In October of 2015, the The World Health Organization made an announcement that processed meats – hot dogs, ham, turkey bacon, and even your favorite sausages – are cancer causing.
A study from a group of Harvard researchers in 2012 found that each additional daily serving of red meat increased risk of death by 13%. The risk rose to 20% if the serving contained processed meats. Processed meats are meats such as hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts.
As we make a more consistent effort to develop better nutritional behaviors and bring about a new level of health and wellness in our lives, the food that we eat becomes more and more important. Researchers and scientists are always looking to get a leg up on the competition that is fighting to bring our bodies down: morbidity and disease.
Today, we have a much better scouting report on morbidity and diseases. We know what cancer cells like and what they don’t like.
Researchers and scientists have a better understanding for what internal biological conditions create a good environment for diseases. They also understand how we can create the best possible internal environment to ward off diseases.
Many of the most common causes of death can be prevented. Specifically, we can make adjustments in our day-to-day behaviors, namely our diet and exercise patterns, to ensure that chronic disease will not afflict us down the road.
Humans have been eating red meat for a long time now. According to The National Geographic, humans have been butchering and eating meat for over 2.5 million years.
For all of you vegans out there, you have your own reasons for avoiding meats. For many of us, enjoying a nice juicy steak is what we look forward to at a barbecue, friends house, or a nice fancy steak house here in Manhattan.
We must remember that eating healthy involves moderation. Over consuming red meat has been correlated to higher risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and death. Note that these correlations are from observational studies which don’t necessarily mean that red meat is proven to cause these risks, but they are related.
Substitutions of other healthy protein sources for red meat is associated with a lower mortality risk. Replacing one serving a day of red meat with one of these options reduced mortality in a Harvard study by 7% to 19%.
- chicken and turkey
- low-fat dairy products
- whole grains
But, before I dig deeper into the review that may convert you to becoming a vegetarian, let me take a few minutes to go over some basics.
Processed Meat vs. Unprocessed Meat
There are many differences between processed meat and unprocessed meat, and they have different health risks.
Processed Red Meat
So what is processed meat? I’m sure you have heard it before in conversation at the butcher shop or somewhere along the line.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identifies processed meat as any meat that’s been “transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” So that means not just beef or pork but also processed poultry or liver.
These processed meats include your:
- Deli meats (called cold cuts in New York)
- Hot dogs
Even though chicken and turkey are considered “white meat” chicken sausages and turkey bacon are also considered processed meats in this category because of the way they are produced.
In order to give these processed meats a longer shelf life, it is necessary to include additives and fillers. These products added to meats are called “meat extenders.” These extenders include cereals and potato starch.
Other ingredients that are added have substantial water holding and binding attributes called “binders.” These include eggs or egg yolk blood plasma, skim milk powder, caseinates, soya isolates and more.
With so many different ingredients added to these processed meats, it is nearly impossible to know the nutritional value of these products.
Other ingredients added to these processed meats include:
- Organ meats
This entire process of adding preservatives and curing these meats are responsible for giving processed meats their carcinogenic components.
Unprocessed Red Meat
When I refer to unprocessed red meats, I am talking about meat that is red when raw. These meats include:
- Game meats
- Horse (I’ve never eaten it)
- A few others
According to Mayo Clinic, again the definition of unprocessed red meat is any type of meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting or addition of preservatives.
These meats don’t contain additives like processed meats do. Next time you are in the supermarket, try to look for meats that are not fed antibiotics, pumped with hormones and artificial chemicals, and are grass-fed. You can usually find these in the organic sections.
An astonishing 80% of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used on livestock. Avoiding meats all together has been shown in large studies that vegetarians were about 40% less likely to develop cancer compared to meat eaters.
So what does all of the science say about this?
Studies That Show Red Meats Cause Cancer
Back in October of 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRAC) announced that processed meat has been classified as a ‘definite’ cause of cancer. And red meat is a ‘probable’ cause.
