The modern American diet is a huge, sprawling, bib - under - the -chin affair of generous portions served up on demand. Most primarily, that has meant a diet heavy in red meat and processed meat. The hamburger and the hot dog are as much national symbols as they are menu items.
Now this is being called into question by doctors, by public health advocates and by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has not just Americans' well - being in mind but also that of the entire globe - including country after country to which America has eagerly exported its diet. In a sweeping review released on Oct. 26/2015, the WHO officially identified processed meats a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning the quality of evidence firmly links it to cancer. Red meats fare little better, falling into Group 2A - foods or substances that probably cause cancer - a category that includes the toxic pesticide DDT, the chemical weapon mustard gas and the insecticide malathion. (Groups 2B, 3 and 4 are foods or substances that are possibly carcinogenic, not yet classified as carcinogenic or probably not carcinogenic, respectively.)
In 2013, the average American consumed more than 71 lb. of beef, lamb, veal and pork; last year, Americans ate a collective 24.1 billion pounds of beef alone. And what Americans don't eat, they sell overseas, where economic growth has been matched by a demand for red meat. The U.S. is the world's second biggest exporter of pork and fourth biggest of beef. Like movies and music, American meat reaches around the world.
But this may need to be rethought. The truth is, the link between meat and cancer is not new to scientists, and the evidence for it has been growing for a while. For decades, health experts have warned that red and processed meats are linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity and various forms of cancer. The first two of those dangers have always made sense, and have caused some people to cut down or swear off meat. But the last part of the troika - the cancer part - has been hedged with uncertainty. No more.
The categories of meat in the new study are broad and inclusive. Red meat is defined as "all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat." So goodbye to pork's claim to be "the other white meat."
Processed meats include "meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation."
The study, which was conducted by a respected WHO subsidiary, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), did not look at fresh poultry - not a great concern to public health experts, rather unanimously - but what it did say was worrisome to public health experts.
Page 34) "According to most recent estimates," the authors wrote, "about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributed to diets high in processed meat." The study estimates a possible 50,000 deaths similarly attributable to red meat. Both of these numbers seem low compared to the 1 million deaths due to tobacco - related cancer. But in the U.S., there are about 2 1/2 cases of colorectal cancer per year for every one death, which means that even if eating meat doesn't kill you, it could still make you very sick. Some researchers are at least trying to put that troubling fact in a positive light.
"One way that I'm thinking about this finding is that it actually gives us the opportunity of identifying one of the many important factors that contribute to colorectal cancer that we can do something about," says Dr. Mariana Stern, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Southern California, who worked on the IARC paper.
No surprise, the meat industry is hitting back. According to a statement by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a trade association that claims to represent companies that process 95% of U.S. red meat and 70% of turkey products, the new report "defies both common sense and numerous studies showing no correlation between meat and cancer. Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods."
But the IARC report is a robust one. Much more than a single study, it is a so-called meta - analysis - a study of studies - evaluating 800 published papers. Twenty - two experts from 10 countries conducted the work and then voted on what findings to issue.
Those findings state that 50 grams of processed meat per day - one hot dog or about 6 pieces of bacon - raises the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 %. Other cancers too were associated with red and processed meats, including stomach, prostate and pancreatic, but it was colorectal that produced the most persuasive numbers.
"We looked at a big reach of literature," says Stern. "There was sufficient evidence that processed meat causes colorectal cancer. Based on the limited evidence and the strong mechanistic evidence, we concluded that red meat is a probable carcinogen."
Warnings about meat go back a long way, but in recent years they've been piling up.
An exhaustive 2007 study by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund pointed to a troubling link between animal protein and multiple forms of cancer. In 2009, a study sponsored in part by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that people who eat red meat and processed meats have a higher risk of dying of cancer, heart disease and other causes than people who don't. A smaller 2011 meta - analysis funded by World Cancer Research Fund International found a link between red and processed meats and colorectal cancer, and a 2013 study with 47 co - authors from across Europe and elsewhere linked meat with both increased cancer and heart - disease mortality. Even taking all this into account, the IARC research is easily the largest and most conclusive study to date.
Meats cooked at high heat produce what are known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Both cause changes in DNA - and that can mean trouble. "Once you're talking about DNA damage, that's the origin of cancer," says Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. "With the right kind of mutation, the cell sort of escapes the normal oversight of replication. It becomes a rogue colony of cells, then it becomes a tumor."
In the case of processed meats, the biggest risks are sodium nitrates, which are added to foods principally as preservatives. Once they enter the body, however, they form nitrosamines, chemical compounds that are carcinogenic. "It's long been known that part of the processing of meats introduces carcinogens into the mix," says Katz, "particularly nitrates."
Page 35) Even unprocessed red meats can lead to problems like this. Certain gut bacteria can convert otherwise benign components of meat to nitrosamines, Stern warns. What's more, when meat is grilled enough to be charred - something that's all but avoidable on a lot of backyard barbecues - carcinogens can form.
Oh, and if you think you've gotten around the nitrate - nitrite problem by buying hot dogs and other processed meats labeled NO NITRATES ADDED, bad news: those products are treated instead with celery juice, which is naturally high in sodium nitrate. By themselves, most vegetables do contain nitrates - indeed, produce is the biggest source of dietary nitrate - but they also contain vitamin C, which inhibits nitrosamine production. But meats? Not so much.
Another factor in the red - meat mix is what's known as heme iron, which is a type of iron bonded with a metabolic molecule known as protoporphyrin. Plants contain only nonheme iron; meats of all kinds contain both heme and nonheme. In the Western world, heme iron makes up 10% to 15% of all iron in the diet, which is a lot. A larger share of heme iron is absorbed by the body than nonheme, and in the time the stuff spends hanging around, it can reach the colon, causing potentially toxic reactions.
