Last week’s warning issued by the World Health Organization judging processed meats clearly and red meat probably carcinogenic was no good news for anyone who likes meats, including the meat industry. What to do? Let’s look at the study in more detail and face the fact that more plants and less meat is generally a good idea for one’s health and the world around us. If you love meat a lot, you might want to skip the rest of the story… Come and cook with us!
To be clear, the WHO researchers define processed meat as anything transformed to improve its flavor or preserve it, including sausages, beef jerky and anything smoked. And yes, for my dedicated readers in South Tyrol and Spain, this includes speck and jamon. Researchers defined red meat to include beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat. To give you an indication, as a nation the U.S. eats more meat than almost any other country on the planet. But before going into the details of the study, let’s do the numbers: the overall risk in the U.S. for colorectal cancer is about 1 in 20, so 5%. Eating a daily sandwich with processed meat raises this risk by 18% bringing it to around 6%. In comparison, smoking three cigarettes per day, increases the risk of lung cancer sixfold, or 500%. So this is what we’re dealing with.
But that’s only half the story as there is more than cancer to consider when it comes to eating meat. As Marion Nestle reminds us, eating less meat has been a consistent message since the late ’50, when Ancel and Margaret Keys wrote their diet book for heart disease prevention “Eat Well and Stay Well”. The potential link to cancer only became apparent in the 1970 when scientists began to associate meat with the risk of cancer of the colon and rectum. But since then, it has been been hard to identify the exact culprit that makes meat carcinogenic: is it the fat, the saturated fat, protein, the high heat or something entirely different? It’s not clear.
What we do know, is that eating less meat is good for our own health and for that of the planet. How much red meat is compatible with good health is unclear. As a general rule, processed meat is worse than red meat, and if eating meat, eat less of it, don’t eat it every day, eat plenty of vegetables and think of the cookie monster when you crave that slice of salami, speck or jamon: it’s definitely a sometimes food! Come and cook with us!