Science Catch-up. World Health Organisation Reports Processed Meat as Carcinogenic

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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:

1. Let’s meet at Food Matters Live!

2. World Health Organisation reports processed meat as carcinogenic

3. Where you live could be making you fat

4. Genetically edited tomatoes with more flavonols

 

Let’s meet at Food Matters Live!

Registration link

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

News link

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:

  • Bacon
  • Sausages
  • Ham
  • Smoked meats (e.g. smoked salmon)
  • Chicken rolls
  • Salami
  • Pepperoni
  • Pâté
  • Hot dogs
  • Beef jerky

Examples of red meat:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Veal

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:

Other links you can read (although they’re totally biased):

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

News link

Interesting insights about the environmental influences on your food choices and health behaviours like exercise (or lack of!).

 

Genetically edited tomatoes with more flavonols

Study link

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!

The-Health-Sciences-Academy-Alejandra-Ruani-small1-right
Alex Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for students. She is a Harvard-trained scientific researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups every other Thursday.
Connect with Alex via email.


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7 Comments

  • Paul

    Reply Reply November 5, 2015

    Thank you

  • Paul

    Reply Reply November 5, 2015

    Balanced reporting and motivation to healthier living

    • Alex

      Reply Reply November 5, 2015

      Paul – my pleasure, glad I could help! :-)

  • Bruce Stewart

    Reply Reply November 6, 2015

    Thank you for the update. I’ll pass on the “designer foods” though. So they can make a tomato produce a bucket of flavonoids, I’ll take my chances with health by eating plain old organic tomatoes.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply November 6, 2015

      Bruce – you’re welcome! Interestingly, the designer tomatoes were grown in Norfolk, here in the UK. They can’t be eaten yet though, due to strict EU rules :-)

  • Elaine MacKenzie

    Reply Reply November 6, 2015

    Hi Alex, I eat a lot of smoked fish. I know some are naturally smoked and some have added ‘smoke’ flavouring, do you know which is best and also if this is carcinogenic too? Thanks, Elaine.

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