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WHO report on links to meat and cancer accurate, experts say

A recent report released by the World Health Organization linked processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, and sausages to colorectal cancer. While the meat industry had a beef with the report, nutrition and cancer experts agree that there’s some truth behind the claim.

The report, which was released on Monday, is the most comprehensive study released to date showing the link between people’s meat-eating lifestyles and cancer. The study conducted by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France looked at decades of research and data before coming to the conclusion that processed meats are in the same danger category as smoking cigarettes or breathing in asbestos.

However, while the risk is there, it is important to note that the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer is still relatively small. For example, currently in the United States the risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 5% (a 1 in 20 chance). Even if a person were to eat a cold cut sandwich every day, their risk would only increase to 6%.

Researchers also concluded that red meat is most likely carcinogenic.

The WHO defines processed meat as meat that has been transformed to improve flavor or preserve the product and includes sausages, beef jerky and anything smoked. Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat.

While this latest report has triggered a huge reaction by bacon lovers worldwide, it reveals nothing novel. For at least the past decade the American Cancer Society, the World Cancer Research Fund, the American Institute for Cancer Research and many nutritionists and dietitians have all been saying the exact same thing.

The North American Meat Institute was quick to respond to the WHO’s report, stating “cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods.”

While Stanford dietitian Raymond Palko agrees with the WHO report and appreciates that it brings the issue to light, he notes that processed and red meats don’t need to be cut out of a diet completely. For years, he has been recommending that his cancer patients save meats like bacon, ham and sausages for special occasions and only eat 6 small servings of red meat a week.

While many dietitians favor fish, poultry or beans over red meat, they recommend limiting red meat consumption to 18oz. a week for those who can’t give it up. This is the equivalent to six palm-sized tri-tip steaks or four quarter-pound Big Macs; hardly a deprivation of red meat.

“This is a watershed moment — I’m glad the World Health Organization is adopting and bringing it forward,”Palko said. “But the dose makes the poison.”

About Jillian Gordon

Jillian Gordon
Jillian is a writer from Edmonton, Canada. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Alberta and loves all sorts of cultural phenomena. In addition to writing, Jillian's hobbies include photography and playing roller derby.