Even though this announcement came out in October of 2015, the link between certain cancers — like bowel cancer — is not new information. Links between processed meats and bowel cancer have been researched for years, and supported by research.
The most convincing overview of the evidence of a link to bowel cancer comes from a 2011 analysis. In the study, researchers found that the intake of red and processed meats was significantly associated with an increased risk of colon cancer.
The major finding from the study is that red meat and processed meat aren’t equally harmful — processed meat is more strongly linked to bowel cancer than red meat.
Researchers were able to arrange the data accordingly to those who consumed the most red and processed meat and those who consumed the least.
What they found was that there was a 17% higher risk associated with consuming the most processed meat and developing bowel cancer, compared to the patients who consumed the least.
Even more evidence shows that red meat does cause cancer. 22 researchers from 10 different countries took a look at over 800 studies to reach their conclusions.
What they concluded was that consuming 50 grams of processed meat each day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s the equivalent of about 4 strips of bacon or 1 hot dog per day.
When eating red meat, they also found evidence of increased risk for pancreatic and prostate cancer as well.
How Does Red Meat Cause Cancer?
Just like anything in life, it is difficult to have absolutes. Science, technology and other factors are always changing. Doctors and scientists are still trying to hold something accountable for exactly how red and processed meat cause cells to become cancerous.
So far they believe the main culprits could be certain chemicals found in the meat itself.
This problem of cancer being a result of consuming red meat seems to start with the red organic pigment containing ferrous iron, present in hemoglobin called haem.
When red meats enter your bowel, it is believed that this haem is broken down into chemicals called N-nitroso compounds. These cause damage to your bowel cells which causes your other cells to replicate more and more to heal. N-nitroso compounds are known to be carcinogenic.
The extra replication of these bowel cells are thought to be the reason that increase the chance of errors developing in your cells’ DNA – the first step on the road to cancer.
So how do processed red meats cause cancer? Processed red meats contain certain chemicals that generate those N-nitroso compounds.
Some research has suggested that the iron in red meat could play a role in the development of different types of cancers too. All of us contain a gene called the APC gene.
The APC gene provides your cells with instructions for making the APC protein. This protein is responsible for many critical roles in several of your cellular processes. The APC protein acts as a tumor suppressor. This means that it keeps cells from growing and dividing too fast or in an uncontrolled way.
Dr. Chris Tselepis, a Cancer Research UK scientist at the University of Birmingham, said:
“Our results also suggest that iron could be raising the risk of bowel cancer by increasing the number of cells in the bowel with APC faults. The more of these cells in the bowel, the greater the chance that one of these will become a starting point for cancer.”
Does The Preparation of Red Meat Matter?
Often times we will find that red meat is prepared in a way that brings out all of the nasty stuff that causes health problems. One process that can make matters worse is curing.
Curing meat involves the introduction of salt, sugar, and either nitrate or nitrite in the meat to preserve it. By adding these components, there is an automatic reduction in water activity, warding off bacterial growth and making the meat last longer.
Smoking meat also increases the likelihood of the meat causing problems in your body. Also an aid of preservation, smoking meat involves exposing it to the smoke of burning wood and increasing the presence of acetic acid in the meat.
Studies have shown a statistical correlation between the increased occurrence of cancer of the intestinal tract and the frequent intake of smoked foods.
Charbroiled meat has cancer risks too. Cooking meat at high temperatures like barbecuing, can create chemicals in the meat that may increase the risk of developing cancer.
These chemicals are usually produced in higher levels in your red and processed meats compared to your other meats.
When you cook red meat, whether it is on the barbecue or in the oven, there are two mutagenic chemicals formed:
- Heterocyclic amines (HCAs)
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
PAHs are formed when fat and juices from your meat are grilled over an open fire. When the juices drip onto the fire, they cause those big flames you see. These flames contain PAHs which adhere to the surface of your meat.
HCAs are not really found in significant amounts in foods other than meats cooked at high temperatures. PAHs can be found in other charred foods that go through the whole flame process. PAHs are also found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes.
