As I’m sure you are aware, scary sounding headlines (“Processed meats cause cancer“) have been popping up all over the place, and some of it is more than slightly over the top and not warranted by the actual research. Here is the Express Headline …
OK, the short summary is this : “eating Bacon is not as bad as smoking, that heading is factually incorrect”
Tempting as it might be to write up the details, others out there have done a fine job, and so I’ll simply point you towards one of the better more level headed descriptions of what this is really all about.
Over at Cancer UK their health information officer Casey Dunlop does a really good job of slicing and dicing the actual details and spelling out the implications of it all, and so here are a few key points that I’ve mined from his article …
This is not new news, it has been bubbling away and building up for some time now
The decision – coordinated by a respected international body – has been so highly anticipated by the media that speculation about the announcement has been building since last week.
But a link between certain types of meat and some forms of cancer – notably bowel cancer – isn’t ‘new’ news – the evidence has been building for decades, and is supported by a lot of careful research.
Nevertheless, today’s announcement is significant. It comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – a group of international experts who scrutinise the overall evidence – in this case more than 800 studies – on how likely certain things are to cause cancer.
OK, so where can I find the precise details?
Here in the Lancet : http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(15)00444-1/abstract
They do insist that you register to get access to the article, but that registration is free and easy (don’t forget to un-tick the “please spam me” options).
There you will find that this is the key to it all …
Overall, the Working Group classified consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1) on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer. Additionally, a positive association with the consumption of processed meat was found for stomach cancer.
The Working Group classified consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A). In making this evaluation, the Working Group took into consideration all the relevant data, including the substantial epidemiological data showing a positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer and the strong mechanistic evidence. Consumption of red meat was also positively associated with pancreatic and with prostate cancer.
Well yes, but what does that actually mean?
To get a bit more specific, let’s return back to the Cancer UK article …
The results showed that those who ate the most processed meat had around a 17 per cent higher risk of developing bowel cancer, compared to those who ate the least.
‘17 per cent’ sounds like a fairly big number – but this is a ‘relative’ risk, so let’s put it into perspective, and convert it to absolute numbers. Remember these are all ball-park figures – everyone’s risk will be different as there are many different factors at play.
We know that, out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).
If this is correct, the WCRF’s analysis suggests that, among 1000 people who eat the most processed meat, you’d expect 66 to develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives – 10 more than the group who eat the least processed meat.
There is also a graph that illustrates it all …
This all sounds very scary
On the surface it might indeed appear to confirm the Express headline, but put that thought on hold.
Now, pay attention, this is a rather important bit.
They are not telling you that you will get cancer if you eat processed meat, but instead they are telling you that processed meat does cause cancer – that is a very important distinction.
One reason I really like the Cancer UK article is that they place it all in context, strive to stick to the facts, and don’t go Daily Express on you.
To illustrate this rather important distinction they point out that smoking also causes cancer and then they have a diagram that illustrates what would happen if we all stopped eating meat and also all stopped smoking …
So what is the bottom line here?
The Cancer UK guidance is indeed rather sensible …
regularly eating large amounts of red and processed meat, over a long period of time, is probably not the best approach if you’re aiming to live a long and healthy life. Meat is fine in moderation – it’s a good source of some nutrients such as protein, iron and zinc. It’s just about being sensible, and not eating too much, too often.
In other words, don’t freak out and go vegan overnight (unless of course that is something you would actually like to do).
Cancer UK do also expand upon the scope of what a moderate amount might actually be (I’ll let you read that at your leisure), my scope has been to simply attempt to crank back the rather unwarranted fear that has been circulating a few notches to something that is more aligned with what the evidence is actually telling us. What we do not know is how much is too much, and so all we really know is that “less” will indeed reduce the risk, so their guidance remains unchanged by any of this …
eat plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables; cut back on red and processed meat, and salt; and limit your alcohol intake
Oh, and of course, “Don’t Smoke“, because that really is very very bad for you, and is a far greater risk than eating some bacon.