Meat Consumption and Cancer (WHO report and media frenzy)
This week, the media here in the UK (and elsewhere I guess) is awash with this latest ‘processed meat and cancer’ story. WHO cancer agency IARC (The International Agency for Research on Cancer) just published a report (October 2015) identifying associations between meat consumption and cancer. The media has, predictably, gone nuts over this story.
In my opinion, this is not news at all. This supports everything I say and every word MotherNaturesDiet stands for.
‘Processed’ is the key word here
The report mostly points a finger at processed meat, then less so at red meat in general.
Living the MotherNaturesDiet way, we say ‘avoid processed foods’. That’s Core Principle 3. If it has a barcode and a list of ingredients, don’t eat it. That stands here, for processed meat, too.
Just to be clear, this new report won’t be forcing me to make any changes to the MotherNaturesDiet recommended healthy lifestyle. I’ve been warning against processed meat for a long time.
In my opinion, any dietary advice generally around ‘red meat’ MUST be openly questioned.
As I often explain in my live seminars, before you eat an animal (or plant) you have to ask “What did that animal eat?”
If the animal was mistreated and eating grains, and worse (antibiotics, growth hormones, ash, cardboard, mashed up pig parts…etc.) then that animal will make meat that is not so good for you. But if the animal has lived a natural life, living outside (pasture raised, free range) eating grass (natural food for cows) and been treated properly, then the meat will be nutritious and good for you.
This is, of course, the logic behind Core Principle 8 – eat only organic, free range, pasture-raised, grass-fed meat.
So this WHO advisory makes ZERO different at all to MND.
For a long time, I have been asking the question:
Looking at meat from a cow that has been kept in a barn and fed grain and antibiotics, and then looking at the meat from a cow that has lived outside in pasture and eaten grass and been allowed to grow at natural speed…these are 2 completed different meats. The grain-fed stuff is high in omega-6 fatty acids (not good) and the grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids (good for you).
Question: Is IARC/WHO making any attempt to differentiate between the two?
This is what we want to know. When are they going to compare the health benefits of ‘natural organic red meat’ from grass-fed animals to ‘the vastly inferior red meat end-product of intensive industrialised farming’ where animals are mistreated, grain-fed, locked in barns and cages and fed hormones and antibiotics? The food often sold in our nation-wide supermarket chains can be quite different to the quality meat you’ll get from a local family butcher. As I often write, get to know your butcher, build a relationship and talk to him about how his meat is raised and fed. Ignore labelling and build a local relationship – you ideally want to be buying food that doesn’t have a label, or a list of ingredients.
I have written on this topic many times before.
If the years continue to pass and this research is not done, when MotherNaturesDiet grows as a business and can afford to start funding research, we will have this research done, independently, at whatever the cost.
The IARC official notes
This report comes from IARC, the cancer division of WHO.
I downloaded the report and other materials from IARC and here are some extracts from the report itself, the press release and the official FAQs.
- Processed meat – which MND says don’t eat, Core Principle 3, remember?
- IARC says “The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”
- Reading the references that they used for this report, it seems the ‘main’ source for this reported 18% increased cancer risk was this study reported here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21674008?dopt=Abstract
- That study in itself, is also a meta-analysis of many other studies
- As I suspected, this 18% increase in risk of colorectal cancer is a relative risk, not an absolute risk. In other words, they are quoting a figure that does NOT mean “18% more of the public will get colorectal cancer” – it means “within the small percentage of the population who currently suffer this illness, we will see an 18% increase in that small number.”
- One third of all the ‘weighting’ in that study has been taken from data from this (yet another) study – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18076279
- This one was a US study (remember, we have much tighter restrictions in the EU around how animals are treated) of 500k people aged between 50 and 71, completed over 8 years back in the 1990s
- According to CDC data (here: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/statistics/race.htm ) it looks as though around 65 to 70 people, per 100k of the population, suffered colorectal cancer in the USA back in the 1990s
- An 18% increase in that data, means 77 people out of 100,000 instead of 65 people out of 100,000. And remember, this data is for the US, where farming standards are lower and they eat more meat per person than most Europeans
- So as far as I can tell, the bulk of this research is based on that study and others like it
- 20 year old research, from the US, showing that moderately-high consumption of processed meat among 50 to 71 year olds, led to 77 cases of colorectal cancer per 100,000 people, compared to 65 cases per 100,000 people who didn’t eat much/any processed meat. That’s where the 18% figure comes from.
My suspicion is confirmed when the notes for this new IARC report state “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” says Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC program”.