These chemicals cause changes in your DNA and may increase your risk of developing cancer.
So, contrary to what you may hear, it isn’t about the quality of the meat, or whether it’s from the local butcher or your supermarket.
The evidence that has been researched suggests that it’s probably the processing of the meat, or chemicals naturally present within it, that increases your risk of developing cancer.
Are There Ways To Reduce Cancer Chemicals In Red Meat?
There are no guidelines for how much/many HCAs and PAHs you should or should not consume by any governing agency. But, you can reduce exposure to these cancer causing chemicals by following these tips:
- Try and avoid direct exposure of your meats to the open flame on your barbecue. Try and reduce a long cooking times (especially at high temperatures) and an open flame or a hot metal surface. You should also try avoiding prolonged cooking times. By doing so, this can reduce HCA and PAH formation.
- Try putting your meats in a microwave to cook the meat a little prior to exposing it to high temperatures on your grill. This can also substantially reduce HCA formation by reducing the time that meat is in contact with high heat to finish cooking.
- Flipping your meats more often above a flame can help reduce HCA formation. You can reduce the risk of HCAs by doing this compared to just letting it sit and flipping it less often.
- Even though it is tempting to make gravy from the drippings, try to find a different option. Removing charred portions of meat can also reduce HCA and PAH exposure.
Do I Need to Stop Eating Red Meat?
We have seen studies for over 40 years and the correlation between cancer processed meats and red meat. Incidence rates for 27 cancers in 23 countries and mortality rates for 14 cancers in 32 countries have been correlated with a wide range of dietary and other variables.
There are many other factors that come into play within these studies. Other factors include:
- Smoking cigarettes
- Alcohol consumption
- Not including fiber in your diet
- Eating few vegetables and fruits
- Obese and overweight individuals
- Not exercising
So how do we know if these factors also played a role or not in these studies mentioned? How can we separate the processed meats and red meats from effects of alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking?
The simple answer: we can’t.
Some of these studies are analysis of many studies put together. There really would be no way to get a group of people together for years and regulate what they eat, when they exercise, and try to eliminate other variables to get an exact outcome.
Cancer takes many years, if not decades to form and develop. It is difficult for any researcher to know exactly what causes cancer when many other factors need to be included. This is why there are strong correlations and not absolutes.
So where does that leave you with eating red meat?
In 2012, the average American consumed 71.2 pounds of red meat. If you divide that by 52 weeks, that’s about 1.4 pounds of red meat per week for the average American.
This is very close to the recommended amount of red meat recommended by the American Institute for Cancer Research of up to 6 ounces 3 times per week.
We know that processed meats have the strongest associations with cancer, the links between unprocessed red meat are much weaker and much less consistent.
In all of my research, I was unable to find a safe recommendation for how much red meat you should eat. This could be because there may not be enough compelling information available.
I understand that the vegan lifestyle isn’t for everyone. But since there has been a direct correlation between processed meats and cancer, I personally have limited this to about once a month. I also eat more chicken and have almost completely cut red meat out of my diet all together for the past two years.
Meat is healthy in moderation. For some, like myself, I chose not to eat it. But, red meat can be a great source of iron, vitamin B12, and zinc.
Salmon and different types of fish can offer more nutrients than unprocessed meat. Adding more fruits, vegetables, and Meatless Monday Tacos can be a healthier option than eating red meat.
Fighting free radicals and eating foods that fight free radicals like fruits, vegetables, and antioxidants can help destroy cancer cells and keep your body healthy and live longer.
Adding more fiber to your diet such as flax seed can help detoxify all of the HCAs and PAHs in your gut and your body.
Be sure to speak with your doctor about getting screened for certain cancers. If cancers run in your family, be sure to talk with a physician on how to detect them early on.
There are numerous ways that we can control our overall health outcomes. Next time you find yourself trying to decide what is for dinner, try to find healthier options.
How much red meat do you eat on a regular basis? What foods will you look to substitute red meat for? Comment below, I would love to hear your thoughts!