by Robert G. Yetman, Jr.
The World Health Organization has officially decided that processed meats, like hot dogs, bacon, and sausages, are a cause of colorectal cancer in humans, and that unprocessed red meat is likely a cause of the same disease. Not only were these the conclusions drawn by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, but the group also said that there was a link between eating red meat and the development of pancreatic and prostate cancer, as well.
What the WHO did this time around is serious. It’s one thing to decide there might be a causal relationship between a food or substance and the development of cancer, but it’s quite another to definitively state there is. Processed meat is now, in the evaluation of the WHO, every bit the cancer threat that tobacco, alcohol, and asbestos are. The IARC decided that processed meats are “carcinogenic to humans,” and has placed processed meats on the organization’s group one list. The group one list, which includes the above-referenced substances (tobacco, etc.), is the WHO’s “bottom line” about those things that it has decided are cancer-causing.
One of the questions invariably asked when information like this is published has to do with how much of the now-declared carcinogenic substance is harmful. Well, when a substance makes the group one list, it essentially means that even a modest ingestion of it can significantly raise a human’s risk of getting cancer. In the case of processed meats, the WHO’s illustrative risk-increase guideline says that each 50-gram (1.8 ounce) portion of processed meat, eaten each day, increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. A 50-gram portion is roughly equivalent to one hot dog or two slices of bacon, so if you’re eating a hot dog each day, or having a couple of slices of bacon each morning with breakfast, then the WHO says you’re increasing your risk of getting colon cancer by almost 20 percent.
As for unprocessed red meat, that made the WHO’s group 2A list of probable carcinogens, and joins substances like the active ingredient in weed killer.
I’ve never been a fan of the WHO’s agenda – I just see it as hyper-politically-motivated, but, that said, it doesn’t mean they can’t be right about bona fide health issues from time to time. I don’t know if this is one of those times or not, but I can tell you, from personal experience, when I greatly lowered my own exposure to red meat, and almost all processed meats, years ago, I began feeling better. I arrived at that point as a result of becoming deathly ill one weekend after having consumed a lot of red meat in one sitting. I always enjoyed red meats prior to that, and I was not shy about partaking of different processed meats, as a part of my diet. One weekend, I had a particularly bad experience after having ingested a great deal of red meat, and there was something about what happened that prompted my mind to considering ditching it altogether. I decided to do it. That was about seven years ago, and I can tell you that, overall, I have felt much better since making the change. I don’t have near the amount of upset stomachs that I recall having before dropping red meat, and I find that my digestion is much improved. I am no vegetarian (nothing wrong with that; it’s just not for me, at least right now), and I’m not even saying that I never eat red meat or processed meats now…but I mostly stay clear of them, and the amounts I do eat, relative to my overall diet, are inconsequential.
In the end, it’s all about moderation, isn’t it? That said, I just tend to believe the noise about processed meats, which contain N-nitroso compounds, which have been shown to damage cells in your gut. Processed and red meats contain in higher quantities the chemicals that create N-nitrosos. Everyone will have to do decide for themselves what the WHO’s declaration means for them and their diets, but given that I have felt better since largely dropping this stuff from my dinner table years ago, I see this as some confirmation about the direction I chose.