I am not sure how they reached the conclusion that the risk ‘increases with the amount of meat consumed’ because the study report shows a 17% risk per 100 grams per day of processed meat consumed, but an 18% risk per 50 grams of processed meat consumed. In other words, people eating more processed meat saw a slight (tiny) drop from 18% risk to 17% risk. Odd! See image.
Still, the report author states that the “risk REMAINS SMALL.” This is crucial, confirming that this 18% is only a “small increased risk” – because they are looking at relative risk, not absolute risk.
So are people actually dying?
Additionally, the statement makes no mention of mortality at all, not a word. Often, if mortality is not mentioned in a research report, it means it was not studied, or it was and it turns out that no observable trend was seen. In other words, by the fact that mortality is not mentioned at all in these report notes, I’m guessing they found absolutely no observable trend at all between meat consumption and all-cause mortality. So there is no evidence meat eating kills anyone, at all. (Oh but have you seen the media headlines this week?)
The report conclusions looked at 12 types of cancer, but only found associations for 3 –
Quote: “This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.”
Note: “association” is all they are saying, not “cause”.
Poultry and fish were not looked at in this study, not at all. So this isn’t a study of vegetarian lifestyles versus meat eating, this is an isolated look at processed meat and red meat, only.
They say much less damning things about ‘red meat’ than media headlines suggest. For red meat they say “probably” and “limited evidence” (see image take from IARC notes)
They say “limited evidence” which means ‘some’ association was observed, but there could be other causes.
This really means nothing. Associations are available everywhere – like “everyone who ever had cancer drinks water, so water must be carcinogenic.”
On the question of “are any particular types of red meat more closely associated” the report authors note that “there is not enough information to say whether higher or lower cancer risks are related to eating any particular type of red meat.” In other words – there was absolutely NO separation of mass farmed cheap meat from organic pastured meat, etc.
Why? Because in fact, this report does not come from a new study at all. The report was written as the result of a panel of 22 people looking back over 800 other research studies and papers over the last 20 years or more to see what key trends they can observe. So this isn’t a new study at all.
This is 22 people, looking at all the same old studies that have failed to answer these questions over the last 2 decades.
That’s all the same studies that never separate meat from animals that have lived naturally, from meat from animals that have been intensively farmed.
That’s the key point I always come back to –
So in summary:
- 22 people, a panel of experts, looked back over the results from 800 studies, and correlated a bunch of results. No new research was conducted
- Many of the studies they reviewed, are large ‘self-reported’ studies, where people retrospectively complete questionnaires about what they have eaten over the last week/month/year. Such studies are infamously fraught with inaccuracies and inconsistencies
- They concluded that eating processed meat (often treated with chemical nitrites and nitrates, preservatives that keep the meat from going rancid, and keep it pink to look at, prolonging shelf life – these chemicals are extensively implicated in cancer and heart disease) causes a very small increase in the risk of colorectal cancer, and may have associations with 2 other types of cancer
- They state that they looked at a dozen types of cancer, but only found these associations for colorectal cancer, and weaker associations for 2 others. I also read that as “for 9 out of 12 types of cancer, it made no difference at all”
- The report makes no mention at all of mortality, suggesting to me that no correlation was observed. That’s 800 studies over 20 years, across many countries, populations and dietary lifestyles, and no evidence that eating meat kills ANYONE
- They saw some ‘limited evidence’ that red meat ‘might’ also have ‘some correlation’ with these small increased risks, but as yet further research would be required to draw any conclusions
- None of the research made ANY distinction between the sort of meat we see in cheap packs in the supermarket, and quality organic grass-fed meat. Supermarket meat will be grain fed, higher in omega-6 fatty acids and could have traces of antibiotics and more in it. Many of the studies they no doubt assessed will have been done in the US, where antibiotic use is much higher than in Europe, and growth hormones are also used. The routine use of growth hormones and antibiotics in cattle are both banned in the EU
- By contrast, organic grass-fed meat will be free from such chemical residues and also higher in omega-3 fatty acids, that are positively associated with good health
- This study makes no distinction at all between the two
- The study also notes that eating “red meat has nutritional value”. The report text says “Red meat contains high biological-value proteins and important micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron (both free iron and haem iron), and zinc”
- No analysis of vegetarian versus meat-eating diets was conducted
- As this was a meta-analysis (a study of studies), then it’s impossible to understand which confounding factors may or may not have been assessed. I.E. in many studies that look at cancer rates in meat eaters versus vegetarians, they fail to recognise that many people who opt for a vegetarian lifestyle do so out of care for their health – these people also tend to smoke less, exercise more, eat a little less, drink less and consume less sugar. This meta study seems to broadly ignore (but at least acknowledges) all such confounding factors.
