Myth: Meat causes cancer.
In some studies, eating meat has been flagged as a potential contributor to some cancers, but the scientific story is far from ending and is very complex. It may be too much meat, processed meat, charred meat or not enough protective plant foods, rather than meat per se that poses a risk. To say ‘meat causes cancer’ is an overstatement and scaremongering about a highly nutritious food.
What is the evidence? The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommend we limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat because they have assessed the evidence as ‘convincing’ that red meat and processed meat increase the risk of bowel (colorectal) cancer. However, cancer researchers the world over concede the scientific evidence is hard to disentangle.
What is muddying the water? Meat is a complex food containing a variety of nutrients. The
nutritional composition can vary widely, depending on how it is grown, which cuts are eaten and how they are cooked. Fatty cuts of meat contain higher levels of saturated fat, so perhaps the cancer culprit is actually the fat rather than the lean meat—we’re advised to eat our meat lean anyway for reducing cholesterol and heart disease risk. The problem may be charring the meat—
carcinogenic compounds such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when meat is charred.
Population studies of meat-eating have used vegetarian groups for comparison, including religious communities such as Seventh Day Adventists (SDA). It is very difficult to separate other factors in these communities when comparing them with meat-eaters from more diverse backgrounds. For example, SDAs do not drink alcohol and their religious beliefs compel them to live a healthier lifestyle in general—not just to be vegetarian. Their religious faith may itself be a confounding factor for health.
And then there is the big question of whether meat-eaters have less room on their plate for plant foods, which are considered protective. It may be a case of not enough vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts rather than eating meat.
How much meat? The WCRD & AICR don’t advise us to stop eating meat. Instead, they suggest limiting the amount of red meat to less than 500g (17.oz) cooked weight a week (70g/2.oz a day), and ensure very little —if any—of it is processed meat. This is bang-on the amount that government guidelines recommend for good health. The only arguments against this amount come from the meat industry, and especially from the smallgoods industry. The fact that well-loved foods such as bacon, ham and salami would pose a health risk has also been difficult for the public to swallow as well.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist and author of Food Myths available in bookshops and online and from www.greatideas.net.au