Processed meat's cancer link unlikely to change habits, experts say

If you love a good steak, a recent WHO report on the links between processed and red meat and cancer probably gave you pause. But experts say it's unlikely to change your eating habits.

Processed meat in same category as tobacco, asbestos in terms of cancer link

A recent WHO report on the link between processed meat and cancer is unlikely to stop people from taking part in events like Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

If you love a good steak or can't imagine eggs without bacon, then a recent WHO report on the cancer connection to processed and red meats probably gave you pause.

Maybe it even moved you to put down your fork.

But while the World Health Organization report is certainly attention-grabbing, nutrition and food marketing experts say it's unlikely to greatly change North American consumption habits.

"When you look at food scares in general, certainly there's always an immediate impact, because it's not appetizing to read about this," says Andreas Boecker, a professor in the food science department at the University of Guelph, who studies consumer response to food-related risks.

Boecker says that a lot of people will likely be chastened by the WHO findings and some may even temporarily modify how much processed and red meat they eat.

But he says that historical responses to other food scares, such as the 2008 listeria outbreak linked to a Maple Leaf Foods plant or Britain's mad-cow problem in the late 1990s and early 2000s, show that "after a while, the consumption pattern bounces back."

'Dramatic over-reach'?

WHO announced that it had put processed meat such as sausages in its group 1 list, which also includes tobacco and asbestos. Substances in this category demonstrate "sufficient evidence" of a link to cancer.
On Monday, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of WHO, announced that it had put processed meat such as ham, bacon and hot dogs on its Group 1 list, which also includes tobacco and asbestos.

Substances in this category demonstrate "sufficient evidence" of a link to cancer.

According to the findings, eating more than 50 grams of processed meat every day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.

The agency also classified red meat, which includes beef, lamb and pork, as a "probable" carcinogen in its Group 2A list. That lower classification reflects the "limited evidence" that red meat causes cancer.

In order to reach its conclusions, IARC reviewed over 800 studies.

In response, the North American Meat Institute called the WHO report "dramatic and alarmist over-reach."

Ron Davidson, director of the Canadian Meat Council, feels the report's findings may be misleading to consumers, clarifying that IARC identifies "cancer hazards" rather than "cancer risks" — the distinction being that exposure to a cancer hazard does not necessarily increase your risk of contracting the disease.

He also points out that IARC has outlined 984 "agents" that could cause cancer in humans — everything from outdoor pollution to caffeine to drinking water to shiftwork.

Moderation in all things

The real lesson of the WHO report is the importance of moderation, says David Ma, vice-president of research for the Canadian Nutrition Society.

According to the WHO report, red meat such as beef is classified as a 'probable carcinogen.' (istock)

"Overall, the message that the WHO is trying to convey is that excessive consumption is not healthy," says Ma.

He emphasizes that processed meat is nonetheless a great source of protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins.

"We can make the argument that water kills," he says. "Every year with marathons, there are going to be, unfortunately, marathon runners who are simply overdosing on water."

But he adds that the information contained in the IARC report could also be useful for people with a genetic predisposition to colorectal cancer who "should be made aware that there are certain lifestyle and diet things that may contribute to overall risk."

But overall, the report's emphasis on reining in the daily allotment of processed meat is "common sense," and that smoking and obesity are "manifold greater risk factors for cancer."

Price sells

For his part, Boecker says the report may lead more people to favour non-red meat such as chicken or turkey, and seek out better-quality processed meat.

Davidson says that over the years the Canadian Meat Council has not seen any discernible shift in consumer behaviour in the wake of meat scares, including the 2012 e. coli outbreak at Alberta-based XL Foods (which has since been sold to JBS Canada).

Health officials confirmed that 18 people in Canada tested positive for a strain of E. coli bacteria linked to meat from the XL plant. It led to a recall of more than 1.8 million kilograms of beef in Canada and the U.S.

"With XL, we thought [a drop in consumption] might happen, but if it did, it was very short," says Davidson.

Even so, heightened awareness in recent years about the benefits of eating whole foods has led some to look askance at conventional preservatives such as nitrates, and opt instead for processed meats that use more "natural" curing agents such as celery extract. (Although a number of reports have cast doubt on whether such alternatives are in fact healthier.)

But even if people are aware of healthier options, those tend to be more expensive. And Davidson confirms that price continues to be the crucial factor in buying decisions.

"The majority still go for the [lowest] price," Davidson says. "By far."


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