My dear hubby is pretty astute when it comes to healthy — and tasty — eating. For instance, he's been insisting for years it's sugar that's so bad for us, not fat (more on that next week).
But one thing he and I have disagreed about for years is his predilection for all things cured. I should say all meats cured, as in dried, smoked and/or salted meat. From prime hams and Ukrainian sausage to Polish sausage, Jadgwurst, Hunter's sausage (a kind of kielbasa made with juniper berries) and Italy's salami and capocolla — you name it. If it's meat and it's cured and it comes from a good European deli, 10 to one he'll love it.
This he comes by naturally, for his mom is from Poland while his dad was from Latvia, so cured meats were a mainstay growing up. And while I can't dispute they're wonderfully tasty and handy — too handy for a quick protein fix — I've been trying to get him to cut back on them for years, partly to save my own (ahem) bacon because when they're in the house I can't resist them, and partly to save his because my amateur sleuthing concluded years ago they really aren't good for us.
Now I have a new argument in my arsenal. A ground-breaking study done by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), WHO's cancer research agency, has concluded that processed meats, which includes things like bacon, smoked sausages and hams, are not only not good for us, they cause cancer in humans.
WHO now ranks processed meats in the same carcinogenic category as tobacco, asbestos and diesel fumes. (Note, that while processed meat has been classified in the same category it doesn't mean they're all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, not the level of risk.)
The study, released Oct. 24, examined the cancer risks for red meat and for processed meats. Red meats include beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat. Processed meats are defined as meat "that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation."
Most processed meats, the study notes, contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal or meat by-products such as blood. Examples include weiners, ham, sausages, corned beef, and biltong or beef jerky as well as canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces.
While the agency could reach no conclusion regarding the carcinogenic effects of red meat alone — it's considered a "probable" carcinogen due to its links to colon, pancreatic and prostate cancer — it was clear that processed meats do increase your chances of getting colorectal cancer.
A 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent. Processed meats are also linked to stomach cancer.
Fifty grams in real time translates to two slices of side bacon, one good slice of ham, or two and a half slices of balogne. As for the 18 per cent increased risk factor, it means that if 61 people out of 1,000 are going to get colon cancer, as statistics indicate in the U.K., then you would expect 66 people out of 1,000 who eat a lot of processed meat to get it.
"For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed," says Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Programme, in the agency's press release.
"In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance."
The IARC Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries considered more than 800 studies that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets (this by way of silencing those who have called the study "baloney"). The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years. A summary of the final evaluations are available online in The Lancet Oncology.
"These findings currently support public health recommendations to limit the intake of meat," says Dr. Christopher Wild, a director at IARC. Given the importance of red meat's nutritional value (it's high not only in protein but in nutrients like iron and zinc as well), the information will help governments and regulatory agencies assess the pros and cons of eating red meat and processed meat, and how to transfer that to policies and education.
Other scientists have also noted the study is important in helping us, the average Jill or Joe, in making choices in our diets. In a CBC News report, Sian Bevan, director of research at the Canadian Cancer Society, urges us to limit red meat to about three servings per week and to really be careful and avoid processed meat, saving it for "particular occasions if you're to consume it."
Got that? Keep the ham and sausage and bacon for special occasions and cut your red meat consumption, presuming you're a meat eater, to three times a week.
One more thing: the other carcinogenic factor studied by the IARC was how we cook our meat. If you're a big barbecue fan, you aren't going to like this but you knew it was coming.
Although results are not fully conclusive since there aren't enough data, scientists know that cooking at high temperatures or with the food in direct contact with a flame or a hot surface, like barbecuing or pan-frying, produces more of certain types of carcinogenic chemicals, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. So you might want to be a little more measured with your grilling operations, too.
While I'm not necessarily advising this, I just want you to know that my Auntie Claire, who was also Polish and lived to a ripe old age, boiled everything she ate in plain water, including meat.
What I mean to remind us all is moderation in all things, and there are alternatives. So you'll have to excuse me now — I need to go make some noodles for my husband and I for dinner.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's been cutting back on her meat eating for years.