J ust in time for Halloween, there was a new scare about town: a ‘Red Scare’. Except this twenty-first century version is more sausages than socialists.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), processed meats cause cancer, and red meat may do so too. Just 50g of the stuff each day – that’s two rashers of bacon, folks – increased the risk of developing colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.
This is all down to the chemical ‘haem’, which makes up part of the red pigment in blood ‘haemoglobin’. Being harder to break down in our gut, this bodily troublemaker often causes cell damage during the digestive process. The more damage, the more cells that need to be replicated. Therefore, like a tired student working overtime, the chance of error increases, unfortunately paving the way for cancer’s entrance.
As a result, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a group of experts who carefully analysed data from over 800 studies, have now classed any meat that isn’t sold fresh, but is cured, salted, smoked or preserved as a Group 1 carcinogen. So hot dogs and ham slices are now just as egregious as asbestos, cigarettes, sunbeds and even chimney sweeping…officially.
Pretty hard-to-swallow stuff for the fry-up aficionado.
But before we mourn the imminent loss of that bastion of Britain, the Full English, let’s examine the facts before hopping on the worry wagon.
This isn’t exactly ‘new’ news – we’ve been hearing warnings that there may be links between meat consumption levels and bowel, stomach and pancreatic cancers since 2011, when the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) told us that there’s a 17 per cent higher risk for those who ate most processed meat.
Sounds shocking, but what we need to remember, however, is that this is a relative risk. That is to say, of every 1,000 people, roughly 61 will develop bowel cancer. Of these, over 50 will probably have developed the disease through factors other than processed and/or red meat consumption, although this does increase the risk.
“But they’re as carcinogenic as so-called ‘cancer sticks’!” the petrified public cry.
Well, not really. The ‘Group 1’ classification is actually a proof of how confident scientists are that they’ll cause cancer, not how much cancer they actually cause. Basically, WHO, IARC and WCRF are all sure there’s a link, but that doesn’t mean it’s overwhelmingly massive.
To put things into perspective: if everyone in the UK stopped smoking, there would be 64,500 fewer cancer diagnoses per year, whereas a lowered processed meat intake would only cause 8,800 fewer.
Looks like it’s not yet time to swap t-bones for tofu, quinoa and Quorn – simply being mindful should suffice. Besides, a 2011 study found that ketchup reduced the risk of prostate cancer by up to 34 per cent due to a chemical in the pigment called lycopene. So armed with a bottle of Heinz next breakfast time, all should be fine*.
*Disclaimer: may not actually neutralise cancer threat, but will add deliciousness.