The World Health Organization claims that processed meat is a class 1A carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) on the order of asbestos. It puts red meat at a level 2A classification like mustard gas or creosote. What is their reasoning behind this claim and what are the facts that back it up?
Before we examine this, let’s take a look at the response to this. We don’t talk to people about how they should only rarely be exposed to asbestos, mustard gas or creosote. We don’t recommend cigarette smoking in moderation. We recognize that unnecessary exposures to dangerous substances should be eliminated wherever we can get rid of them. Yet the media is full of discussions over the last few days about “reasonable” consumption of meat. If it were Pez candies, people would just stop eating them without a second’s thought.
So what are the reasons that WHO had for declaring that processed and red meat cause cancer just like cigarettes, vinyl bromide and lead?
A big reason the WHO decided to make this statement is the strength of the epidemiological studies. When we look at populations that consume the most processed meat and red meat, they have the highest rates of colorectal cancer. The differences are staggering. Native Africans have colon cancer rates of less than 1 per 100,000 people. African Americans have colon cancer rates over 50 times more, at 60 per 100,000. One of the main differences in their diet is how much red and processed meat they eat. There are many studies that show the same thing. At least 23 different studies of populations have shown red and processed meat is associated with cancer. Many of the media reports have emphasized that the risk of meat is small. These numbers don’t support that claim. The risk is large.
Another strong reason is that we have mechanisms that have been discovered by laboratory science. Three different chemicals found in large amounts in meat were shown in the laboratory to cause cancer. In addition, there is new evidence for two new cancer-causing compounds the report does not mention that are raised when you eat meat (TMAO and Neu5GC). For most of these compounds, red meat is not the only food that has them. They are also found in dairy products, chicken, fish, turkey and seafood.
The epidemic of cancer is a new phenomenon. In Chicago in 1850, 1 in 1000 people died of cancer. Today that number is 1 in 4. The diet people ate in 1850 by default was dry goods from their pantries. Wheat flour, beans, corn, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes were the staples that supplied most of people their calories. All of those foods are available today for people to eat in much the same way.
If you want to avoid cancer, avoid all animal products in the same way you would avoid asbestos or cigarettes.