Put down that steak: WHO says red meat causes cancer

It’s sad but it’s true, the World Health Organisation’s cancer research division has issued a warning that red meat, along with processed meats like sausages, salami and mortadella, “probably causes cancer”.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organisation, has evaluated the links between the consumption of red and processed meat, and cancer.

The group, led by Professor Bernard Stewart from UNSW and the Cancer Council have classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A). This association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

After a review of 1000 previous studies, the panel has determined that eating an additional 100 grams of red meat per day raises the risk of colorectal cancer by 17 per cent; while eating an extra 50 grams of processed meat daily raises the risk by 18 per cent.

The panel said 34,000 cancer deaths a year worldwide were attributable to diets high in processed meats.

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For meat-loving Australians, this news comes as quite a shock, but leading nutritionists say there’s no need to give up red meat for good.

Rosemary Stanton says, “No one doubts that red meat is a nutritious food. Nor is there any nutritional reason to remove it from the diet.

“However, in view of the World Cancer Research Fund’s evidence of a convincing relationship between red and processed meat and colorectal cancer, and the results of studies on red meat and cardiovascular disease, the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting fresh red meat to approximately 450g a week.

“This is well below the average consumption of 700g of red meat* reported recently by Australian men. (*This figure does not include poultry or fish)

“The guidelines also moved processed meats moved out of the basic food groups to the list of ‘discretionary’ foods. These foods that have no essential role in a healthy diet and should either be omitted or consumed only occasionally or in small quantities. Those who are overweight and those who are small and inactive have no room for discretionary foods.”

Professor Bernard Stewart, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Cancer Council Australia, who was the only Australia involved in the review says, “No-one’s proposing that we ban bacon, put warnings on hot dogs or take beef off the barbie. But this WHO review provides compelling evidence that the long-term consumption of red meat and/or processed meat increases your risk of cancer.”

Is red meat and/or processed meat a regular fixture on your dining table? How much do you eat per day? Would you find it easy to cut back – and will you do so, considering this latest review?