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Red and processed meats — how dangerous?

You probably read the news that the World Health Organization has ruled that red and processed meats are carcinogenic. What you may not have seen is an assessment of what that means in reality.

Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has analysed the report and concluded: "The Guardian wins today's award for misleading science reporting. 'Bacon, sausages and ham rank alongside smoking as causes of cancer'."

Technically, that's accurate, he concedes. But it's about as true as saying that "my housecats 'rank alongside' elephants as large mammals."

He quotes the W.H.O.'s Q&A on red and processed meat carcinogenicity to put the statement in perspective (which cites another research organization):

"About 34 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat....These numbers contrast with about 1 million cancer deaths per year globally due to tobacco smoking, 600 000 per year due to alcohol consumption, and more than 200 000 per year due to air polution.

What excited the media was the judgement that "processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%."

Processed meats not all deadly

And despite The Guardian's photo illustration, hamburgers are not targeted.

The W.H.O. points out: "Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous."

"Eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer. However, if the reported associations were proven to be causal, the Global Burden of Disease Project has estimated that diets high in red meat could be responsible for 50 000 cancer deaths per year worldwide."

"If the association of red meat and colorectal cancer were proven to be causal, data from the same studies suggest that the risk of colorectal colorectal cancer could increase by 17% for every 100 gram portion of red meat eaten daily."


As Dunn estimates, if you eat 50g of processed meat each day your lifetime risk of colorectal cancer goes up from 4.5% to 5.3%.

But it sounds more dramatic if you report, as the W.H.O, phrases it, that "An analysis of data from 10 studies estimated that every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%."

Dunn observes: "If you're really worried about cancer, cut out the smoking, the drinking, the overeating, and the city living. Once you've done that, then it's time to decide if you also want to skip the bacon."

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