To eat, or not to eat, red and pro­cessed meat

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS CANADA -

Are­port by theWorldHealth Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s In­ter­na­tional Agency for Re­search on Can­cer has said there is enough ev­i­dence to rank pro­cessed meats— such as ham, ba­con and sausages— as “group 1 car­cino­gens”, be­cause of their causal link with bowel can­cer. Pro­cessed meats are meats that have been trans­formed through salt­ing, cur­ing, fer­men­ta­tion, smok­ing, and other pro­cesses to en­hance fla­vor or im­prove preser­va­tion.

Ex­pect­edly, the IARC re­port has caused un­easi­ness among the pub­lic world­wide and its con­clu­sion has been vi­o­lently re­jected by the meat industry.

“For an in­di­vid­ual, the risk of de­vel­op­ing col­orec­tal can­cer be­cause of… con­sump­tion of pro­cessed meats re­mains small, but this risk in­creases with the amount of meat con­sumed,” said Kurt Straif, head of the IARC mono­graph pro­gram.

The IARC re­port eval­u­ated data from more than 800 dif­fer­ent stud­ies of can­cer risks in hu­mans, over 700 of which in­volved red meat and more than 400 in­volved pro­cessed meat. A team of 22 in­ter­na­tional ex­perts re­viewed the ev­i­dence, and it placed pro­cessed meats in Group 1— Car­cino­genic to­Hu­mans— the same cat­e­gory as cig­a­rettes. How­ever, red meat (beef, pork, lamb) is as­signed to Group 2A— Prob­a­bly Car­cino­genic to­Hu­mans.

AlthoughWHO­clas­si­fies pro­cessed meats and cig­a­rettes both in the high­est cat­e­gory of car­cino­gens, the clas­si­fi­ca­tion re­flects only the strength of the ev­i­dence to sup­port this claim; it is not a re­flec­tion of the level of risk.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween the risks posed by meat with or with­out be­ing pro­cessed is highly sig­nif­i­cant, be­cause pro­cess­ing adds sev­eral sub­stances to the meat prod­ucts that may be the real can­cer caus­ing agents. The re­port also doesn’t make the dif­fer­ence be­tween the ef­fects of con­sum­ing meat with sev­eral ad­di­tives and meat to which much fewer ad­di­tives are added.

Not all coun­tries process meat in the same way. In some in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries such as the United States, sev­eral prod­ucts are added to meat and even more to pro­cessed meat, un­like coun­tries such as Ar­gentina or Aus­tralia where meat has fewer ad­di­tives.

Among the sub­stances added to meat are sodium ben­zoate, sodium pro­pi­onate and ben­zoic acid, which, in some con­di­tions, have shown to have car­cino­genic po­ten­tial. Ni­trites and ni­trates are rou­tinely added to meat to in­hibit the growth of bac­te­ria and en­hance color. When ni­trites com­bine with some amino acids, can­cer caus­ing com­pounds called ni­trosamines are pro­duced.

An­tibi­otics are part of the diet of US live­stock to make them grow faster and pre­vent dis­ease out­breaks. How­ever, an­tibi­otics in an­i­mal feed have proven to be a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor for the in­crease in an­tibi­otic re­sis­tance among hu­mans. Sul­fites have been widely used as preser­va­tives in food to main­tain their color and pro­long shelf life. But sul­fites can also trig­ger asthma at­tacks among peo­ple who are sen­si­tive to them.

In a 2010 re­port, the US Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s Of­fice of the In­spec­tor Gen­eral found high residues of cop­per, ar­senic and other heavy met­als and vet­eri­nary drugs in beef dis­trib­uted for pub­lic con­sump­tion. In ad­di­tion, traces of pes­ti­cides can also be found in some an­i­mal feeds.

Al­though th­ese are just a fe­wof the sub­stances that can be found in reg­u­lar and pro­cessed meat the ob­vi­ous ques­tion is: Are meat and pro­cessed meat car­cino­genic, or are the sub­stances added to them re­spon­si­ble for their be­com­ing po­ten­tially car­cino­gen?

Th­ese con­sid­er­a­tions point to the need for the food reg­u­la­tory agen­cies to be stricter in their con­trol of food qual­ity and also the need for more ex­haus­tive stud­ies com­par­ing con­sump­tion of meat and pro­cessed meats with and with­out harm­ful ad­di­tives. Un­til the re­sults are out, pop­u­lar wis­dom is still the best ad­vice: eat every­thing in mod­er­a­tion.

The author is an in­ter­na­tional pub­lic health con­sul­tant.

WANG XIAOY­ING / CHINA DAILY

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