This week, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) made an announcement that should surprise no one — even a meat industry crying foul: processed meat is a human carcinogen:
Processed meat refers to 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.
Twenty-two researchers from ten countries reviewed more than 800 peer-reviewed studies and concluded in The Lancet Oncology, that, based on “sufficient evidence,” “consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” The researchers didn’t let ordinary (“real”) red meat off the hook, either, stating that, based on “limited evidence,” consumption of red meat is associated with not only cancer of the colon and rectum, but also the pancreas and prostate.
In the U.S., beef consumption peaked in the 1970’s. Since then, Americans have been eating less meat for a growing variety of reasons: the desire to reduce saturated fat in the diet; the concerns in the 1990’s that red meat may be linked to cancer; the poor treatment of animals graphically documented in mainstream and social media; and the acknowledgement by many consumers that the environmental impact of raising beef for human consumption is terrible in regards to land use, natural resources (including water), antibiotic resistance, pollution, and climate change.
Nitrates and other chemicals used in meat processing to preserve and enhance their flavor are felt to be the cancer-causing culprits. How meats are prepared may also be a critical factor in their cancer-causing potential, as we discovered on The PediaBlog more than two years ago:
The question of whether it is safe to eat foods — especially meats — cooked on a barbecue grill has been the subject of controversy the last few years. Cooking meats at high temperatures causes chemicals called HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) to form, and these chemicals are potentially carcinogenic.
There are plenty of reasons for all of us to eat less meat and more fruit and vegetables. Jen Christensen says we should “eat more like a Greek”:
The Mediterranean diet — one heavy on veggies, nuts and fruit, with limits on meat and dairy — is the way to go. Study after study has shown it is the key to help you live longer and puts you at a lower risk for cancer and cardiovascular diseases. It even keeps your brain younger and healthier. And while you will feel better and potentially live longer on a diet that favors veggies and fruits, it will also help you maintain a healthy weight and a thinner waist line, which is good for your overall health, self-esteem and mental well-being too.
Or, you could ask a New Yorker:
“Everything out there is going to kill us eventually so you just have to enjoy life as healthy as you possibly can and once in a while just indulge in things like bacon and other things that aren’t good for you,” a man named Tom told 1010 WINS’ Glenn Schuck. “Once in a while a good steak and a cigar is the best thing in the world.”
“I don’t think it’s that bad, and I still like it,” a man named Wayne said. “I’m not going to pay any attention to it.”
“Bacon is God’s gift to us,” another man said.
If you’re feeling conflicted, don’t be. Like everything else in life, the key is moderation. Watch your ingredients by eating mostly “real” food. Be careful how you purchase, transport, store, and prepare your food. Get handy in the kitchen and rely less on other people handling your food. Understand where your food comes from and how that affects the planet we live on.
Let your child enjoy a hot dog if they want it, but only one, and not every day! Be smart about offering your kids real food and remember: if they don’t want it, they don’t have to eat it.
If you think processed meat is bad for your health, sugar may be worse. More about that on Friday.