By now you have likely seen the media headlines stating, ” WHO declares red meat causes cancer,” or something similar. This leads to plenty of questions about what we should be eating, especially at TV media outlets like to cause more drama than is typically warranted. So what does this latest information really mean?
I had several questions when I first read the news. Among them: What kind of meat are they referring to? Is there a differentiation between CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation)- raised beef and grass-fed beef? What do they mean by “processed meat” ? I looked up the initial WHO press release to see if these issues were addressed.
First the press release:
Red meat After thoroughly reviewing the accumulated scientific literature, a Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC Monographs Programme classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.
Processed meat Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.
Putting aside the fact that this was based on the study of colorectal cancer only, let’s start with the WHO’s definition of red meat: ” Red meat refers to all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.”
You will notice that no mention is made of how the animals were raised. It is difficult to determine an accurate risk assessment without this important piece of information. The vast majority of conventionally raised beef comes from a CAFO. They are usually given antibiotics and growth hormones. They are also fed a predominately grain diet (the typically includes GMO corn and soy). By contrast, grass-fed animals are fed grass (obvious right?). The meat from these animals contains many nutrients not found in conventional beef, such as omega-3, CLA and vitamin K2.
The same can be said of the other animals that the WHO referred to. Pasture-raised animals are a much healthier option than those conventionally raised. I would love to see the WHO repeat their studies with an eye to comparing CAFO and grass-fed/pastured meat.
On to processed meat.
The WHO defines it as ” meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood. Examples of processed meat include hot dogs (frankfurters), ham, sausages, corned beef, and biltong or beef jerky as well as canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces.”
Once again there is no clear delineation between meat cured by traditional methods and those found on most supermarket shelves. The labels of most packages of corned beef and hot dogs consist of mysterious ingredients such as nitrates, sugar (which has also been shown to cause cancer) and, “natural flavoring.” Nitrates may or may not be concerning. Read Chris Kresser’s article for more insight on that.
Overall, I think the media panic was overrated but that it is also a good idea to look at what you eat. This latest news frenzy, along with the hot dog report, are good reminders that we should pay attention to where are food comes from what is being added to it. Knowledge is your key to health.