So, we have some evidence against processed meat – MotherNaturesDiet already says “no processed meat”, so that comes as no surprise.
And we have a little, very weak, inconclusive evidence against red meat, with no study of organic pastured meat, versus ‘junk’ meat.
And no new research was conducted.
It’s hardly the research story of the Century, right?
And yet what does the UK press say today?
No, dear Guardian newspaper, that is NOT what the IARC report says.
“Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO” – The Guardian.
Really? Is that what the IARC study says? Ranks alongside smoking? Smoking is known to directly cause 20% of all cancer deaths worldwide, it’s the world’s #1 cause of preventable death. Hardly the same thing “A small increase in risk of colorectal cancer” and red meat “limited evidence” there is “probably” an “association”.
“Processed meats do cause cancer – WHO” – the BBC
Remember “a small increase risk” is not the same thing as “proven direct cause”. Poor reporting from the BBC.
“WHO cancer report: Bacon, sausages and other processed meats cause cancer” – The Independent
I see a lot of my vegan and vegetarian friends on Facebook all over this like a rash.
Guys, you know I respect your choice for animal welfare reasons, and I fully support good animal husbandry in farming, but don’t get too sucked in to biased incomplete media reporting.
Should we all go vegetarian?
I ask this common sense question of myself constantly, I am always evaluating this issue for you.
But my brain says…
If we “aren’t supposed to eat meat” then what do you think we ate for 3 million years before the ‘nice’ people at Kellogg’s, Nestle, McDonalds and Cadbury’s came along? Serious question?
You see, I have studied broad topics around evolution, genetics and anthropology.
According to all the evidence, if you have white skin, you evolved as a rampant meat eater.
Sure, if you have dark skin, if your genetic roots come from the tropics, then maybe your ancient African ancestors ate a lot of fruit and coconuts. (Evidence suggests they ate a lot of meat and, once domestication of livestock began, a lot of dairy too.)
But if you have white skin, where do you think that white skin came from?
White skin evolved between 15k years ago and 5k years ago, in Northern Europe, then war-mongering Brits, French, Spaniards, Romans, Portuguese and Dutchmen exported our white genes around the world in the name of religion and empire. White skin evolved because our ancient ancestors needed more vitamin D in order to live in the reduced sunlight. The sun does not make enough vitamin D even with our pale white skin, which is part of the reason why we are all so vitamin D deficient in the UK these days (studies suggest 75% to 85% of Brits are vitamin D deficient). We MUST eat animal foods to get our vitamin D, which is not available from plants.
Our ancient ancestors could not have survived winter in the North on plant food alone because above the 40 degrees parallel (think Rome), plant life does not form abundantly enough through winter to sustain a balanced human diet. If the first settlers in Europe had tried to live as vegetarians, they would have very quickly died out.
White skin ONLY evolved because our ancient Viking ancestors (15k years ago) learned to live on fish. And those ancestors only arrived in Europe after hunting their way across the Russian steppe for 40k years hunting woolly mammoth into extinction.
Don’t get all wrapped up in feeling guilty about animals, we evolved to eat other animals, that’s how it is, humans are THE supreme killer on this planet.
Don’t get me wrong, I will defend animal rights to the end, we have NO RIGHT to mistreat and abuse animals while they are alive – nothing should be kept in a cage, beaten or forced to eat drugs. We should treat all farm animals with respect, right up to the end.
I wonder, if we “are not supposed to eat meat” – what do you think people ate before supermarkets and processed foods came along? Anatomically modern man has been around for 185k years, I wonder what do you think he ate for 180k years of that time?
When I ask “What do you think our ancient ancestors ate?” I often have vegetarian friends say to me “Oh, fruits and vegetables!”
I say try this; go to the forested hills of Bavaria in Germany, or the flatlands of Holland, or the Alpine meadows of Switzerland, or to pretty much anywhere in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Ukraine, Belarus, Austria, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland…and stick a tent up in the woods and live off the land through one whole winter, foraging and hunting for your own food.
If you live, call me, I’ll buy you dinner and you can tell me all about what you ate.
There are NO plants save a few hardy roots if you can find them, a few herbs and edible leaves, so good luck with the whole vegan thing…
And if we lived on plants, how come archaeologists find all these animal bones with human teeth marks on them? What did we just gnaw on bones for fun 50,000 years ago?
Anyway, that’s enough for today. Beware of the media. Research studies already use dubious headlines to make their press releases sound more interesting, but the media truly take things too far. Don’t believe the hype folks.