WHO: Processed Meats Pose Cancer Risk

Spam & hotdogs - processed meats

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WHO: Processed Meats Pose Cancer Risk

| published October 27, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff


Most of us already knew that processed meats were bad for us, and hopefully few actually thought that things like lunchmeat, bologna, hot dogs and sausage were somehow healthy.

But the bad news this week still came as a painful wake-up call to millions of Americans and Europeans who like the occasional grilled wiener or salami sandwich.

The World Health Organization has confirmed what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has already told us: processed meats significantly raise the risk of internal cancers, especially stomach, esophageal and colon cancer. WHO also said that red meats in any form—beef, lamb, deer—also increase the risk of cancer, but it did not specifically rank them as quite as dangerous as processed meats.

WHO went slightly further, infuriating North American and European meat producers, by comparing the dangers of processed meats to the profound risks associated with cigarette smoking—essentially declaring the cancer risk factors of processed meats to as close to absolute as it can get. WHO says it based its conclusions on the results of more than 800 separate medical studies and university reports worldwide, using data from more than 100 countries.

However, the big meat-makers and producers of processed meats, especially in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, have labelled the WHO report baloney. The North American Meat Institute says that the report is wildly exaggerated, and contains dubious leaps of faith regarding the risk factors involved in a diet which includes meat. The association fired back with a media statement which said that there is no conclusive evidence showing a “correlation between meat and cancer.”

But consumer advocates, food safety experts, and health enthusiasts took to social media and the internet to declare victory, trumpeting the report as proof of what they have been saying all along—that processed meats are unhealthy and carry heavy risk factors, among them obesity and poor cardiovascular health, but most especially the risk of internal cancer.

Some U.S. and Canadian studies in the 1980s and 1990s had already arrived at the conclusion that among people who consume a higher-than average amount of processed meats—especially hot dogs, bologna, processed franks and sausages, processed ham and chicken, canned meats, and products like Spam—placed themselves at a measurably higher risk for stomach, esophageal and colon cancer. In addition, the link between a high intake of red meat and colon cancer was also widely understood to be a reality among doctors in the U.S. decades ago.

The WHO report takes it a step further, telling us in essence that—based on those hundreds of long term studies—processed meats are a ticket to the oncologist.

This makes for bad news for companies like Tyson Foods (which makes Jimmy Dean Sausages and Ball Park Franks), Hormel (Spam, Hormel Bacon, and numerous subsidiary makers of lunch meat), and the newly-merged Kraft-Heinz (which owns Oscar Mayer), all of whom saw varying levels of disruption to stock prices on Monday after the report came out.

Several of the major meat producers released press statements suggesting that the WHO report largely ignores the value of meat as a source of protein. The major television networks in the U.S. and Britain almost all included reports and interviews with doctors and oncologists, some of whom said that although the risk factors are genuine—especially for those participants in the studies who consumed large amounts of processed meat and red meat—the best advice for most people is still “moderation,” not the total elimination of a group of items.

Other experts pointed out that the largest contributing factor in that cancer risk may come as a direct result of the process used to get those meat products into the hands of consumers—antibiotics, hormones, chemical preservatives, refined sugars and salt, and artificial additives. Consumer advocates have long supported legislation which would mandate that meat producers shift away from these ingredients as a way to make foods safer.

In the meantime, Americans—who spend billions each year on products like hot dogs, sausages, bacon and lunchmeat—will now face a decision as they consider those savory, quasi-addictive items in the grocery stores. Whether the WHO report changes those buying habits is unclear.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Tasty Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Cancer; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 1, 2015.

Some Tasty Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; May 14, 2014.