Meat is murder! What the WHO report really says

Meat kills! There, we’ve said it. And tomorrow we’ll be running a story with the headline that meat’s good for you. Not really. But, contradictory reports about the health dangers or benefits of various food items have long littered the front pages of various newspapers, leaving most of frankly bemused or, even more dangerously, disengaged.

So when a genuinely serious report appears across all news channels, published by a respected global organisation, based on years of rigorous response, we don’t always know how to respond.

Anyone tucking into a full English on Monday morning might have been regretting their choice of breakfast as the World Health Organization announced that processed meats – such as bacon, sausages and ham – do cause cancer.

It said 50g of processed meat a day – less than two slices of bacon – increased the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%.

“Probably carcinogenic”

Meanwhile, it also said red meats were “probably carcinogenic” but that there was limited evidence.

As Bloomberg reported, this was no rushed together report, produced by a fly-by-night organisation. On the contrary, independent scientists from academia and government considered the research on red meat for six months before meeting for a week in Lyon, France, to render a decision. The panel included researchers from four continents who were vetted for potential conflicts of interest. They gathered and evaluated evidence from years of epidemiological studies, animal experiments, and other sources.

So why did some newspapers think it helpful to emphasise, or indeed exaggerate the fact that these meaty items are now considered potentially carcinogenic, ranking meat alongside cigarettes and plutonium as causes of cancer. Really!?

Fortunately, the report doesn’t say we should give it all up. Finish that first sausage by all means, just maybe think twice about the second.

Still enjoy a bacon bap

Prof Tim Key, from Cancer Research UK and the University of Oxford, told the BBC: “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.

“Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn’t going to do much harm – having a healthy diet is all about moderation.”

Estimates suggest 34,000 deaths from cancer every year could be down to diets high in processed meat.

To be clear – processed meat is meat that been modified to change the taste or extend its shelf life, usually by smoking, curing, or adding salt or preservatives – bacon, sausages, salami and ham for example.

The WHO does not dismiss some of the health benefits of meat and you can read about the recommended daily consumption quantities here.

So, it would all appear to be about balance. Perhaps the closest to a voice of reason in all the coverage we read, was GP Ann Robinson writing in The Guardian. She said she wouldn’t be giving up her twice weekly ham and mustard sandwich, but did suggest the possibility of a health warning on labels for processed meat.

Quality counts as much as quantity

It probably won’t have escaped your attention, that for us, just as important as how much meat you eat, is what meat you eat – in other words, where it’s from and how it’s been produced. Not all sausages and bacon are equal, just as the pigs they come from are not. The quantities of sodium nitrate used in cheap bacon are what we should be avoiding. And better quality sausages will also have far less salt in them.

If diners follow the WHO’s advice, then we reckon they’ll be even more keen for a good quality meat experience, in every sense.

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