Does Red Meat Cause Cancer?

Recently articles were published seemingly everywhere stating that the World Health Organisation (WHO) had categorised processed meat as carcinogenic (causes cancer) and that red meat in general ‘probably causes cancer’.

The WHO has processed meat in the same category as smoking in relation to cancer risk…. The study which was put forward specifically mentioned colon cancer risk went up by 18% in people who ate 50g of processed red meat (2 slices of bacon) a day compared to none.

So firstly I want to bring you back to this 18% figure. This number is a term called ‘relative risk’ which means that the cancer risk between the two studied groups (non processed meat and 50g processed meat) increased by 18%. Actually the figures are an increase in cancer risk from 5.5% to 6.5%. 6.5 is ~18% greater than 5.5 and VOILA, the 18% figure begins floating around.

Let’s put this into context. Processed meat which has an 18% relative risk increase in cancer is categorised in the same group as smoking. Now the relative risk increase for smokers compared to non smokers around 2000%. If we used the same control group number of 5.5% then a 2500% relative risk increase would become 115%. Compare that figure to 6.5% and it is incredible that the WHO can even begin comparing processed meat to smoking in relation to cancer risk.

Three more quick points I want to make:

Firstly there are some confounding variables (factors which the researchers can’t control which may have an impact on the results) which could be at play here. People who eat higher quantities of processed meat are also more likely to be obese, eat ing in a calorie surplus, inactive, smokers… Therefore you cannot put this increase in risk solely down to processed meat when there are so many confounding variables in play which are also associated with a higher risk in cancer.

Secondly red meat should not be associated at all given the risk is clearly even less. Red meat is extremely nutritious providing iron (very important for young women), zinc and many B vitamins. Red meat is a very important component of your diet.

Thirdly this is not to say there are no issues with processed red meat. Burning your red meat when cooking can cause Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These chemicals have been found to cause an increased cancer risk through interactions with DNA. The simple thing to do is cut off any charred meat and this can be avoided.

Health is not an ‘on’ ‘off’ switch, nor should any single food or lifestyle choice be considered outside the lifestyle as a whole.

Take home points:
– Relative risk of processed meat is 18% compared with over 2000% for smoking.
– Processed meat consumption associated with obesity, inactivity, smoking and other risk factors.
– Red meat is very nutritious and can be an important component of ones diet.
– Remove charred section of meat!

Does Red Meat Cause Cancer?

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