Today, the World Health Organization released the findings of a large scientific review looking at the carcinogenicity of red meat and processed meats. A Working Group of twenty-two scientists from ten countries worked collaboratively on the review, and they reviewed more than 800 epidemiological studies that “investigated the association of cancer with consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries, from several continents, with diverse ethnicities and diets”. And you may want to sit down before reading what they concluded.
Now, I should state up front that I’m the daughter of a cattle rancher. My dad has several hundred head of cattle, and has made his living as a cattle rancher and farmer since before I was born. So I’ve seen my fair share of meals containing red meat. That being said, the results are truly terrifying if you try to live a healthy lifestyle while at the same time enjoying hamburgers or a piece of bacon.
What did the Working Group find? They found that sufficient evidence exists to make the following declarative statements:
Processed meat is carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.
Red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans, based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and the strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.
You may be wondering how much meat you need to consume to get these results? The Working Group found that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%, and each 100 gram portion of red meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 17%.
How much is 50 grams of processed meat? Well, I just looked in my fridge, and a slice of turkey bacon is about 15-30 grams. So 50 grams of processed meat would be about 3 pieces of turkey bacon. Or part of a sausage link (the whole thing is more than 50 grams). Or about 20 pieces of pepperoni.
What about 100 grams of red meat? Well, a quarter-pounder burger has more than 100 grams of meat in it. Two Taco Bell beef tacos contains about 100 grams of beef. And an 8 oz steak is twice that much red meat!
Does this mean that eating red and processed meats poses a significant risk to your health? That depends on how much red or processed meat you eat, and how you define significant. Eating red or processed meat probably isn’t as dire to your health as smoking cigarettes. But if you want to live a long health life and you eat a steak or burger every night, you may want to reconsider.
If you want to be horrified even more, check out a book titled “The China Study”. I read it several years ago, and was truly astonished at the compelling links between the consumption of meat (and other aspects of our diet) and cancer and disease. But I’ll warn you first: If you don’t want to change you dietary habits, ignore this book recommendation.