam, ham and head cheese, anything which has anything at all added to it) are classified as Group 1. That doesn’t sound so terrible? Right? Right, but what do those groupings actually mean? I think this video below does a pretty succinct job of explaining thousands of pages of statistical reports in a little over 4 minutes. Watch it, and we will continue the discussion below:
So, no we know that even with a group 1 classification, its only more likely that high consumption of processed meats will cause colorectal cancer IF an individual eats AT LEAST 50 grams of processed meats per day. Additionally, we now understand that a Group 2A classification means that there is a chance that the consumption of (or exposure to) these substances causes cancer. But ultimately there is not enough conclusive evidence to support a Group 1 classification. I hope you’re still with me, because the next part is the most important.
THERE IS INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE FOR THESE CLAIMS, BASED ON THE RESEARCH THE IARC USED.
Unfortunately, most dietary studies for people include a method called self-reporting. Self reporting is used in survey format, and usually is phrased something like:
“In a given week, how many times have you consumed processed meats over the past year?”
- Less than 3
- more than 5
As you can see, these are far from highly accurate, and as such they create a lot of variation on the results of the study. Therefore, there is a good chance that the numbers the IARC used to reach their conclusions were wrong, or at the very least inaccurate. As a result of knowing this, what should your reaction, as a consumer, be to their announcement?
DO EVERYTHING IN MODERATION.
Running is good for you, but too much running can stress your knees and cause injury. Similarly, meat is good for you: it contains essential amino acids necessary to build and maintain muscle mass as well as key vitamins and minerals, some of which are unavailable in plant-based proteins. Make sense? I hope so. Please do continue to enjoy a hot dog every now and again, or a ham sandwich, or a nice, juicy steak. Just don’t do it three times a day, every day, and twice on Sundays.
Finally, I would encourage you to always do your own research. Remember that nothing stated by the media can be taken at face value, and that even organizations as large and powerful as the WHO and IARC are subject to the limitations of the data available to them. This is a highly contentious issue and there will be a lot of bantering from WHO, IARC, governments lobbyists and the general public. Through it all, it is important to remember that you’re still more likely to die of being hit by a bus than by bacon, and everyone has to die of something.