by Marion Nestle
Oct 27 2015

Some comments on the meat-is-carcinogenic report

Yesterday, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a warning about the carcinogenic potential of processed and red meat.  This, as you might expect, caused a media flurry.  CNN News asked me for a written comment.  They titled it “The other benefit to eating less red meat.”  Here’s what I wrote:

The just-released report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer judging processed meat as clearly carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic has caused consternation among meat producers and consumers.

Meat producers do not like the “eat less meat” message. Consumers do not want to give up their bacon and hamburgers — delicious and also icons of the American way of life.

But these judgments should come as no surprise to anyone. Eating less processed and red meat has been accepted dietary advice since Ancel and Margaret Keys wrote their diet book for heart disease prevention, “Eat Well and Stay Well,” in 1959. Their advice: “restrict saturated fats, the fats in beef, pork, lamb, sausages …” They aimed this advice at reducing saturated fat to prevent heart disease. Federal committees and agencies have continued issuing such heart-disease advice to the present day.

Cancer entered the picture in the 1970s, when scientists began to link red meat — beef, pork, lamb — to the risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. Even after several decades of research, they had a hard time deciding whether the culprit in meat was fat, saturated fat, protein, carcinogens induced when meat is cooked to high temperatures or some other component.

In the mid-1990s, dietary guidelines committees advised eating lean meats and limiting intake of processed meats, still because of their high fat content. By the late 1990s, cancer experts said that red meat “probably” increases the risk of colorectal cancers, and “possibly” increases the risk of cancers of the pancreas, breast, prostate and kidney. The IARC report, based on more recent evidence, makes even stronger recommendations and favors carcinogens as the causative factors.

To put this in context: For decades, the meat industry’s big public relations problem has been that vegetarians are demonstrably healthier than meat eaters. People who do not eat red meat havemuch less of a chance of developing heart disease and bowel cancers than the average American.

More recently, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) found diets “higher in red/processed meats…” to be associated with a greater risk of colorectal cancer, and it recommended dietary patterns and low in red and/or processed meats, but higher in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, lean meats/seafood and low-fat dairy — largely, but not necessarily exclusively, plant-based.

This is good advice for anyone.

Eating less red and processed meats has two benefits: a reduced risk for certain forms of cancer,and a reduced effect on climate change.

The DGAC deemed eating less red meat to be exceptionally beneficial to the environment as well as to human health. The IARC report strengthens the health component of the recommendation. The secretaries of USDA and Health and Human Services, however, have refused to allow environmental concerns to be considered in the 2015 dietary guidelines.

I mention the dispute over environmental “sustainability” in the dietary guidelines because largely plant-based diets are appropriate for all kinds of health concerns — obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and now, especially, colorectal cancer — as well as environmental concerns.

By eating less red and processed meats, you promote both your own health and that of the planet.

At issue then is how much red and processed meat is compatible with good health. The IARC commission ducked that question, although it cites evidence that as little as 100 grams (a quarter pound) of red meat a day, and half that much of processed meats, increases cancer risk by 15% to 20%.

Will an occasional hamburger or piece of bacon raise your risk that much? I don’t think so. But the evidence reviewed by IARC strongly suggests that if you do eat meat, eat less when you do, don’t eat meat every day, save processed meats for rare treats and be sure to eat plenty of vegetables.

Fortunately, this advice leaves plenty of room for delicious meals — just with meat taking up much less room on the plate.

Other comments

  • Actuarial Herald

    Chicken Little raises the alarm once again!

    All the dire hoopla about increased risk of cancer might have been believable coming from a former nutrition scientist but then she had to up the ante and try to spoof us with the old shopworn climate change scare. If Nestle is out of her depth with her opinions about meat causing climate change (and she is), why would we trust her opinion on anything else?

    Nestle prefers subjective or intuitive scare tactics — she’s not a numbers person. If she were, she would inform us just how much meat production actually impacts climate — turns out to be a whopping two ten-thousandths of a degree Celsius!

    http://www.cato.org/blog/diet-change-climate-change

    Yep, if meat production were eliminated the net reduction in global temperature would be virtually nil.

