Processed Meat increases cancer risk. WHO study and our plan

Written by Brian (@brhinos), Sydney

Months after the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a study on the link between red meat/processed meat and cancer, I’m still thinking about the results. At the time, the headlines went wild linking the consumption of red meat and processed meat to an increased cancer risk and even going as far as saying, it was as bad as smoking cigarettes.

Then I thought about what my diet has been like since the study was released. I spent just over a week in Melbourne at the end of last month and if I use that period as an example, here is a very small sample size of what I ate:

One of the best burgers I ate in Melbourne happened be a Wagyu Beef burger from a modest eatery called Common Galaxia. A highlight of the dish? Smokey bacon!

Then came old favourites. Renowned Pan Fried Buns from New Shanghai and Famous Dim Sims from a place that’s been trading for more than half a century, South Melbourne Market Dim Sims.

But it wasn’t all eating out. There were BBQs…

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Home cooked meals you may have heard of:

Brando’s (Super New Years) Epic Chicken Parma

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Brando’s Sui Mai

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And more barbeques (expertly cooked by @mrfoodtrail)

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That’s a lot of red meat and processed meat. With this in mind, I compared this to my biggest take aways from the study.

(Note: Where applicable, I’ve included extended blocks of text from the study which contextualizes content. It’s funny how some papers make a few careful edits to completely change the meaning of the original intent.)

Red Meat

“Eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer.”

“High-temperature cooking methods (eg. BBQ) generate compounds that may contribute to carcinogenic risk, but their role is not yet fully understood.”

Phew. That didn’t seem too bad. I continue reading:

Processed Meat

“…eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer”.

“Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.”

“…studies estimated that every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%.”

“…about 34 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat.” (Contrasted against 1 million to tobacco smoking, 600,000 to alcohol consumption)

In short, processed meat is not good for you. That’s no surprise but this news is very serious and all I kept thinking about was how this affected the close and precious relationship I have with bacon. Just the thought of thought of bacon activates my sensory system and my mouth begins to salivate as I type this. I can smell the aromas wafting in the air, the fat browning as the surrounding oil bubbles away and the crispy crunch followed by the joyous salty flavour that only bacon can provide.

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Just look at this delicious bacon jam Brando made

Then, as soon as I was considering taking drastic action to manage my bacon consumption, I stumbled upon this article stating:

“The World Health Organisation has retracted a study that revealed a connection between bowel cancer and bacon after an alert staff member discovered that the doctor presenting the results was actually two pigs dressed up in a long white lab coat.”

“The presentation he gave was certainly impressive with lots of graphs and pie charts,” said Dr Hermione Trotter, head of ontological research at WHO. “No-one questioned his credentials because he had a stethoscope around his neck. We were on the verge of recommending a world wide ban on bacon and sausages when one of our secretaries noticed something out of the ordinary.”

Light hearted, of course but it reminded me of one thing. To have a sense of humour with everything. Rather than enforcing cold turkey regiments, we need to enjoy life too. Then, upon further research, I found a more feasible solution. The Cancer Council puts it elegantly:

“Despite the concerns about meat and cancer, Cancer Council recognises that lean red meat is an important contributor to dietary iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein in the Australian diet. Cancer Council recommends:

  • Moderate consumption of unprocessed lean red meat. A moderate amount of meat is 65–100 g of cooked red meat, 3–4 times a week;
  • Limiting or avoiding processed meats such as sausages, frankfurts, salami, bacon and ham, which are high in fat and salt;
  • Limiting consumption of burnt or charred meat; and
  • Choosing lean cuts of meat and chicken, and eating more fish and plenty of plant based foods such as fruit, vegetables and wholegrain cereals.”

I’m no doctor but as a foodie and recovering glutton, I’m going to be realistic with my reaction to this study. As strongly as the study may compel me to steer clear of processed meat, I know it’ll be virtually impossible for me to cut processed meat (especially bacon!) from my diet. So I guess I’m just going to try to take the Cancer Council’s advice on this one.

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