The internet is ablaze in fear since the recent WHO report labelled red meat as a cancer causing, heart stopping and artery clogging food item.
Immediately vegans and vegetarians worldwide simultaneously hopped on to social media and streamed a series of posts aimed at how every meat eater is going to die a slow painful death if they don’t switch to a diet of cucumber and carrots. Meanwhile, angry omnivores tried to battle the salad-eaters by professing their adoration for bacon over and over again in an attempt to somehow render the WHO report false; with love.
If you’ve spent 5 minutes on Facebook then you’re probably ruddy well scared and confused right about now. What does the WHO report mean? Is eating beef as bad as smoking? Will a breakfast of sausage and bacon somehow summon a demon school girl from the 1700s who’s sole aim is to terrorise you and your family? Let’s find out.
Firstly, the WHO named processed meat a definite human carcinogen (Group 1), and red meat a probable human carcinogen (Group 2A). It was a bit of a weird opening to their concert but the fans seemed to love it (little musical joke for you there). WHO actually stands for the World Health Organisation, not the band.
Group 1 – Definite carcinogens (smoking, asbestos, nuclear bombs)
Group 2A – Probable carcinogens (glyphosates, UV radiaton)
Group 2B – Possible carcinogens – Literally everything you’ve ever read in the daily mail that causes cancer
Group Not 2B – Shakespeare quote
Group 22B – Sherlock Holmes’ address
However, whether a food item is listed in Group 1, 2A or 2B is down to the strength of evidence and not the degree of risk. This means that something could increase your risk of cancer by 400% yet only have one study proving so and be put in Group 2B, or something could increase your risk by 1% but have what is known as a ‘scientific butt-tonne’ of evidence behind it and be lopped into group 1.
The published paper (that refers to over 800 studies) stated that 100g of red meat caused a 17% increase in colorectal cancer risk. Yeesh. Pretty scary stuff right! Yet, it’s only for colorectal cancer, not all cancer. That’s a very important aspect of the research to stress. Colorectal cancer is still a deadly and horrible condition to pick up (it’s the third leading cause of cancer death) but it does mean that red meat isn’t going to increase your chance of getting breast, skin or lung cancer by 17%.
Also, your risk of getting colorectal cancer isn’t very high in the first place. Even in old age, when the risk is highest, the average 50 year old’s lifetime risk is 1.8%. That’s pushed up to 3.4% if they have a relative with colon cancer and two relatives only moves it to 6.9%. Pretty small numbers.
Red meats (beef, pork, lamb) aren’t all the same. Sandwich ham is nowhere near the same nutritionally as some grass-fed beef just like caged chicken thighs aren’t as good for you as high- welfare lamb.
The headlines did a great job of striking fear across the world but failed to actually deliver on information. This is because only the summary has been released, not the whole paper
“It’s extra funny that the media headlines of the past days have been so extreme, since they’re based on a 1.5-page summary! The full conclusions will be disclosed at a later time in a WHO monograph on processed red meat and cancer. The currently available publication doesn’t even begin to delve into the overall risk of cancer or the magnitude of the risks of different cancers.” – Examine
Let’s also take a look at how the evidence was accumulated. The epidemiology evidence, which means observing people to see what happens, composed a large chunk of the overall evidence. These are the current best ways to get a lot of information about a potentially cancer causing compound but they’re also not very accurate. Everyone’s lifestyles are different so a wide variety of factors can contribute to whether someone gets the disease or not.
Some of the epidemiology evidence also involves food frequency questionnaires where people have to report what they’re diet is like. If a doctor has ever asked you how much alcohol you drink then you know that these questionnaires are not going to be highly accurate.
The WHO can be wrong, too. Sure they’re a big name and composed of experts but experts can still be wrong; they’re still human after all. Remember when experts told us that salt is the antichrist? Or that eggs will chop your legs off and run away with your partner? Experts can be wrong. They’re probably not – but they can be.
Let’s be honest. It’s not like this stuff is exactly news to us. Red meat has long been touted for it’s negative health effects and most people know that eating it everyday isn’t the best. However, red meat can also be a great source for fat soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K) as well as compounds such as iron. What this report means is that eating red meat in a high volume could potentially be very bad for you. However, a spag bol on a Wednesday night, few sausages on a Saturday and a slice of lamb with your Sunday roast isn’t going to make your body erupt into boils and bubbles like something from an 80s horror film. If you have a relative or history with colorectal cancer then it probably is very important for you to reduce your intake of red meat. As with anything, the devil is in the dose.