So last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that eating processed meats – sausages, bacon, ham, etc – causes colon cancer, and eating red meat “probably” does too. In support, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said it’d found “sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer”. Processed meat was given a cancer-causing status equivalent to tobacco, alcohol, radioactive substances like plutonium, and outdoor air pollution. This made many people, particularly those from the meat industry, exclaim “What the who?!” To understand their concerns, let’s look at some numbers.
According to The North American Meat Institute (NAMI), the meat and poultry industry is the largest segment of US agriculture. Average meat consumption values show red meat and poultry accounting for 92% while the remaining 8% goes to fish. It also noted that Americans spend less on food, in particular meat and poultry, compared to people in other developed countries.
There are more than 6,200 meat and poultry slaughtering and processing plants in the US, which equates to about half a million jobs earning US$20 billion a year. If meat producers, suppliers, distributors, retailers and other associated industries were included, the figure balloons to over six million jobs earning US$200 billion annually. That’s a lot of people working and supporting themselves and their families. That’s also a lot of people who could feel threatened by such announcements from the WHO and the IARC.
According to NAMI, these companies and workers pay more than US$80 billion a year in tax revenues to federal, state and local governments. The meat and poultry industry’s ripple-effect generates more than US$860 billion annually for the US economy, or about 6% of North America’s Gross Domestic Product.
Now, add to North America’s numbers those from South America, Europe, the African nations, Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia and larger Asia… the number of people in the world who consume meat, and who are directly or indirectly involved in the meat industry, is staggering.
At this point, let me just quickly say that I’m not debating the moralities of eating or not eating meat, nor whether the hard-earned salaries of meat-industry workers supporting their families will someday produce inspirational presidents and world-saving scientists. And we’re certainly not discussing the merits or demerits of taxation and whether such monies are used properly to improve the lives of people under government. That’s someone else’s blog.
Here, we’re merely concerned that both the WHO and the IARC have raised alarm bells about eating processed meats. The IARC are concerned in particular about the chemicals used to process ham, bacon and luncheon meat (or spam), and that these chemicals may form cancer-causing substances when digested. In another finding published in 2007 and ratified in 2011, the World Cancer Research Fund said that consuming processed meats is linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer (colorectal cancer) and early death.
I suppose Singaporeans should take these findings seriously. Because colorectal cancer is the most common type of cancer for Singaporean men, and the second most common for our women (behind breast cancer). As a death-causing cancer, colorectal cancer ranks second for men (behind lung cancer), and third for women (after breast and lung, in order).
So, to know the “enemy” better, we’ve got to ask – what exactly is processed meat? And here’s the kicker: it seems there isn’t an all-agreed-upon exact definition. Generally though, processed meat is meat that’s been cured, salted, smoked, or has had chemicals added to it, to enhance flavour, improve preservation or appearance. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but also other red meats (I’m quoting from reported news here, and “other” sounds suspicious!), poultry, offal, or meat by-products (eg. blood). Popular examples are bacon, hotdogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, canned meat and biltong (South African cured meat).
Well, what the who! That covers so many types of meat that I personally like eating, bummer! Oh… my beloved crispy-fried bacon! Ciao, you beautiful prosciutto! So long, salami pizza old friend! Barbequed steaks, hotdogs, gourmet sausages… oh BBQs! All local must-haves: char-siew rice, beef and meatball noodles, mutton briyani, bak-kwa, bak-hoo, lap-cheong… It’s all too much! It’s easy to understand why the WHO’s and the IARC’s findings have people up in arms.
The IARC reckons that each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases one’s risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. Now that’s a lot of scary right there! But critics a.k.a. The Resistance point to the followers of the Mediterranean Diet as an example for their case against such findings. These “dieters” – I refer to them in quotation marks because they aren’t really suffering as regular dieters do, are they? – eat double the recommended amount of processed meat and still have the longest life spans in the world. They also tend to live in Spain and Italy.
I think this second point’s important: the Spanish and Italians have a long history and tradition of eating cured and preserved meats, and over centuries could imaginably have built up a cultural resistance, even immunity, to any badness. I believe the local environments and lifestyles in Spain and Italy also make an important contribution to the formula. And there’s probably a difference in the processed meats that we buy in supermarkets or eat at restaurants, compared to meats that are processed at home by the Spanish and Italians themselves or their neighbourhood butcher shop which they’ve patronised their whole lives. In any case, to be fair I’d take the Med-Diet counter argument with a pinch of salt.
Regardless of either side’s claims, meat remains a good source of important nutrients like iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and proteins. Studies show that the risk of developing colorectal cancer from consuming processed meat is comparatively small, but that this risk does increase proportionately to the amount of processed meat consumed, and even small decreases in consumption help.
So ultimately, and as it is with most things, moderation is key. As Gunter Kuhnle, a nutrition expert from the University of Reading, puts it “Processed meat can be part of a healthy lifestyle – smoking can’t.”
And besides, I think there are “mitigators” you can eat together with an enjoyable barbeque or bacon-and-cheese burger, such as asparagus, avocados, a salad of leafy-greens, and many other yummy foods rich in vitamin C, antioxidants, and anti-cancer and anti-inflammation properties. Perhaps it’s a good time now to re-read some of our earlier blog posts that talk about these foods. Till the next one!