The latest cancer report from the World Health Organization provides persuasive evidence that eating meat can cause cancer, but the risk is very small for most people.
A research arm of the WHO, known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer, concluded in a paper published Monday that processed meats – like bacon, ham and hot dogs – are a cause of colon cancer and conceivably of stomach cancer, although that link has not been pinned down. This is because processing the meat by curing, smoking, fermentation or other methods generates chemicals that are carcinogens or suspected carcinogens.
The agency also said that red meats like beef and pork are probably a cause of colorectal cancer and possibly a cause of pancreatic and prostate cancer.
The agency found “sufficient evidence” (not just a weak association) that processed meat can cause cancer, but the risk from smoking is many orders of magnitude greater, according to Dr. John Ioannidis, the chairman of disease prevention at Stanford University. “I think it’s very important that we don’t terrorize people into thinking that they should not eat any red meat at all.”
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Tobacco smoking causes about a million cancer deaths a year worldwide; alcohol adds another 600,000 annual cancer deaths. Diets high in processed meat cause about 34,000 cancer deaths globally, the agency calculated.
The report was approved by a majority of the 22 scientists from 10 countries who reviewed more than 800 studies of cancer in humans at the request of the agency, but the panel failed to reach a unanimous consensus, reflecting sharp differences of opinion among experts.
An expert committee advising the federal government on what to include in the forthcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended that people should follow diets “lower in red and processed meat.”
The final version of the guidelines should provide a more precise idea of how much processed meat and red meat is appropriate.
This was excerpted from The New York Times.