Accusations have been flying, people are panicking, and radical animal rights groups have been in a state of euphoria ever since the World Health Organization (WHO) released a misleading statement that claimed red and processed meats cause cancer.
Since then the organization has backtracked and released more specific information about their meta-analysis, but not before causing a panic all across the nation. The best description of the organization’s misstep is plainly: “irresponsible.”
So let’s talk facts, clear the air and resolve the issue that WHO has brought to the table.
First and foremost, the claim as interpreted by animal rights groups and the liberal, fear mongering, media: Processed and red meats are now proven to be a significant cause of cancer.
This is absolutely false.
What WHO actually said in their original statement: Red meat has been classified as, after a study by 22 experts, ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ based on ‘limited evidence’ and processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans based on sufficient evidence that processed meat causes colorectal cancer. HOWEVER, later on in the statement Dr. Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Program said, “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small.”
What it means
At first it is pretty difficult to wade through the actual meaning of what WHO released, especially with all of the negative rhetoric against the animal agriculture industry. So we are going to break down their study step-by-step and evaluate what it means for you as an individual.
Let’s define what they are attacking: 1) red meat, and 2) processed meat. Red meat is considered to be all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat. Processed meat has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.
So, no, WHO didn’t just accuse bacon and hot dogs of causing cancer, but almost all forms of edible meat. And their most egregious claims were made against mainly food that has been preserved for long term use. Keep in mind, we have been salting, curing, and smoking meat for preservation for literally thousands of years.
Yet, the phrasing of their accusations was more combative than the evidence could ever support. Red meat was classified as Group 2A, for “probable carcinogens.” Due to the sheer difficulty of isolating all possible variables in a scientific study over the complex issue of cancer, the scientists could not prove carcinogenic causation for the consumption of red meat.
They instead believe that a small amount of “limited evidence” shows a correlation of colorectal cancer to red meat consumption. It is that correlation that has let to their statement that red meat is “probably carcinogenic.”
However, in the statement they freely admit that this classification in no way shows the strength of meat consumption on cancer or a positive relationship of causation.
As for processed meat, it was classified in Group 1; “carcinogenic to humans,” based on ‘sufficient evidence.’ Also in this group are smoking tobacco and asbestos, a fact that has contributed to the media chaos.
What people fail to realize though (a point that is later iterated in a Q & A with WHO) is that, like with red meat, in no way does this mean the strength of the carcinogenic effects are equal. The group classifications are decided only by the strength of the evidence against the thing that is accused of being carcinogenic, not the difference in absolute risk. Clear as mud, right?
How this affects YOU
When you continue reading the original statement, a peek into an estimate of actual carcinogenic effects is mentioned; they claim that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
This is known as relative risk because it doesn’t address the actual risk for the individual, just how much greater their risk is than someone else. Due to the progressivity of percentage analysis this can be highly misleading when talking about extremely smaller numbers.
18% sounds like a lot, right? Sure… that is, until you look at how low the possibility of conducting colorectal cancer actually is. The national average is approximately 1.8% without any connection of it to your bloodline historically.
Therefore, to find the difference in cancer vulnerability you have to adjust the average to the percentage of people in America who are vegan, and those who eat meat. Without boring you too much and getting into the nitty-gritty of statistical analysis that will mean dusting off your old algebra books, try to follow along.
If 98% of our population eats meat and 2% are vegan vegetarian, then the combination of X (likeliness for a meat eater to get colorectal cancer) and Y (the likeliness for a non-meat eater to get cancer) multiplied by .98 and .02 respectively should equal together the .018 possibility of getting the cancer. In math terms that’s: X(.98)*Y(.02)= .018. Now, since X is 18% more likely to get the cancer than Y, X=Y(1.18). Agreed?
The actual percentages then come out to approximately 1.805% chance of getting the cancer for a meat eater (X) and 1.530% chance for non-meat eaters (Y). So yes, the relative risk is about 18% higher, but in actual risk you are looking at a .275% difference. Meat eaters are less than half of a percentage point more likely to get colorectal cancer than non meat eaters! Doesn’t sound so scary now does it?
This statistic is absolutely miniscule, and although they didn’t release it with their statement WHO and IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer) knew its insignificant effect. Director of IARC, Dr. Christopher Wild, even said:
”These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat. At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
But why address this at all? This situation oddly reminds us of a statistic released not too long ago that proved children who received multiple CT scans are three times more likely to get leukemia or brain cancer as some point.
That’s a 33.3% increased relative risk over other children, but as was pointed out then (like we are doing for this situation) the actual risk of that child getting such cancer is so small that even the relatively large increased relative risk would amount to virtually no increase in actual cancer statistics. Thus they never stopped giving children-in-need CT scans, and for good reason.
Basically, Group 1 classification and 18% increase in cancer sounds bad, but it has almost NO REAL EFFECTS. Which is the largest reason why the press release was irresponsible and that they have spent the last week backtracking.
Their following press releases and Q & A pages are filled with phrases like: “but the evidence is not conclusive,” “has not yet been established as a cause of cancer” and “eating meat has known health benefits” in an attempt to stop the panic that they and the media inadvertently caused.
They are scientists; they recognize the positive effects of meat, many of which we pointed out in our article earlier this year “The Scientific Response to Radical Veganism.” They know that if you do a cost benefit analysis than the amazing benefits of meat consumption overwhelmingly outweigh the risk.
Each year there is more and more evidence proving meat consumption’s mental, physical, and emotional health benefits. Meat has particular vitamins, minerals, and protein that cannot be effectively provided by plants or supplements. Meat is just healthier!
So yes, technically there is evidence showing that meat may cause an increased relative rate in certain types of cancer, but the actual risk difference comes nowhere near enough to outweigh the positive effects of meat.
Do you think it is worth it to risk anemia, impaired cognitive functions, symptoms of mental disorders, a smaller brain, depression, Alzheimer’s, dementia, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, and many other disease caused by lack of meat to reduce the chance of cancer by .275%?
Please share your opinions in the comment section below.
PSA: The LATimes did a similar absolute risk evaluation based on a 5% average risk (not filtering out preexisting conditions or increased risk through bloodline) and failed to adjust the outcome based on the 2% of our society that doesn’t eat meat factoring into the average, but even with the larger numbers the absolute risk increase was less than one percent.