Friday, October 30, 2015

Don't push back too hard against the IARC's processed meats report

The recent decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, part of the World Health Organization) to add processed meats to their Group 1 carcinogen list has lots of knickers in a twist, as it puts processed meats on the same list as cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic. Red meat in general is listed in Group 2A as "probably carcinogenic".
The IARC (whose remit, it should be noted, is to identify potentially hazardous carcinogenic substances, not to indicate their relative risks) claims that there is sufficient evidence to show that processed meats - which basically means meats that are smoked, cured, salted, or subject to some other preservative, and therefore includes hot dogs, sausages, pastrami, ham and bacon -  cause colorectal cancer. This is actually not news, and the World Cancer Research Fund, among others, has been advising people for years that processed meat is a cancer hazard.
The majority of the more incendiary articles in the wake of this report tend to complain specifically about the fingering of bacon on such a list, bacon having some kind of sacred status among foodies and meat-eaters. As a vegetarian of 35 years, I don't have strong feelings either way about bacon, but the way this has all hit the media fan has certainly been interesting.
The earliest media reports were rather bald and perhaps unnecessarily alarmist announcements of the contents of the IARC's press release. Many later reports chose to stress, almost to a fault, that bacon and processed meats in general are clearly not as dangerous as cigarettes and other substances in the cancer-causing stakes. The Globe and Mail's editorial on the subject is a good example of this, as it points out that, in comparison with the 1 million cancer deaths a year attributable to smoking tobacco, processed meats leads to "only" 34,000 deaths a years. That may be true, and in the scheme of things colorectal cancer is admittedly not one of the largest killers, but it seems to me an awful lot of unique individuals to write off in so cavalier a way, and was probably not in retrospect a great way of making their point that the IARC report is misleading and alarmist.
The Guardian's guide to "Processed and red meat: what are the cancer risks?" is a good article on how we should interpret the report and the associated media hype. This is pretty much what everyone already knows: cut down your intake of red meats and processed meats in particular. Or, in Michael Pollan's memorable words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The bottom line is that it is better to know about the risks, and make informed dietary decisions accordingly, than to go on blithely assuming that what you don't know won't hurt you, because some of it will. Frankly, the IARC report will probably not change anyone's eating habits, least of all the bacon aficionado's. Much of the media it has generated subsequently, though, might actually have the unfortunate adverse effect of mollifying and disarming people TOO much, so that the warning in the message gets lost completely. And that would be a shame.

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