There has been a great commotion around what has been in many cases communicated as the “inclusion” by the WHO(World Health Organization) of red meat amongst carcinogenic products. Quite a few, driven by sensationalism have even elevated red meat to the same level as tobacco or alcohol.
As so many times before, the report needs to be analysed and put into context so as to avoid an unjustified social alarm as well as a relevant damage to such a relevant industry in the world as the meat industry.
Let’s proceed toanalyse the reality behind the tabloids.
It is the IARC, the WHO’s agency which investigates cancer, who has evaluated a certain risk in processed red meat, concluding that there is possibly a relation between the consumption of these products and an increase in the risk of developing cancer.
The first fact we must consider is that the report from which this affirmation arises, is not based in scientific tests specifically developed by the WHO to study the risks of red meat ingestion; these conclusions come from analysingstudies developed for different ends from different sources.
Furthermore, the studies from which these conclusions come where developed in order to analyse other risk factors, which means that the consumption of red meat in the subjects of the study has not been isolated from other relevant factors such as obesity, alcohol consumption, etc. In other words, the WHO has not studied if there is a direct relation between the consumption of red meat and an increase in cancer development. It exists when combined with other factors, but given the relevance of those factors it is impossible to determine which one is the driver in this relationship.
Truth is that since 1971, more than 900 agents have been evaluated and only one has been found «probably not carcinogenic». In addition to that amongst those considered carcinogenic we find sun light or air, elements without which human life cannot exist…
And just as they do not recommend living in a dark cave to avoid sun light forever, neither do they recommend stopping the ingestion of red meats just, as everything in life,doing it moderately. Both sunlight and red meat may have negative consequences if taken to the extreme, but using them moderately is both healthy and beneficial.
Meat and meat products are an essential source of high biologic value proteins, as well as a great source of essentialamino acids. They contain many nutritionally essential elements (such as iron, selenium, zinc and vitamins) and hold an important role in a balanced diet.
In any case, cancer always depends on a combination of multiple factors, which include age, genetics, diet, environment and lifestyle; and cannot in any case be associated to a single agent. Furthermore, the relative risk of cancer derived from the consumption of processed meat is significantly inferior to the one produced by other risk factors such as: colon illnesses, BME (body-mass index), absence of physical activity and tobacco consumption.
Environmental factors (external and internal air, pollution, contaminants…) have also shown significantly higher relative risk values in different types of cancer. In the most recent scientific reports it becomes apparent that people, who eat disproportionate quantities of processed meat where as well prone to smoke, drink in excess and eat less fruits and vegetables, making impossible to separate those risk factors.
Cancer is a very complex illness. There is not one food which is a trigger or a remedy. The best way to minimize risk is to follow a healthy lifestyle, in which meat has a natural place within a balanced diet.
Due to everything stated above, any recommendation to avoid processed meat is simplistic and inexact in extreme, as it does not account for the great variety and typology of meat products to be found in the UE, or to the fact that a moderate consumption of meat products is necessarily part of balanced and varied diet.
Furthermore, it is obvious that not all meats are alike. For example, in Spain, it is worth noting the case of 100% Iberico Bellota Ham, a product which could be classified as “processed meat” as it follows a drying and salting process. Nevertheless, it is clear that the natural drying process it follows has nothing to do with the industrial processes followed by other processed meats (riskier due to nitrate content, high cooking temperatures, type of smoking, type of meat, etc.). In addition, in the case of 100% Iberico Bellota Ham, there are no preservatives in place, with the exception of marine salt, which is again a big difference.
Numerous scientific studies show that a moderate consumption of 100% Iberico Bellota Ham is actually beneficial for your health, especially for the cardiovascular system. This meat, low in calories, protects the cardiac and circulatory systems, reduces cholesterol and is rich in all type of vitamins.
Summarising, we must flee from simplistic conclusions when considering this matter. The IARC announcement in reality has changed little in what cancer prevention is concerned: tobacco, obesity and excessive alcohol consumption are still the higher risk factors.