Unless you’ve been living outside of civilization, you would have seen and/or heard the World Health Organizations (WHO) claim that red and processed meats give you cancer.
Is there any truth to this claim? Somewhat. Can the claim be pigeon holed to make an absolute statement that eating processed meat and red meat gives you cancer? Absolutely not.
WHO defined red meat as being “all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat”. They defined processed food as being “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.
What causes cancer?
So first off, let’s look at what cancer is. Cancer is a genetic disease that starts in the cells. It is caused by changes to genes that control the way our cells function, especially how they grow and divide. Genetic changes that cause cancer can be inherited from our parents. They can also arise during a person’s lifetime as a result of errors that occur as cells divide, or because of damage to DNA caused by certain environmental exposures. Known cancer causing environmental exposures include tobacco smoke, radiation such as ultraviolet rays and now according to WHO & the media, red and processed meats. Now being genetically predisposed to something doesn’t mean your future is set in concrete – as mentioned above, environmental factors come in to play that can determine whether these predisposed genes activate or not and this is part of the claim from WHO. Now are they right? Well let’s discuss…
We’ve determined that environmental factors can affect the likelihood of cancer occurring. So how does red meat do this? Well, it doesn’t. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the consumption of red meat as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ and that being based on ‘limited evidence’. WHO has therefore stated, post claim, that there is limited evidence to prove red meat has an association with cancer. It also states that eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer. There is strong theoretical evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect, but it has not yet been proven. The media has taken a statement, taken it out of context and exaggerated it – which raises a point to be made of being very careful where you get your information from and what you believe as fact.
Learn the difference between processed meat and meat.
Well that’s a different story. Consumption of processed meats was classified as ‘carcinogenic to humans’ based on ‘sufficient evidence’. The majority of studies conducted on processed meats conclude that people who eat processed meats are more likely to get cancer, but cannot prove that the processed meat caused it. So as outlined above, for meat to be considered processed it must go through a process to enhance it’s flavour or to improve preservation. These processes more often than not include the addition of N-nitroso compounds such as sodium nitrate. N-nitroso compounds are present in foods treated with sodium nitrate, and have been shown to be the most broadly acting and the most potent group of carcinogenic. So it’s not the meat in the processed meats that is the issue, it’s the processed in the processed meats that’s the issue.
So what should you eat to lower your risk of cancer?
Another factor that has been shown to be linked to colorectal cancer is low fibre intake. It’s a fair statement to make that most people who eat an excess amount of processed meats don’t eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables to get an adequate amount of fibre in their diet. Without enough fibre, you don’t make good gut bacteria and you don’t have good stomach ecology. So limiting your processed meat intake, increasing your vegetable and plant based food intake together with consuming high quality, grass fed red meat will play a big role in improving your health and down regulating your risk of getting diseases such as cancer. And as with everything, it comes back to balance. An excess of anything, no matter how good it may be, is never a good thing, so keep a variety of good quality red and white meats in your diet together with a big variety of plant based foods and you’ll be doing yourself a huge favour. Also remember to be careful where you obtain your knowledge from, the media has a job to create hype and get people talking, and they don’t often let the truth get in the way of a good story!