Meat, Cancer and the (deliberately Misleading but Trendy) Headline Race

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“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” – H. L. Mencken

Lisa 3

Well, there you have it folks: definitive evidence that “Processed meats do cause cancer”. I guess we should all toss in the hat here at Ethical Omnivore Movement, right? We can’t argue with science: meat causes cancer! We’re informed, rational, open-minded people; that’s how the EOM community (Facebook) got started: people looking at our broken food system that is horrible to animals, people and the planet on one side of the spectrum and the total removal of animals from the human food chain on the other side and realizing, “there is more to the world’s Food story than just these two perspectives”. But headline after headline is proclaiming the new food truth:

The Telegraph :Processed meat ranks alongside smoking as major cause of cancer, World Health Organisation says 

The Guardian: Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO: UN health body says bacon, sausages and ham among most carcinogenic substances along with cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic 

Except that, as it always seems to be the case on the internet, the most popular headlines are often the most misleading. In today’s news cycle it’s the trendy, shocking headline that gets the clicks (re: website traffic that translates into advertising dollars for online news publishers). What it doesn’t get is accurate information into the hands of the general public. Take, for example, this portion of the Telegraph article cited above (emphasis added): “Dr Ian Johnson, nutrition researcher and Emeritus Fellow, Institute of Food Research, said: “Meat consumption is probably one of many factors contributing to the high rates of bowel cancer seen in America, Western Europe and Australia, but the mechanism is poorly understood, and the effect is much smaller than, for example, that of cigarette smoking on the risk of lung cancer. It is also worth noting that there is little or no evidence that vegetarians in the UK have a lower risk of bowel cancer than meat-eaters.

The BBC article cited above, writes this in the third sentence of the article: “The WHO did stress that meat also had health benefits. Cancer Research UK said this was a reason to cut down rather than give up red and processed meats. And added that an occasional bacon sandwich would do little harm.”

And the Guardian, includes this in their write up: Prof Ian Johnson, emeritus fellow at the Institute of Food Research, also said the effect was small. “It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke, which is loaded with known chemical carcinogens and increases the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers by around twentyfold.”

Okay, wait, so then what is the big deal with this WHO report? Why is it showing up all over my social media feeds? There are two things you should keep in mind:

  1. Food-related research findings are very popular news bites and get passed around a lot on social media, so they tend to make headlines. Remember the old media adage: “If it bleeds, it leads”. So if the paper can link its topic to death, it will.  Everybody eats and everybody is very worried about things thatmight kill you. It has universal appeal.  But before you swallow that headline, remember: any food-related headline trend must be taken with a grain of salt. If it sounds too simplistic, too cause-and-effect-case-closed, it’s probably is.The WHO report isn’t false, but the way its findings are being reported is very misleading. What is does tell us is not new information. It is a meta-data study of previously completed research (much of that research has already been reported in the news media over the past two decades). The American Institute for Cancer Research has been recommending the reduction of red meat intake and processed meats for some time now. We have also had health and nutrition experts warn about the possible dangers of modern preservatives (used heavily in commercially “processed meat” products) for quite some time. Nitrite in particular, seems to get most of the bad rap, even though it is naturally occurring in many vegetables. You have to dig a little further into the science to understand why certain substances can be harmful to your health in some contexts and totally harmless in others.One facebook page, Dihydrogen Monoxide Awareness, has been having a really fun time lampooning our human tendency to react too quickly to a scary sounding headline when it’s connected to products we regularly consume. lisa 1
  2. Meat is not “bad”. Broccoli is not “bad”. Cheese is not “bad”. Yes, even bread is not “bad”. In order for you to make that kind of broad, universal statement you have to assume that all methods for producing that food are equal and unchanging and that each human beings immune and digestive systems respond the same to all foods. Our complex food system refutes the ability to make such statements. Every farm, climate, and food processing facility has unique characteristics that could impact the food that lands on your plate. Stop making (or accepting) blanket statements about food.Food is not “bad”. It is fuel for your body and your brain. It is the basis of your health. Your body may decide that bread is bad for you. But why? Is it the actual whole ingredients that your immune system reacts to or is it the preservatives added to the bread in the processing facility it is made in that is badfor you? Is red meat bad for your health and the environment? Depends, like all food, on how it is grown and processed. Locally raised, grass-fed beef on farm that rotates it’s pastures to support soil sustainability and sequester carbon is a completely different kind of red meat than anything that will come out of a CAFO. Unfortunately, there haven’t been enough studies on the differences between the two for WHO to release a report on it (yet).The takeaway? There are no shortcuts in finding your personal, optimal-health food balance. Hopefully, you choose a food balance that is healthy, nutrient dense, compatible with your individual health needs, and that has positive impacts on the environment and the economy.  There is no, “one size fits all” diet solution that will magically make you super healthy and prevent you from dying.  Anyone who claims this is only telling you what has worked for them: their biology, their digestive system, their metabolism, their health needs. You still have to do the work and the research to find out what is best for you.Lisa 2What you do need to be aware of is how much human “intervention” is involved in getting your food to your mouth and the effects that human intervention has on the wider world. The general concept still holds true – the less people (and people-designed processing) involved in your personal food chain, the better. From your own garden? Excellent. From a local farmer who’s practices you know and trust? Awesomesauce. From an organic grocer? Maybe not ideal, but probably better than conventional.  Even so, there are many variables. So if you aren’t sure – investigate. Was the steak I’m eating come from a cow that was given an appropriate diet and humane living conditions? How far did my food travel? Were the workers who picked and packed it given safe work conditions and a fair wage? How will my food dollars impact my local economy and local food chain stability? Do my food dollars encourage sustainable business practices? At EOM, adding considerations of humane animal husbandry practices, fair trade and labour rights for farm workers, and environmental sustainability to your food choices also plays a big part in finding the best food sources available to you that also have a positive benefit on the world around us.   Your food choices have big impacts on your well-being and, by extension, the well-being of every living thing in your food chain. Choose wisely what food, and what headlines, you will consume.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      For a well balanced article on the recent WHO report (which contains a very reasonable headline!), I recommend: Processed Meat and Cancer and What you Need to Know.  Another good look at meat consumption myths: 8 Ridiculous Myths about Meat Consumption and Health by Authority Nutrition. 



    Now for some good news from Mark Sisson’s site Mark’s Daily Apple: How Bad is Charred Meat Really??   


    Beef steak on grill, isolated on black background

    By Lisa Haessler                                                                                                                                                                                             Original article from Blog “Why on the Earth are You Doing That?!

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