    Knowing that, what do you want to bet Nestle’s gleeful embrace of the WHO meat-cancer link is just as superfluous? Anyone care to calculate what the real odds are, if you stop eating meat, that you won’t ultimately be killed by cancer anyway? And who among us actually believes any of us will get out of this life alive?

    The nanny state exists to push our buttons. It gets more than a little tedious. But it sells books, so it’s all good.

  • TR

    The nanny state got its start with the alcohol and then drug prohibition. Conservatives love their war on drugs. Therefore, conservatives love the nanny state.

  • NYFarmer

    I can’t grasp why pushing more livestock farmers off the land in the northeast to accommodate sprawl is good for climate. Blanket statements without familiarity with ecosystems, landscapes are meaningless and even destructive.

  • Elisabetta Moro

    Thanks for quoting Ancel and Margaret Keys, the two scientists who discovered the Mediterranean Diet in the South of Italy and invented the famous expression MD.
    In November 16th, in my University SOB in Naples, they will be celebrated in the occasion of the 5th Anniversary of the UNESCO recognition of the MD as an Intangible Human Heritage. Everybody is invited ! Doctor Nestle first of all !
    Professor Elisabetta Moro PhD

  • If people ate their greens, red meat wouldn’t increase the RR for cancer.

    See http://nigeepoo.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/green-vegetables-red-meat-and-colon.html

  • jeffjfl

    How meat is cooked and prepared may have more to do with its potential for creating mutagens and carcinogens: http://www.lifeextension.com/Magazine/2015/8/Live-Longer-By-Changing-How-You-Cook/Page-02?p=1

  • melancholyaeon

    Hi Marion:

    I agree, Marion, that processed meats – almost all made with sugar – increase the potential for cancer, which has been demonstrated through sugar’s stimulation of IL-6 as a cytokine. I agree, we should avoid processed foods with added sugars. Eat Real Food.

    However to be honest, if we do the absolute risk math correctly, the increase in individual risk is only 0.9% – not really worth the hype. But this is an effect of processing, not of the meat itself.

    As for climate, I’m so happy you are concerned with global warming. I encourage you to contact the USDA ARS for its report on climate change. There you will see the USDA’s own recent studies on how the easiest way to alleviate climate change is to properly graze cattle so that the land absorbs more carbon and stores it.

    The earth & climate we love evolved as an ecosystem with plenty of large herbivores – more than there are now. So obvious, they are not part of the problem of climate change, they are part of the solution. But we must implement the proper grazing procedures for sustainability.

    Because of this science, I would encourage people to eat more beef – of the properly grazed variety. Farmers can be key players in the fight against climate change with improved land management. Let’s help them do that!

    Best wishes to all. 😀

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  • NECroeus

    Okinawans live the longest of anyone on the planet and the two main staples in their diet are sweet potatoes and pork. I think the biggest problem is portion sizes – growing up, if we had steak for dinner, I had a steak from the store – but that’s 12-16 ounces – a lot larger than a single serving. It’s been my experience that most people don’t eat vegetable servings 4X the single serving size. As for meat, I suspect how we feed the animals plays a part, Native Americans lived on a diet of buffalo meat and some plants and they didn’t get all these health problems. Sitting Bull lived to 100 on buffalo meat – and that’s without modern medicine.

  • NECroeus

    Why aren’t we reading about drinking tea causing cancer? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2879415/

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  • Timar

    If you seriously believe it would be added sugar that causes processed meat to be carninogenic you are beyond hope.

  • Andre

    Recheck your facts. Start with Sitting Bull.

  • khaled

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  • Michelle

    Yes, and the most annoying part is that she NEVER responds when people correct her science. Just continues to post over and over again on Marion’s blog like a low-carb zombie. Can’t use reason or logic with people like that…

  • Janknitz

    Ancel Keys based his theory on the healthful diets of Mediterranean countries where red meat (beef, lamb) was regularly consumed AND processed for preservation–note the huge variety of traditionally preserved meats in Italy, for example. Yet cancer was exceedingly rare and heart disease was uncommon until modern processing. How, then, can red meat and saturated fats be to blame?

