Chef Mike dissects the real meat of the recent WHO report
Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) sought to crush the soul of every meat-lover in the world by releasing a statement linking cancer to the consumption of processed meats. The internet predictably exploded into a frenzy of click-bait headlines and hastily written blog posts clamoring to be the first in line to slap the last slice of bacony joy out of your nitrate-filled mouth.
It’s no secret that I am a shameless meat-whore and proud food nerd, so this news sent me scrambling for my Chris Cosentino signature pocket protector to see if the WHO has truly discovered the cure for happiness or if this is just another misunderstanding.
But just like all of life’s biggest questions, there are no simple answers. Do processed meats cause cancer? Buckle up, buckaroo, because there’s good news and bad news.
First, what did the WHO report actually say? Put simply, a group of 22 experts from 10 countries looked at decades of cancer research and classified processed meat consumption as a Group 1 carcinogen to humans.
Well, damnit, that sounds bad. Especially considering that “processed meat” includes everything from 7-11 hotdogs to foodgasm-inducing hams from Serrano, Spain. In spite of Michael Symon’s Facebook rant, this also includes artisan, handcrafted charcuterie and locally raised meats. The problem is not with the meat’s quality, it’s in the way haem, a component in hemoglobin found in all red meat, damages cells that line the human bowel and the way N-nitroso compounds are generated in the gut. Decades of research led these experts to conclude that there is “sufficient evidence” consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.
But this is still no reason to give up on pleasure and resign yourself to the barren, gray existence of a meatless life. Yes, the report puts processed meats in the same carcinogen group as cigarettes, which sounds terrifying, but not all Group I carcinogens are created alike.
What the WHO actually said was that eating about 50 grams of processed meat a day will increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. That’s relative risk, not absolute, which means you’re 18 percent more likely to develop cancer relative to whatever your initial risk already was.
In other words, if you already had a 10 percent risk of getting colon cancer, and you ate a couple of hot dogs every day, your risk would increase by 18 perecent. Eighteen percent of 10 percent is 1.8 percent—so your total risk would increase to 11.8 percent. That’s still an increase, but not exactly enough to make you start getting your end of life affairs in order. To put that in perspective, smoking (another Group 1 carcinogen) increases the risk of lung cancer by about 25 times, or 2,500 percent.
I don’t want to sound like a Tom Waits song come to life, propped up by a bar stool and decades of suppressed rage while doling out the “Something’s got to kill you” speech to everyone in earshot, but the facts do support a less panicked approach to the WHO report.
In fact, the WHO has now issued a “clarification,” which says, “The latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.” In other words, “Hey, everybody calm down!”
X-rays are known to cause cancer, but that doesn’t stop you from getting one when you need it. It does, however, keep most sane people from getting an X-ray every time they want to show their drinking buddies the cucumber still stuck in their rectum after that “gardening accident” last year.
The WHO report makes it clear that eating too much bacon can increase your risk of cancer (that was a hard sentence for me to write), but there’s no need to stop eating bacon altogether because bacon is God’s way of telling us he loves us. The report does, however, mean you should probably stop eating a Hardee’s Bacon and Ham Stuffed Baconburger Deluxe every day for lunch.
So what have we learned today? Meat is fine in moderation—it’s a good source of nutrients such as protein, iron and zinc, but don’t treat it as though it’s the sole source of light in your life.
Eat some fruits and vegetables and cut back on the processed meat. It sounds boring—but you’ll live to eat again.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits