by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
Welcome to our Thursday’s Science Catch-up: curated links by The Health Sciences Academy. Get our email updates every other Thursday here (it’s free).
Let’s catch you up with studies and news that recently made the headlines!
Click on your favourite topics to read our summary:
Let’s meet at Food Matters Live!
I’m speaking at Food Matters Live here in London (UK) on Wednesday 18 and Thursday 19 November. Mark in your calendar the dates and times I’ll be presenting. If you can make it, I’d love to see you! Register here for free entry.
World Health Organisation reports processed meat as carcinogenic
Last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a short PDF report (one and a half page long), which classifies:
- Processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1).
- Red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A).
You can download the PDF here.
Examples of processed meats:
- Smoked meats (e.g. smoked salmon)
- Chicken rolls
- Hot dogs
- Beef jerky
Examples of red meat:
Personally, I’m very interested in this news. I was born and raised in Argentina, a country that ranks amongst the biggest meat eaters globally. When I grew up, we consumed red meat almost on a daily basis. You can imagine I had loads of questions from my Argentinian relatives!
As soon as the press release went out, all media outlets around the world exploded with alarmist headlines.
I’ve seen good reporting. But I’ve also seen irresponsible reporting.
Here are the commentaries worth checking out:
- Processed meat and cancer – what you need to know, by Cancer Research UK. This is perhaps the most balanced write-up. It explains what the WHO report means and what it doesn’t mean. There are some excellent graphs too.
- Expert reaction to IARC classification of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, by Science Media Centre. Mixed insights with interesting facts.
Other links you can read (although they’re totally biased):
- In this one, look for the graph on “Meat Consumption” by country.
- How the meat industry reacted to the news.
- This is the position statement by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board.
The recommendation for the general public can be summarised by a quote from Professor Tim Key, Cancer Research UK’s epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, who said: “This decision doesn’t mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down. You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT.”
There are a couple of things I’d like to highlight:
- When you read the PDF summary I linked to above, you’ll notice that the meat/cancer classifications are mostly referring to bowel, pancreatic and prostate cancer, and not other types of cancer.
- This is a “preliminary” summary of more detailed monographs that are yet to be published, analysing over 800 scientific studies. However, these 800 studies aren’t new. The WHO didn’t collect new evidence. They assessed studies we already knew about!
Note: If you want to become an expert on this topic, we dive into the plausible biological mechanisms linking read meat with cancer in our Science Reports: Does red meat cause cancer? and Is organic meat worth its price?
Genetics may also explain why meat by-products impact people differently – see more on this here. Remember, we are in the era of nutritional genomics: your unique genetic makeup plays a role in how your body reacts to different foods. Honestly, there isn’t a single universal diet that’s good for everyone. I met some vegetarians who felt redeemed, and meat eaters stating they “know healthy 90-year-olds who eat loads of red meat”.
As I often say, it’s not a single food… but the compounded effect of your overall diet and lifestyle that will tip your risk levels one way or another!
Where you live could be making you fat
Interesting insights about the environmental influences on your food choices and health behaviours like exercise (or lack of!).
Genetically edited tomatoes with more flavonols
This is an example of “designer foods”. Scientists found a way to add promoter proteins to edit tomatoes’ DNA. In this case, to increase their content of phytochemical compounds, specifically resveratrol and genistein, which are known to have anti-ageing, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties.
One “designer tomato” produced the same quantity of resveratrol as exists in 50 bottles of red wine, and the same amount of genistein found in 2.5 kg of tofu.
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What has inspired you this week? What are your thoughts on some of these topics? Leave a comment and let us know!