"The heme iron may have a direct effect on the cells in the large bowel," says Stern. "These are all mechanisms that have been observed in both processed and unprocessed red meats."
Still, the 71 lb. of red meat we consume per capita is actually down from 96.3 lb. in 1970, with poultry picking up much of the slack. Those numbers provide their own evidence of the cancer - meat link, however, since rates of colorectal cancer have been in similar decline, going from 59.5 per 100,000 people in 1975 to 38 in 2012. Whether this is indeed a result of reduced red - meat consumption or simply better detection and intervention isn't clear.
Page 36) All the same, the estimates are that there will be 96,090 new cases of colon cancer in the U.S. this year and 39,610 of rectal cancer.
Figures like that are not always easy to understand and can be more alarming than they need to be. The lifetime risk for developing colorectal cancer is just 5% for men and a little lower for women. A hot dog a day would raise that risk by 18% of the 5% - topping you out at about a 6% overall risk. But that assumes that's all the red meat you ever eat, and those 1% increments add up fast.
The IARC report itself takes pains to put the findings in similar perspective, clearly defining the difference between a hazard and a risk - words that sound almost synonymous in ordinary language but are radically different in the context of epidemiology. "An agent is considered a cancer hazard if it is capable of causing cancer under some circumstances," the report states. "Risk measures the probability that cancer will occur, taking into account the level of exposure to the agent." In the same way, fire is an undeniable hazard to your home. The risk that the place will ever actually burn to the ground is another matter.
That's a point seized on by the meat producers - and it's a perfectly fair one. "The problem with cancer is that it occurs over a lifetime," says Ceci Snyder, a registered dietician and a spokesperson for the Pork Board, an industry marketing group. Noting that a lot of other variables like blood pressure, obesity, and exercise can play key roles in cancer and overall health, she added, "We cannot discount the confounding factors."
Dave Warner, a spokesperson for the National Pork Producers council - the lobbying arm of the pork industry - took some comfort from the fact that the findings of the IARC were not unanimous. Seven of the 22 panelists either abstained from voting or openly disagreed with the findings. Still, the report did not require unanimity, and a supermajority of 68% confirmed its conclusions.
Whether any of this will have much impact on American health policy is impossible to say, but as with all things in Washington, following the money does provide some clues. Agribusiness contributed about $800 billion to the American GDP in 2013, and pockets that buy deep influence. The sector spent over $127 million on lobbying activities last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with nearly 1,000 registered lobbyists on the payrolls. Political - action committees and other advocacy groups sympathetic to the industry contributed another $77.2 million. Three - quarters of that money went to Republicans.
The Food and Drug Administration did not seem terribly exercised by the IARC study noting that the federal government carries out its own such research through the National Toxicology Program. "The NTP Report on Carcinogens has not specifically looked at red meats or processed meats as whole food items," says FDA spokeswoman Megan McSeveney. "These substances have not been nominated for review for the next edition of the Report on Carcinogens." The Department of Agriculture released a statement in response to the IARC announcement, "encouraging Americans to lead an overall healthy, active lifestyle and eat a healthy, balanced diet." - Excerpts from Time Magazine article "The War on Delicious" - Nov. 9, 2015
Page 32) How Processed Meat Can Lead to Cancer:
Meat that's been smoked, salted, cured or changed by another process to enhance its flavor or make it last longer is what has health experts especially worried.
Page 32) Some Processed Meats:
* Hot dogs
* Packaged turkey
* Corned beef
* Beef jerky
* Canned meat
* Chicken nuggets
* Bologna & Charcuterie
Page 32) Pan - frying meat makes it particularly susceptible too forming HCAs, since it's one of the highest - temperature cooking methods.
Page 33) Is Turkey Bacon Safer?
No. In most studies, processed meat is treated as one category of food, regardless of whether it's from white meat, like turkey bacon, or red, like pork. That means there is no bacon loophole - even for the grass - fed or Canadian kinds. White meat has one potential advantage since it doesn't have as much heme iron. But until we know more about how processed meat causes cancer, there's no proof one is safer than the other.
Page 33) What if I Buy "No Nitrates Added" Meat?
Same deal. Some nitrates - added products are treated with celery juice, which is naturally high in nitrates. But natural nitrates are still nitrates - and the body doesn't distinguish between them or the reactions they cause.
Page 33) How Much Meat Raises Cancer Risk?
50 Grams per day increases the risk of cancer.
According to the new report, that much daily processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. In practice, that looks like:
* 6 slices of bacon
* 1 hot dog
* 2 slices of ham
* 5 slices of hard salami
* 2 slices of Canadian bacon
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HOT DOGS & PROCESSED MEATS RAISE RISK of CANCER - May 5, 2005
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A diet containing plenty of processed meats, like hot dogs and sausages, raises the risk of pancreatic cancer, according to a large multiethnic study unveiled on Wednesday.
Researchers found that heavy consumers of processed meats - 40 grams a day or more - were 67 percent more likely to develop cancer of the pancreas than study participants with the lowest intake.
In addition, a diet rich in pork and red meat - 70 grams a day or more - also increased pancreatic cancer risk by about 50 percent, according to the study.
Meat consumption has been linked to pancreatic cancer in the past, but study results have been inconsistent.
This seven-year study examined the relationship between diet and pancreatic cancer in 190,545 men and women of African - American, Japanese - American, Caucasian, Latino and Native Hawaiian descent.
It is believed that chemical reactions that occur during the preparation of processed meats might be responsible for the association.
The results were reported at a meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Anaheim, California.