In a recent Express article, Oxford University epidemiologist Timothy Key has publicly supported the WHO’s recent decision to classify red and processed meats as carcinogenic which places them along alcohol and tobacco.
However, he cautions, there is no need to panic or stop eating these meats altogether as long as they are consumed in moderation. After all, smoking is still far more detrimental to human health than barbecue.
In an article published in the scientific journal Lancet Oncology in October 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that there is “strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect” of both red and processed meat. Red meat is now classified as a group 2A carcinogen (“probably causing cancer”) along with steroids, hairspray or the herbicide Glyphosate, processed meat is even put into group 1 (“clear causal link”). Other factors that qualify as Group 1 carcinogenic include smoking, exposure to solar radiation and alcohol.
The researchers came to that conclusion by reviewing a wide range of existing studies dealing with a potential link between meat and cancer. Red meat commonly refers to beef, veal, pork and lamb. Processed meat is meat that has undergone treatment to intensify flavour or prolong shelf life, such as hot dogs, ham, sausages, bacon or salami.
The IARC found that consuming as little as 50g of processed meat each day, two slices of bacon for instance, raises your risk of bowel cancer by 18%. Timothy Key, Cancer Research UK’s epidemiologist at Oxford University, welcomes the IARC’s report, saying that “there’s strong enough evidence to classify processed meat as a cause of cancer and red meat as a probable cause of cancer”. After all, his organisation publicly supported the WHO’s decision last week.
However, he cautions, that does not mean that people should stop consuming red and processed meat altogether. As is so often the case, the key lies in moderation. “Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn’t going to do much harm”. Yet, “you could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT”.
According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), the consumption of beef, pork and processed meats in the EU has indeed been slightly decreasing over the last decade. Eating less red and processed meat is not only healthier, but also environmentally conscious, scientists all around the world agree. Meat production is one of the main factors facilitating climate change, water scarcity and soil depletion. American climate researcher Gidon Eshel in a much-noticed 2014 study concluded that abdicating beef would be an even more effective way of cutting carbon emissions than not driving a car.
In public health terms, the fact that both processed meat and tobacco are labelled group 1 carcinogens does not equate their adverse health effects. After all, more than a quarter of cancer deaths in the UK are caused by smoking, making it one of the biggest overall risks to human health.