Carcinogens: They’re What’s for Dinner
If you’re trying to decide between eating bacon or steak for dinner, the World Health Organization has some new findings that could help guide your choice. Crispy strips of cured, smoked pork belly, according to WHO, cause cancer. And a rib eye? Well, it might cause cancer too.
The much anticipated announcement from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer is detailed in an article published in the medical journal The Lancet. The authors examined more than 800 studies conducted largely over the last 20 years. The working group’s verdict is that processed meats are carcinogenic, and that red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Processed meats—such as bacon and other meats that have been cured, smoked, or fermented—join tobacco and asbestos on the list of top cancer-causing agents. “But this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous,” WHO officials wrote in a Q&A published along with the findings. “The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.”
While smoked meat is relatively safer than smoking cigarettes, the WHO report says that eating 50 grams a day of processed meat—that’s about two strips of bacon—causes the risk of colorectal cancer to go up by 18 percent. Increased rates of pancreatic and prostate cancer are also associated with processed and red meat consumption, and overall, 34,000 deaths a year are attributed to excessive amounts of processed meat.
“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme, said in a press release. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”
The report’s policy conclusion is not abstinence, but rather limiting consumption—a prescription that many governments, including that of the United States, have already adopted. After all, red meat such as beef contains high levels of iron, B vitamins, and other nutrients.
But between global rising meat consumption and the political and financial clout of the meat industry, the conversation swirling around the contentious announcement is not one about moderation and realigning global diets for the good of the environment and public health. Rather, it is being presented as a zero-sum game.
“Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health,” said Barry Carpenter, president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute, the largest trade organization for the industry, in an amazingly snarky press release.
Carpenter continued by referencing a litany of potential-cancer-causing agents, citing the class each is in. “IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don’t breathe air (Class I carcinogen), sit near a sun-filled window (Class I), drink wine or coffee (Class I and Class 2B), eat grilled food (Class 2A), or apply aloe vera (Class 2B),” the release reads. “And if you are a hairdresser or do shiftwork (both Class 2A), you should seek a new career.”
The IARC recommendation is based on a review of previous research—research that, in its own right, created quite a few media firestorms and industry battles. But with the cumulative weight the two decades’ worth of papers have together, and with the reputation of WHO behind the cancer-causing claims, snark is unlikely to carry the argument here.