“Bacon and Hot Dogs Can Cause Cancer!!” This was the dire warning sent out by the World Health Organization last Monday, essentially rocking the world of millions of processed meat eaters everywhere. They also labeled red meat as “possibly carcinogenic.” Who knew? Well it turns out, we pretty much all did, or at least we should have. None of this is new. The WHO made their decision based on decades worth of nutritional studies. In fact, a similar statement was made in 2007 by other institutions. There was no new trial that just came out showing this to be true. Instead, it was an expert opinion that happened because they had a scheduled meeting and reviewed the old data. Don’t get me wrong. I applaud any reminder that some of our nutritional choices may have adverse consequences for us. What bothers me about the report, however, is the lack of clarity in the rating system and the “breaking release.”
Processed meats (bacon, hot dogs, sausages) was labeled as a Group 1 carcinogen, which is the highest rating they have and states that something has strong evidence to support that it has the POTENTIAL to cause cancer. Not that it WILL cause cancer, but has the potential to do so. This is the same classification as smoking, alcohol and asbestos exposure. However it does NOT mean they are equal in how often they cause cancer. It simply reflects the research strength, NOT the degree of risk. I feel this is worth repeating. It does not mean that smoking cigarettes is equivalent to eating hot dogs. It just means they both have a strong level of evidence behind them regarding the correlation.
Even more confusing is the 2B classification of red meat, which is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” To put it into context, some have quoted the fact that group 4, “probably not carcinogenic to humans,” has just one substance listed despite hundreds that have been evaluated. So the 2B category of red meat is where pretty much everything else is deposited that can’t be proven yes and cant be proven no. I don’t know about you, but I do not find that helpful at all.
You know what else causes cancer? THE SUN! Does that mean we should all stay out of the sun forever? No. But it does mean we need to be aware of our cumulative sun exposure. We shouldn’t lie out in the desert sun at noon bathed in suntan oil for hours at a time. We need to limit our sun exposure, not eliminate it. Alcohol is also a class 1. How has that affected Budweiser sales? That should give you an idea of the classification.
What is the quick summary? If hot dogs and bacon are part of your every meal, then this report was another good wakeup call that it is time to reevaluate your nutritional choices. But if you have the occasional bacon as part of your Cobb salad, or you have a few slices of beef jerky during your round of golf on Saturdays, then you need not worry too much about the “new” report. Just be aware that some of your nutritional choices may have long term implications. As for red meat? This classification adds nothing new. There may be a real association between red meat and colon cancer. Or there may not. It is tough to say with scientific clarity.
The good news is that the report allows us another opportunity to emphasize that we should all focus on a real food, vegetable based, Mediterranean style diet. Anything to help support that is a welcome addition. But I think the WHO needs to be clearer in their classification system, and not unduly scare people into thinking their 4oz of grass fed steak on top of the salad packed with veggies is as evil as smoking a pack of cigarettes. That just does not compute.
The one take home that we can all hopefully agree upon is that the WHO needs a better classification system!