As you may have already heard, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) today released its summary evaluation on red meat and processed meat in The Lancet Oncology (link), stating:
Processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” Red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans, based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.”
I think it’s important to understand the research on this topic and how to translate these findings into your individual diet.
Point one – very few individual components of the diet (e.g. red meat) actually cause cancer. Poor diet patterns are what increase the risk of any chronic disease. If you’re eating a hot dog or cheeseburger for lunch every day, then the risk of obesity and many related chronic conditions such as cancer is likely high. On the other hand, consuming a serving of lean red meat once or twice a week is likely to be harmless to health. It’s all about moderation.
Point two – there is no widely accepted definition of “processed.” Most of you probably do not slaughter your own cows; therefore any type of meat you consume is “processed.” Be glad your meat is processed. Food borne illness and death from meat products is very common in underdeveloped nations. Since there is no formal definition of “processed” recognized in the U.S., this caveat alone creates a hindrance to giving broad dietary guidance. Consumers should pay close attention to the amount of saturated fat and total calories in the meats they are consuming (i.e. choose lean meats whether its chicken or beef). Eating a foot long corndog at the county fair isn’t the same as a small grilled sirloin steak. The two shouldn’t be grouped together.
In regard to the scientific studies on red and processed meat and cancer, the data are relatively weak and are borderline no effect. The majority of studies published to date are not statistically significant. I’m always timid when it comes to making broad public health recommendations before showing a clear “dose-response” pattern. For example, if eating one or two servings per week causes cancer… then common sense says that eating 4-5 servings should put you at an even greater risk. Studies on red meat and processed meat fail to consistently show this type of a relationship.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a legal definition for lean meat. A piece of meat that’s 100 grams, for example, can have no more than 10 grams of fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol to be called “lean.” This definition applies to all meat and poultry products.
Be a savvy consumer. Focus on your whole diet quality. Remember meats provide many essential nutrients such as protein, vitamin B12 and zinc to the diet.