01 November 2015

World Health Organisation processed meat and red meat cancer link: Key points

The World Health Organization made major news last week by publishing a summary of findings from a study linking cancerous carcinogens to processed meat and read meat consumption. While this significant, and generally reliable report has sparked much debate, there is always a level of concern when mainstream media outlets decide to run on issues so close to people's personal lives and their health and well-being. It's so easy to prey on people's fears and therefore push extreme conclusions. Best case scenario, nutrition, cancer and overall health, are so complex that it's far too easy to form rash opinions based on limited understanding of complicated issues. Worst case scenario, a fear-mongering “Beef is linked to smoking and will give you cancer” is a surefire way to get your publication some traffic, especially if it can (partially and superficially) make reference to something like  the World Health Organization.

Regardless of how it's being presented, health enthusiasts from all angles are chiming in (as am I of course). Is this the strongest reason yet to move toward veganism, or another product of the wheat farming propaganda machine? What does this mean for paleo people, surely red meat has always existed as a staple part of our ancestral diet and responsible for much of our evolution over millions of years.

As usual, the truth sits somewhere between all of these extremes. There's a lot of value to be found in this study, and it definitely should influence your decisions and habits if you've never put meat consumption into consideration before. That being said, it's equally important to approach this news with care and and a clear mind. Here are the main takeaways from the WHO study on processed and red meat.

One - The idea that processed meat is bad for your should be nothing new.

Hot dogs and frozen packs of bacon should never be thought of as healthy. Heavily packaged and processed food, meat included is loaded with chemicals chemicals and prepared in a way to make food as cheap as possible. In doing so meat is transformed into indestructible compounds that are impervious to all nutrients and natural systems such as normal metabolic digestion. Food that comes frozen, in weird shapes, canned, and almost never goes bad will increase your risks of cancer, Alzheimer's and dementia (for the oldies) autism (for the youngins), obesity, diabetes, and pretty much every other ailment or illness there is.

Two - Percentages of risk are trickier than they seem.

The WHO organises degree of risk into 3 categories according to the strength of evidence as opposed to the level of risk. There’s Group 1 which includes compounds confirmed to increase risk by at least 2% beyond any possible doubt. Processed meat, like tobacco and asbestos, is classed as Group 1, easily leading people to believe that this means that the WHO is stating unequivocally that the three pose the same risk of leading to cancer. In truth, the evidence linking processed meat to cancer is equally as strong as that of tobacco and asbestos, but the WHO indicates outright that this does not say anything about the assessed level of respective risk. Here is the clip from the actual Q&A:

As far as the actual level of risk, the full paper states that each additionally consumed 100g of red meat, which was not classed in Group 1 meaning that evidence is probable but not definitive, was associated with a 17% increase in colorectal cancer risk. 17% sounds emphatic, but it’s important to understand that risk percentages are mathematically relative. In other words, “17% increase relative to what?” is a question that must be asked.

According to US National Library of Medicine, the average lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is 1.8%. This is the base figure of this type of cancer. For those with one relative with colorectal cancer, the risk almost doubles to 3.4% which mathematically is an increase of 88%. So yes, there is validity in a 17% increase factor, but given the original likelihood is so small that it comes nowhere near the leading causes of death, its significance in health policy and decision making is minimal.

Three - The WHO is not recommending cutting red meat from your diet.

A day or so after news hit the wire, many media outlets wrote the story as if the WHO was claiming on-balance that processed meat and red meat were cancerous and especially, as cancerous as tobacco. While few had issue with processed meat being the target, the perceived condemnation of red meat gained extra attention. In response to this, the WHO published a Q&A to provide greater clarity around red meat, risk grouping and various other complexities had with their initial summary. The point was made that the WHO is not advising against red meat, but instead pointing to a small level of risk which should be taken seriously, but not in a vacuum.

At the end of the day, it must be known that any one study rarely trumps all others, so rather than take this study as an absolute, approach it with care and work the information that works for you in with what you already know. The Q&A also indicates that there is little evidence supporting vegetarianism as the optimal plan for nutrition as the consumption of red meat and fish and poultry come with complex sets of positive and negative risk factors. There are many evidence-based benefits of red meat consumption, so reducing  intake drastically is not the automatic answer. 

If you are concerned, perhaps because there are additional risk factors per your personal situation (i.e., family connection), remember that cutting out red meat is not what’s being suggested. The WHO supports that risk increases are mostly associated with harsher cooking methods where meat is in contact with direct heat such as barbecuing or pan frying. These harsher methods, as well as the affinity to well-done and burnt meat is what creates the carcinogens in question. A move toward gentler methods such as slow-cooking, steaming or braising avoids these harmful processes. Also, learn to love rare, local and butcher prepared cuts. Aside from being healthier, they taste better too.

How do you feel about the WHO report? Are you concerned about your meat consumption and planning to make changes? I’d love to hear your story, you can find me on Google+ and Twitter