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  • Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD

    Dr. Nestle, I encourage her to look closely at what WHO actually states. They address the hazard of causing cancer, not actual risk. Most journalists and media outlets, including this blog, continue to echo what they thought was being said. So sloppy, but to make matters worse, there is even more clueless comments about diet and climate change. I invite you to re-evaluate your position after some thoughtful research, starting with a review of materials at the Savory Institute, and a couple of excellent books, including Defending Beef and The Soil Will Save Us. Ironically, grazing animals may save us all, whether we choose to eat meat or not.

  • TR

    Shh.. there’s a lot of zealous supporters of the meat industry here. They don’t want to be told to eat their veggies too.

  • Pffft! I couldn’t give a **** about zealous supporters of the meat industry. They can do whatever the **** they want. People who would rather not get colon cancer should eat their greens with their red meat. Just a tablespoonful of spinach will do the job.

    http://static.comicvine.com/uploads/scale_small/5/51078/1007265-popeye.jpg

  • Timar

    Do you mean that all the methane they produce will save us from the coming ice age?

  • Bonnie Modugno, MS, RD

    Depends on what methane data you are referring to. Most data bandied about starts with highly flawed assumptions and then conveniently forgets to factor in the entire biodynamic process, ie; increasing organic matter in soil, improved soil ecology, carbon sequestration, and more effective rainfall–all benefits of grazing animals.

  • Dina Robinson

    Dr. Nestle, not only have I been warning consumers for a decade–on our online food safety & healthy eating site, http://www.FreeRangeClub.com–about the various reasons processed & red meats are toxic & carcinogenic (at levels of risk depending on the quality of the meats & the quantities and frequency of their consumption), but have also won a journalism award for my investigative exposé on the inclusion of ‘mad cow’ afflicted cattle in our food supply (see “Slaughterhouse Blues”(http://freerangeclub.com/?s=Slaughterhouse+blues+). Several of our other articles focus on calamitous practices by so called ‘factory farms,’ in the the way they raise & treat their livestock–including the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticide-laden GMO grains fed to fowl as well as to ruminants (cattle) that require manual help to get it through their digestive system, etc. Although we recommend that an all-organic diet be followed whenever possible, we also provide information about the negative effects of red meat on human health & the environment. We subscribe to Deborah Székely’s “Wellness Warrior” & now to your Newsletter &, with your permission, I will be quoting from your above article in my next post about the WHO’s latest report on the carcinogenic effects of processed & red meats.
    Dina Eliash Robinson, Researcher & Editor in Chief, http://www.FreeRangeClub.com.

  • Ridge Shinn and Lynne Pledger

    The information on producing and consuming factory-farmed meat is presented as if these facts applied to all red meat. In contrast to the feedlot model, raising and fattening 100% grass-fed beef – utilizing multi-paddock, rotational grazing – is a net benefit for human health and for the environment. Peer reviewed science documents how this approach harnesses natural systems that improve soil fertility and water retention, combat climate change by sequestering carbon, and also produce safe, nutritious red meat without the problems associated with feedlot beef. (See details and citations at ridgeshinn.com.)

    It is easy to see why conventionally produced meat is linked to cancer. For one thing, the meat comes from cattle that eat corn grown with glyphosate, which WHO categorizes as a “probable human carcinogen.”
    In contrast, grass-fed cattle eat no corn ever, and the high CLAs and Omega 3 fatty acids in grass-fed beef help the human body defend against cancer.

    Failing to distinguish the pasture-only approach from the feedlot model that dominates the beef industry, jeopardizes the continued growth and success of 100% grass-fed beef, which is an urgently needed, regenerative model that is based on photosynthesis and other natural systems that pre-date agriculture – and human folly.

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  • Cathy Smith

    I invite you to re-evaluate your position after some thoughtful research, starting with a review of materials at the Savory Institute, Seahawks Beanie

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