The Red Meat And Smoking Equivalency

Is eating processed meat really as dangerous as smoking? Our columnist, Annabel Tan, takes a closer look at the statement issued by WHO.


AsianScientist (Nov. 6, 2015) – If you’ve opened the paper or flipped through your newsfeed these last two weeks, I’m sure that you would have noticed the sudden surge in news articles regarding the World Health Organization’s (WHO) finding that “red meat is 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.”

Naturally, many meat-and-vegetable-consuming people freaked out, the vegans and vegetarians laughed very smugly and the meat enthusiasts cared very little, with one person stating that he “[would] go down with bacon sandwich in hand singing the national anthem.”

As a result of this report, there’s been a terrifying amount of confusion over this report for two main reasons: the first obvious one being the number of scaremongering headlines that have been plastered all over the news lately, and the second being the way that the carcinogens have been classified.

Among the headlines that have been published:

Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, WHO declares” (Washington Post)
Report Links Processed and Red Meats to Cancer” (ABC News)
Processed meats do cause cancer – WHO” (BBC)

Ten points to sensationalism, zero points to accurate science reporting.

However, I don’t think I could defend the WHO piece very well, given the vague and inchoate nature of the statement itself. The statement clearly reads: red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans based on limited evidence? Generally speaking, this is a poorly worded statement that many, many people will just simply take at face value to mean that red meat causes cancer.

The panel of 22 scientists from ten countries scoured through over 800 studies that investigated associations between a dozen types of cancer and red meat or processed meat consumption in many countries with diverse diets. The strongest and most influential evidence was drawn from large cohort studies that took place over the course of 20 years, according to the statement.

The WHO has clarified its statement somewhat with a Q&A. In this, the WHO writes that “probably carcinogenic” means that the evidence is not strong enough to suggest that there is a causal relationship between cancer and red meat consumption, and there could still be other factors such as bias, chance and confounding involved.

However, what has confounded (pun intended) many people is how the WHO can classify processed meats such as bacon a Group 1 carcinogen. Tobacco smoking is listed as a Group 1 carcinogen. The average person, and the average scientific paper, can tell you that the risk of cancer from smoking is much higher than eating red meat.

Smokers have a 15-30 times higher risk of developing lung cancer and other cancers compared to non-smokers. In contrast, consuming an additional 18 ounces of processed meat a day increases risk of cancer by 18 percent, a 1.18 times increase. The exposure classification process does not distinguish between magnitudes of risk between exposures in the same group, which the statement did not address at all.

Further, the statement did not address the by-products of cooking muscle meat, which has been implicated in its link to cancer. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines form when meat is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as over an open flame or by pan-frying. It is unclear whether the method of cooking processed or red meat is linked to cancer or not, as the Q&A suggests.

The single and perhaps most ‘public health’ way of protecting oneself against cancer is to get screened for it, especially between the ages of 50-75 as per the American Cancer Society recommendations. Another really ‘public health’ way of approaching life is to practice moderation. Abstaining from meat and terrorizing other people for red meat consumption seems like a horrific knee jerk response, albeit the benefits of consuming extra fruits and vegetables cannot be argued.

At this point, people have rolled their eyes and said, “if bacon is so bad, then I don’t want to live.”

To which I would argue, “Everyone is going to die, but the manner in which you die and the level of burden that is created as an entire nation of sickly, greased-up people is a sore point for many governments and healthcare professionals”.

While I understand that the intentions of the WHO were clear, the message was really not–at all.

This article is from a monthly column called Our Small World. Click here to see the other articles in this series.

Source: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Kenny Louie/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Annabel is currently a 2nd year Masters in Public Health student at Yale University. She received her MEng in biomedical engineering from Imperial College London in 2010. She spent the summer of 2014 researching substance abuse in Tanzania. She has a keen interest in food, yoga and metal music.

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