Is Our Meat Killing Us?

We Americans have always done as we pleased. And that includes our eating habits.

Hot dogs, bacon, sausages, ham, and even pepperoni have become national emblems, rather than just another item on the menu.

But the quintessential American diet was thrown into question when the World Health Organization (WHO) recently linked processed meat and red meat to colorectal cancer.

A group of 22 scientists met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in October 2015 to assess the carcinogenic content in processed meat and red meat. An official report from the meeting was released to the public on October 26, 2015. Processed meat was defined as anything “transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation”. Red meat was classified as “all mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.”

The scientists concluded that consumption of 50 grams of processed meat a day – roughly equivalent to 1 hot dog or 6 pieces of bacon – increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. The IARC now ranks processed meat as firmly “carcinogenic to humans”, placing it in the same category as asbestos and tobacco. Red meat is considered a “probable” carcinogen, along with the insecticide DDT and other pesticides.

This is not the first time that such a concern has been raised. Processed meat has previously been linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and various other forms of cancer. The high content of sodium nitrates (used as preservatives in processed meat) is believed to be responsible for the production of carcinogenic compounds that can damage DNA and lead to tumors. Scientists attribute pan-frying, roasting, or grilling meat at high temperatures to the production of heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which also result in cancer. The IARC noted that heme iron found in red meat may catalyze the reaction that produces N-nitroso compounds.

This information from these studies has given rise to a series of alarming headlines and confused the public. According to Time magazine, the average American consumes 71 pounds of beef, lamb, veal, and pork per year. So are we supposed to change the way we eat, and thereby abandon our culture? Experts recommend a balanced diet with moderate consumption of processed meats and red meat.

Thus, Americans are responsible for the diet choices we make – and that doesn’t mean giving up on delicious. “Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods,” says Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute. “[A] balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health.”