Remember that WHO report on meat and cancer development last week? You have gone vegetarian since or decided to keep the sausage roll on the breakfast menu?
Well, I have been thinking about it and taking my time to read the original document and various interpretations. High time to make sense of the famous data and hope it helps us make better choices. Today we will try to answer a few basic questions:
- What does this review actually say? (Translation of Scientific Into Human)
- What do the numbers mean?
So just to remind: the WHO (World Health Organization) review made two very important statements:
- Processed meat has been classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.
- Consumption of red meat has been classified as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer
Plus they warn that:
- each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
WHAT DOES IT ACTUALLY SAY?
The most significant statements says that processed meat consumption causes colorectal cancer, which means eating things like sausages, ham or jerky beef causes bowel cancel. Meanwhile eating red meat has been clarified as probably cancerogenic to humans. So your steak or Sunday roast can cause bowel cancel and might have some connections with pancreatic and prostate cancer as well.
If you stop reading here, you might flip out, panic, and pull your hair. And a lot of headlines had stopped there. If you only have read headlines and short, attention catching articles, you are not getting the full picture.
It is a little bit like saying that plane crash. Yes, they do. How often? Not that often. What nowadays increases the risk of a plane crushing? Technical checks, routes they take, air control… Do we want to crash? I bet not. But let’s not get ourselves in a situation like after 9/11, when thousands of people died in car accidents due to increased road traffic because they did not want to fly anymore. If we are making choices, let’s try to make them with full understanding of the data behind it.
Each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. How much is 50g? Well, an average sausage is 80g and an average steak around 225g. A slice of ham might have around 20g. That was easy. However what about this 18% risk increase??? If you think about 18 in perceptive of 100% it seems awfully a lot. But is it really? Let’s take a step back.
The 18% increase is on already existing risk. I checked some numbers.
What is the existing risk? I must say that data I found is a bit confusing varying from 40 in 100.000 to 40 in 1000. But for the sake of the calculation let’s use that in a group of 1000 people, who do not eat much processed meat, 40 will develop bowel cancer. If the risk is increased by 18% by choosing a meat rich lifestyle this number would go up to 47. So instead of 40 pople out of a 1000 get the cancer – 47 get it.
Does this give a bit more perspective? And this is why at the end of the report you could find: “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.”
Another question that we should ask ourselves: why processed meat is worse than the lean meat itself? I think if we look at label on our favorite sausage, burger, ham or bacon, we will see the answer immediately. Next to meat you will see a lot of extra stuff, mainly chemicals that will keep the product: more tasty, more eye-catching, with the right consistency and extend it’s shelf life. This is what makes such a big difference and shifts processed meat from ‘probably cancerogenic’ to ‘cancerogenic’.
One more thing: not many headlines got to the bottom of that announcement:
“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed (…) At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
What we should take home from it?
Well, we know that eating too much red meat is not good for you, especially if with the meat you get a fare portion of toxins. It definitely has a nutritional value, but it needs to be balanced in our health diet. I had a look around and this approach seems the most reasonable to me:
which I found at at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Does it make a bit more sense now?
If you want to look at the original announcement here is the link: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf