Are bacon, sausage, and other processed meats as bad for your health as cigarettes? A new World Health Organization report is suggesting just that. However, the details tell a less doom-and-gloom story.
As soon as the verdict against processed meat was released, the meat industry came forward to criticize the WHO with snarky jibes and contradictory evidence. And some scientists and nutritionists are speaking out against the severity of WHO’s declaration: that processed meats cause cancer.
However, it should be noted that some of those scientists work for the meat industry.
First, to the WHO‘s conclusion, according to NBC News: 50 grams of processed meat each raises the risk of colon cancer by 18 percent — that’s about three slices of bacon. And 100 grams of red meat a day (2/3 a pork chop or a quarter pound of steak) raises the risk of colon cancer 17 percent.
This declaration was made by a panel of 22 international experts, who looked at decades-worth of research. According to the Washington Post, the experts — whose strong statement about processed meats was not unanimous — considered epidemiological data and “strong mechanistic evidence” to officially list processed meats as a cause of cancer, including animal experiments, studies of human diet and health, and cell mechanisms.
However, the method by which WHO reached its conclusion is being called into question, simply because it’s very difficult to link food to cancer. Doing so requires scientists to control people’s diets over many years (in this case, they’d have to compare people eating lots of meat and those who eat less or none), which is financially and logistically difficult. Such experiments aren’t usually done.
Thus, scientists — and this WHO panel — relied on epidemiological studies, which look at patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions. In other words, observational studies. Some scientists have criticized such studies as leading to “false positives.”
However, one scientist — a professor at the Tisch Cancer Institute — Paolo Boffetta, said while the experimental data is “not terribly strong” in the direct link between cancer and processed foods, the “epidemiological evidence is very strong.”
Never before has a health organization made such an extreme and direct connection between processed meats and cancer, a link that has been suspected for a long time as increasing risk. While the American Cancer Society has established the link, and that veggies, fruits, and less red and processed meats lowers risk, their warnings have been tentative. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans have also been cautious, pointing to “moderate evidence” that associates eating lots of processed meats with a risk of colorectal cancer and heart disease.
But this time, WHO has definitely stated that processed meat causes cancer and red meat probably does, placing cured and processed meats alongside asbestos, alcohol, arsenic, and tobacco as a carcinogen, according to the Guardian. However, the panel did state that their conclusion doesn’t imply that processed meat is just as dangerous as cigarettes.
The meat industry pulled out its scientists to refute the direct link between processed meats and cancer. Unsurprisingly, they said there is no causal link and that not eating processed or red meat will not protect people from cancer.
On the less biased side of the argument, Jonathan Schoenfeld, the co-author of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, said “It might be a good idea not to be an excessive consumer of meat,” but noted the effect on cancer risk is minimal. Dr. Ian Johnson at the Institute of Food Research said much the same, claiming that “It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke.”
And two experiments that tested diets and processed meat consumption concluded that people who ate less of the food didn’t lower their cancer risk. The reductions may have been too low, however.
So does this mean you should become a vegetarian? Not quite yet.
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