Headlines were awash with sweeping statements this morning, as researchers from the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a causative association between processed meat and cancer.
So should the frightening parallels being made between sausages and cigarettes be taken seriously?
Read on for my take on the developments.
What does the evidence say?
The announcement comes from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (AIRC) – a group of international experts who scrutinised more than 800 studies on the suggested link between red meat and cancer.
According to the WHO, processed meat includes “meat that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked, other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.”
It’s these meats that the IARC have linked to cancer. Specifically, the group found strong evidence linking processed meat to bowel cancer.
They concluded that for each 50g portion of processed meat daily, the risk of bowel cancer increased by almost twenty per cent.
Red meat also ranks as a ‘probable’ cause of cancer, though the mechanisms are not entirely understood.
But while these new findings seem groundbreaking, they’re actually fairly consistent with the current Australian Dietary Guidelines. Highly processed meats such as sausages, salami, and meat pies are grouped alongside ‘discretionary’ foods in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, with their consumption only recommended sometimes, and in small amounts.
A serve of lean red meat, (i.e. beef, lamb, and pork) according to the guidelines, equates to only 65g, probably around the size of the palm of your hand. Over a week, a maximum of seven serves of lean meat is recommended, which is in line with the World Cancer Research Fund’s advice to have no more than 500g of red meat per week.
Dr Christina Pollard from Curtin University’s School of Public Health explains the importance of looking at this in context of a typical Australian diet. “On average Australians, particularly men, eat about 20 per cent more meat than they need on any given day.”
On the other hand…
Lean meat brings with it a number of health benefits. It is protein rich, and provides a wide variety of other nutrients, including iodine, iron, zinc, vitamins such as B12, and essential fatty acids. Unless you’re a vegetarian, you’ll probably also agree that it tastes great.
Remember though, that processed meats are generally higher in saturated fat, and salt, and they are not considered in the same context as lean red meats. Hence, their consumption should be limited.
So what does this mean?
But what about that comparison to cigarettes? The IARC assesses the evidence on cancer “hazard identification,” not “risk assessment.” In other words, they’re not telling us how potent the risk is, just that there definitely is one in the first place.
The evidence linking processed meat and cancer has been building for some time, which supports the current guidelines to limit their consumption. But by the same token, there’s no need to turn down the occasional Bunning’s sausage sizzle, or forego your favourite Sunday fry-up. Processed meats can be enjoyed occasionally, and in small amounts, as part of a healthy diet. So how much is a ‘moderate’ amount of meat? To sum up, take a look at this great info graphic below, from Cancer Research UK.
Categories: In the News