No doubt you’ve come across stories and reports that the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) now classifies processed meats as Group 1 carcinogenic to humans, and red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans, or Group 2A. This is the same international body that just last year added glyphosate, the active ingredient in Round-Up, as a carcinogen. You can find the full press release from IARC on this decision here.
But before you decide to give up bacon and hot dogs entirely, it is important to put this classification – and exactly what it means – into context. After reading story after story about this particular release, one main theme seemed to stand out: moderation is key.
Instead of trying to rewrite what so many others have already aptly said, I’ve compiled some of the best articles and resources I’ve found discussing this classification, explaining what it means, and whether this should change your dinner plans. I hope you’ll find these useful in attempting to digest this information and discussing it with others.
(Note: I will attempt to update this post as I come across more stories and articles explaining this announcement and putting it into perspective. If you find any good articles, please feel free to post them as a comment!)
From CBS News:
From Dr. Robert Clemens at Food Insight:
These rulings discuss hazard, but they’re reported as risk. For example. sunlight (hazard) is needed for vitamin D synthesis, yet excessive exposure increases one’s risk of skin cancer. Alcohol is a known liver toxin (hazard), yet when consumed in moderation (exposure) it reduces risk of developing adverse cardiovascular events. There are many more examples like these. The Lancet article is clear that the evidence is weak or inconsistent. Importantly, IARC notes that its role is to identify hazard, not causality.
From Cancer Research UK:
[L]et’s be clear: yes, a prolonged high-meat diet isn’t terribly good for you. But a steak, bacon sandwich or sausage bap a few times a week probably isn’t much to worry about. And overall the risks are much lower than for other things linked to cancer – such as smoking.
From Compound Interest (check out the link for a great graphic):
The important thing to realise about the IARC classifications is that they don’t assess the level of risk that a particular agent poses with respect to cancer. They simply rank the quality of the evidence of it being cancer-causing. Group 1 is the highest in this regard – the placement of a substance into this classification means that there is sufficient evidence in humans for it causing cancer. Other example group 1 substances include alcohol and smoking.
Red meat, meanwhile, was placed into group 2A. This group is for substances defined as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’; this means that the evidence in humans is still somewhat limited, but there is sufficient evidence in experimental animals of the substance’s carcinogenic nature. As the evidence decreases, so does the ranking. Group 2B ‘possibly’ causes cancer, group 3 is for substances for which the evidence remains inadequate to state either way, and group 4 is for those which there is evidence that they are not carcinogenic.
From Julie Gunlock at Independent Women’s Forum:
Knowing that the WHO study found an association is important because it’s easy to find associations and correlations between certain behaviors and diseases. And that’s the point. These studies are often limited because we simply don’t know all the habits of the people in the study—habits that might have more to do with the person developing cancer.
From Bovidiva (nice perspective from agriculture):
Rather than health benefits, this announcement may reduce meat consumption by people who are most vulnerable to health complications from nutrient deficiencies (e.g. growing children, pregnant women and elderly people); not to mention the undoubted glee of anti-animal agriculture groups who will welcome the gift of further ammunition against meat consumption.