Experts debate if meat causes cancer


In reaction to the new rules, major meat producers have argued that the new rules would be costly to implement and would reduce the demand for meat from other countries. The rules do not affect domestic meat products.

Jenna Hrdlicka

Last week, the World Health Organization released a report on the possible cancer-causing properties of processed meat and red meat.

The report classified processed meat as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans, and red meat as Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans.

Processed meat, the most dangerous form, according to the report, is defined by the WHO as, “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” This includes hot dogs, sausage, beef jerky and canned meat.

Red meat refers to animal meat such as beef, pork and lamb.

After the report was released, many people struggled to understand just how much this information would impact their current eating habits.

Should people stop eating processed and red meat completely?

“No,” said Ruth MacDonald, professor and chairwoman of the food science and human nutrition department. “People should not stop eating meat. This is not a new study; it’s a review of current literature in this area to try to understand the relationship between meat and cancer.”

MacDonald explained that others have looked at the same studies that this report was based on and have concluded that the correlations are not that strong. The findings of the study do not rise to the level of concern of the need to completely avoid meat.

Meats do have some carcinogenic properties, however, some exhibit more than others. Processed meat has the highest amount of potential cancer-causing properties, especially meat that is smoked. MacDonald recommended that smoked meat only be eaten once in a while in moderation, like all foods high in salt should.

The way the meat is cooked may also have an effect on the level of carcinogenic properties, but the correlation has not been fully proven, according to the WHO.

In the grand scheme of things, the relative risk caused by the carcinogenic properties is small. MacDonald explained that almost everything we encounter in life exposes us to potentially dangerous elements. Planes, cars, cosmetics, food and even water all have the potential of exposing us to possible carcinogens. Everything is potentially dangerous, and there are better ways to help protect yourself against cancer than avoiding all possible risks.

How should people react to this information?

The most important reaction to have to this report, MacDonald said, is to know that moderation is key. She recommends balance. Eating huge slabs of meat or bacon every day is not needed — indulging in foods like this is not a healthy, day-to-day diet.

Eating a plant-based diet, with a variety of fruits and vegetables and some lean meat, is what people should focus on. Maintaining a healthy diet and being physically active is a better way to reduce your risk of cancer than cutting out everything with possible carcinogenic properties.

Living a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight are far more likely to give you cancer than meat. By maintaining balance and a healthy lifestyle, people can still enjoy a few slices of bacon a couple times a month or the occasional steak without the worry of obtaining cancer.