Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Not bacon! Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, health group declares

A research division of the World Health Organization announced on Monday that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer, and that red meat probably does, too. The report by the influential group stakes out one of the most aggressive stances against meat yet taken by a major health organization, and it is expected to face stiff criticism in the United States. [iStockphoto.com]

A research division of the World Health Organization announced on Monday that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer, and that red meat probably does, too. The report by the influential group stakes out one of the most aggressive stances against meat yet taken by a major health organization, and it is expected to face stiff criticism in the United States. [iStockphoto.com]

A research division of the World Health Organization announced on Monday that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer, and that red meat probably does, too.

The report by the influential group stakes out one of the most aggressive stances against meat yet taken by a major health organization, and it is expected to face stiff criticism in the United States.

The WHO conclusions are based on the work of a 22-member panel of international experts that reviewed decades of research on the link between red meat, processed meats, and cancer. The panel reviewed animal experiments, studies of human diet and health, and cell mechanisms that could lead from red meat to cancer.

But the panel's decision was not unanimous, and by raising lethal concerns about a food that anchors countless American meals, it will be controversial. The $95 billion U.S. beef industry has been preparing for months to mount a response and some scientists, including some unaffiliated with the meat industry, have questioned whether the evidence is substantial enough to draw the kinds of strong conclusions that the WHO panel did.

"We simply don't think the evidence support any causal link between any red meat and any type of cancer," said Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

The research into a possible link between eating red meat and cancer — colorectal cancer is a longstanding area of concern — has been the subject of scientific debate for decades. But by concluding that processed meats cause cancer, and that red meats "probably" cause cancer, the WHO findings go well beyond the tentative associations that other groups have reported.

CHEESE, TOO? Study finds cheese is as addictive as drugs

The American Cancer Society, for example, notes that many studies have found "a link" between eating red meat and heightened risks of colorectal cancer. But it stops short of telling people that the meats cause cancer. Some diets that have lots of vegetables and fruits and lesser amounts of red and processed meats have been associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer, the American Cancer Society tells the public, but "it's not exactly clear" which factors of that diet are important.

Likewise, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government's advice compendium, encourage the consumption of protein foods such as lean meats as part of a healthy diet. Regarding processed meats, however, the Dietary Guidelines do offer a tentative warning: "moderate evidence suggests an association between the increased intake of processed meats (e.g., franks, sausage, and bacon) and increased risk of colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease," the guidelines say. The Dietary Guidelines stop well short of saying processed meats cause cancer, however.

In recent years, meat consumption has been the target of multifaceted social criticism, with debates erupting not just over its role on human health, but the impact of feedlots on the environment and on animal welfare. The public debate over the WHO's findings will likely play out in political lobbying, and in marketing messages for consumers.

But at its core, the dispute over meat and cancer revolves around science, and in particular the difficulty that arises whenever scientists try to link any food to a chronic disease.

Experiments to test whether a food causes cancer pose a massive logistical challenge - they require controlling the diets of thousands of test subjects over a course of many years. For example, one group would be assigned to eat lots of meat, and another less, or none. But for a variety of reasons involving cost and finding test subjects, such experiments are rarely done, and scientists instead often use other less direct methods, known as epidemiological or observational studies, to draw their conclusions.

"I understand that people may be skeptical about this report on meat because the experimental data is not terribly strong," said Paolo Boffetta, a professor of Tisch Cancer Institute at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine who has served on similar WHO panels. "But in this case the epidemiological evidence is very strong."

Other scientists, however, have criticized the epidemiological studies for too often reaching "false positives," that is, concluding that something causes cancer when it doesn't.

"Is everything we eat associated with cancer?" a much noted 2012 paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition asked.

That paper reviewed the academic studies conducted on common cookbook ingredients. Of the 50 ingredients considered, 40 had been studied for their impact on cancer. Individually, most of those studies found that consumption of the food was correlated with cancer. When the research on any given ingredient was considered collectively, however, those effects typically shrank or disappeared.

"Many single studies highlight implausibly large effects, even though evidence is weak," the authors concluded.

While epidemioloical studies were critical in proving the dangers of cigarettes, the magnitude of the reported risks of meat is much smaller, and it is hard for scientists to rule out statistical confounding as the cause of the apparent danger.

"It might be a good idea not to be an excessive consumer of meat," said Jonathan Schoenfeld, the co-author of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article and an assistant professor in radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School "But the effects of eating meat may be minimal, if anything."

Moreover, critics of the decision noted that two actual experiments that tested diets with reduced meat consumption, the Polyp Prevention Trial and the Women's Health Initiative, found that subjects who lessened their meat intake did not appear to benefit by a lower cancer risk. It is possible, however, that the reductions in red meat were too small to have an effect.

Not bacon! Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, health group declares 10/26/15 [Last modified: Monday, October 26, 2015 11:15am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Navy parachutist dies during demonstration over Hudson River

    Military

    JERSEY CITY, N.J. — In the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, a Navy Seal team member fell to his death Sunday after his parachute failed to open during a Fleet Week demonstration over the Hudson River.

    Officials surround a U.S. Navy Seal's parachute that landed in a parking lot after the parachutist fell into the Hudson River when his parachute failed to open during a Fleet Week demonstration over the river in Jersey City, N.J. The Navy said the parachutist was pronounced dead at Jersey City Medical Center. [Joe Shine | Jersey Journal via AP]
  2. As White House defends Jared Kushner, experts question his alleged back-channel move

    National

    WASHINGTON — The Trump administration argued over the weekend that back-channel communications are acceptable in building dialogue with foreign governments, part of an effort to minimize fallout over White House adviser Jared Kushner's reported discussion about creating a secret conduit to the Kremlin at a Russian …

    President-elect Donald Trump embraces son in law Jared Kushner, as his daughter Ivanka Trump stands nearby, after his acceptance speech at the New York Hilton Midtown in the early morning hours of Nov. 9. [Mark Wilson | Getty Images]
  3. Sunstar ambulance unit overturns at Drew Street intersection in Clearwater, prompts road closures

    Accidents

    The intersection of Drew Street and Fort Harrison Avenue in Clearwater is closed following a crash that involved a Sunstar ambulance unit, according to the Clearwater Police Department.

    A Sunstar unit flipped in the intersection of Drew Street and Ford Harrison Avenue in Clearwater Monday morning after a car reportedly ran a red light and struck the ambulance, according to the Clearwater Police Department.
  4. Merkel spokesman: Germany still seeking stronger U.S. ties

    Nation

    BERLIN — Berlin remains committed to strong trans-Atlantic relations, but Chancellor Angela Merkel's suggestion after meetings with President Donald Trump that Europe can no longer entirely rely on the U.S. "speaks for itself," her spokesman said Monday

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivers a speech during an election campaign of her Christian Democratic Union, CDU, and the Christian Social Union, CSU, in Munich, southern Germany, Sunday. Merkel is urging European Union nations to stick together in the face of new uncertainty over the United States and other challenges. [Matthias Balk/dpa via AP]
  5. Tampa police: 46 arrests, 47 ejections at two-day Sunset Music Festival

    Public Safety

    Times staff

    TAMPA — In a preliminary tally Monday morning, police declared there were "no major incidents" during the two-day Sunset Music Festival at Raymond James Stadium but boosted the number of arrests and rejections they provided in earlier reports during the weekend.

    A Tampa Fire Rescue all-terrain vehicle patrols the parking area north of Raymond James Stadum on Sunday, day two of the Sunset Music Festival. [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]