Processed Meat: Will it Give You Cancer?
Will Processed Meat Give You Cancer?
Only if your lifestyle includes risky behaviors.
Last month, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, ruled that processed meat causes colorectal cancer and red meat (e.g. beef, pork, lamb, and goat) probably does.
The term “processed meat” refers to meats preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives.
Ham, bacon, corned beef, pastrami, bologna, sausages, hot dogs, bratwursts, frankfurters and beef jerky are processed meats. So are turkey (and chicken) sausages, smoked turkey and turkey bacon. However, most studies have looked only at processed red meats.
If you examine the evidence based on all the random studies that the IARC looked into, you will find that they have simplified their conclusions into cause and effect without taking into consideration the lifestyles of the people who regularly eat processed meat and those that do not.
By no means am I a staunch defender of red meat. It has a greater impact on the environment than any other food in our diet. An estimated 20 per cent of all greenhouse gases are attributable to raising animals for food. A vast majority of the meat we consume comes from factory farms where animals are fattened with hormones and antibiotics and routinely subjected to inhumane conditions that breed disease. They are many compelling reasons to cut back on meat consumption and although I eat a very balanced diet, I rarely eat red meat.
What the researchers have ignored in their studies is the fact that people who eat a lot of processed meat are usually the people who do not eat a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables, rarely exercise and lead a sedentary life style. People, who live a healthy lifestyle with a good diet, exercise and plenty of other physical activity rarely eat processed or red meats. This means that if a person from the healthy category has a hot dog at the ball game, it will have no effect on their overall health.
The main problem with the public health message put out by the W.H.O. is that they did a very poor job of explaining what its risk-ranking system really means. By most accounts it’s arcane and even confuses some scientists. That’s because it’s based only on the strength of the overall (usually flawed) research and not on the actual danger of the specific product.
A result is that the agency has created a hodgepodge of probable and possible carcinogens that borders on the ridiculous; pickled vegetables, coffee, cellphones, frying, working as a hairdresser with hair dye and now red meat. As for bacon? The agency listed it along cigarettes, asbestos, plutonium and salted fish. Of all the more than 900 potential carcinogens the W.H.O. has evaluated since 1971, they have only found one product that was not carcinogenic, a chemical found in drinking water supplies. Even the skin of an apple is carcinogenic in order to protect it from insects in the environment. This does not mean that apples cause cancer.
Even the most strident anti-meat crusader knows that eating bacon is not as risky as smoking or asbestos exposure. Smoking raises a person’s lifetime risk of developing lung cancer by a staggering 2,500 per cent. Meanwhile two daily strips of bacon, based on the associations identified by W.H.O. would translate to about a 6 per cent lifetime risk for colon cancer, up from a 5 per cent risk for people who do not eat bacon or other processed meats.
But that’s not the message that came across. Every newspaper and evening news report has us convinced that eating processed meats was a surety for getting colon cancer. Headlines such as “Bacon Hot Dogs as Bad as Cigarettes” or “Processed Meats Rank alongside Smoking as Cancer Causes”
We do know that eating a lot of processed meat or red meat is associated with higher cancer risk and this is confirmed in the more than 800 studies documenting the association. But once again, people who eat lots of bacon are likely to be people who engage in other risky behaviours (like a smoking and sedentary lifestyle) that lead to cancer; and the non-meat eaters are the ones eating fruits and vegetables, taking supplements and working out at the gym.
The problem with all of the so-called “scientific studies” is that the researchers never take in all the variables and inevitably come to the wrong conclusions. You may remember the studies from the eighties that indicated if women would take hormone replacement therapy, it would be heart protective, they would age more slowly and they would have fewer heart attacks. But when the U.S. government finally did a thorough study comparing replacement hormones to placebo, they found the opposite result. Not only could hormone replacement cause more heart attacks but as it turned out, they could also lead to breast cancer.
There are thousands of studies that show if you lower your cholesterol levels, you will reduce your chances of having a heart attack or a stroke. But the fact is that ever since these drugs came out in 1990, with half the population over 50 using them, the incidence of death from heart attack and stroke since 1990 is almost exactly the same. Billions of dollars for drugs that do nothing.
My favourite “scientific” study is from Germany titled “New Evidence for the Theory of the Stork” In this study, the researchers showed that as the stork population increased in the suburbs of Berlin, so did the baby population. A tongue-in-cheek study to show that babies come from storks. Almost any study can be manipulated mathematically to produce the conclusion you are looking for.
John Ioannidis, the chairman of disease prevention at Stanford University, published a paper in 2012 titled “Is Everything We Eat Associated with Cancer?”
They found over 500 foods associated with cancer, among them eggs, coffee and even carrots and tomatoes. And of course if you ate a diet that consisted of nothing but eggs, coffee, tomatoes and carrots you probably would get sick because it is so unbalanced you are not getting the nutrients you need for your daily existence. That is why a balanced diet that includes all the so-called carcinogenic foods will not give you cancer. Excesses give you cancer not moderation.
If you really want to protect yourself from colorectal cancer, besides eating healthy and living a healthy life style, you must undertake screening. It is estimated that if the number of adults who underwent screening went up by 80 per cent, then 30,000 cases of colorectal cancer and 20,000 deaths from the disease could be averted. These statistics are from Stacey Fedewa, the director of screening and risk factor surveillance for the Canadian Cancer Society.
I get tested every five years; so should you.
How to eat meat without risk
Vary your protein.
If you eat red meat three times a week, choose poultry and fish more often. Replace ground beef with ground chicken or turkey, in burger, chili and pasta sauce recipes. Buy the organic. It’s almost the same price and much more juicey and tender. Eat 4 meatless meals a week, such as lentil soup, bean salad, chickpea curry, black bean tacos, tofu stir-fry and vegetarian chili.
When you do eat red meat, limit your serving to three ounces, about the size of the palm of your hand. No more than one-quarter of your plate should be filled with meat.
Use smaller amounts of meat in stir-fries and pasta sauces. Substitute half the meat in chili and stews with extra beans or other vegetables. Serve thin slices of steak rather than a whole piece.
Choose lean cuts.
To cut saturated fat, select lean cuts such as sirloin, flank steak, eye of the round beef tenderloin, and extra lean ground beef, pork tenderloin, centre cut pork chops and lamb tenderloin.
Cook meat differently.
High-heat cooking methods such as barbequeing, grilling and pan-frying produce heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that have been linked to cancer in animals. Indirect heat such as stewing, poaching and steaming will greatly reduce the production of these chemicals.
When grilling, flip meat often to reduce the formation of chemicals. Marinating meat before cooking also prevents the formation of carcinogens.
Ditch the deli.
Replace deli meats in sandwiches and salads with tuna, salmon, egg or cooked fresh chicken or turkey. On the weekend cook extra chicken breasts or a whole turkey breast for quick weekday lunches.
Deli meats made with cultured celery extract, a “natural” preservative are not any healthier than those made with nitrate preservatives, compounds that have been implicated as cancer causing agents. Cultured celery extract is still a source of nitrates.
Maybe once a year I go to a really good Jewish delicatessen and have a pastrami sandwich on rye bread. But that one sandwich a year won’t kill me. The rest of the year I eat a very balanced diet that includes a variety of fruit, vegetables and whole grains. This lowers or even eliminates the risk of most chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. I drink one glass of wine a day with dinner, maintain a healthy weight, take an assortment of health supplements and exercise daily. Staying healthy requires many things, not just eating less meat.