Meat Industry Response to Meat Being Labeled Carcinogenic

The most extensive report on diet and cancer in history is constantly being updated with all the new research. As I discuss in my video The Palatability of Cancer Prevention, in its update on colorectal cancer a few years ago, various meats were implicated, including processed meat as “a convincing cause of colorectal cancer,” which is its highest level of evidence that “effectively means ‘beyond reasonable doubt.’” More recently, processed meat was confirmed as a carcinogen by the World Health Organization. The main message was that “the best prevention of colorectal cancer is the combination of higher physical activity with a fibre-rich and meat products poor diet.” A decrease by half a turkey sandwich’s worth of meat might lower the total number of colorectal cancer cases by approximately 20 percent. There are several implications of this cancer guideline update, but a paper in the industry publication Meat Science decided “to focus on the consumer side of the story, since every consumer is a patient and vice-versa at some point in the future.” But chronic disease need not be invariably a consequence of aging.

“Although the epidemiological evidence for the relationship between colorectal cancer risk (at least!) and processed meats intake cannot be denied,” the Meat Science authors suggest further research. For example, compare the risk of consuming meat to other risky practices—alcohol, lack of physical activity, obesity, and smoking. Compared to lung cancer and smoking, maybe meat won’t look so bad!

Consumers, however, probably won’t even hear about the cancer prevention guidelines. “Consumers today are overloaded with information….It is thus probable that the dissemination of the [World Cancer Research Fund’s] update on colorectal cancer drowns in this information cloud.” And, even if consumers do see it, the meat industry doesn’t think they’ll much care.

For many consumers in the Western world, “the role of healthfulness, although important, is not close to taste satisfaction in shaping their final choice of meat and meat products…It is hence questionable that slightly revised recommendations based on the carcinogenic effects of meat consumption will yield substantial changes in consumer behavior.”

Doctors and nutrition professionals feed into this patronizing attitude that people don’t care enough about their health to change. A classic paper from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a leading journal, scoffed at the idea that people would ever switch to a “prudent diet,” reducing their intakes of animal protein and fat no matter how much cancer was prevented. “The chances of reducing consumptions of fat, protein foods, or indeed of any food to a significant extent to avoid colon cancer are virtually nil.” Consider heart disease. We know we can prevent and treat heart disease with the same kind of diet, but the public won’t do it. “[T]he diet,” they said, “would lose too much of its palatability.”

“The great palatability of ham,” in other words, “largely outweighs other considerations…[although] health and wellbeing are increasingly important factors in consumer decisions.” A 1998 Meat Science article feared that “[u]nless meat eating becomes compatible…with eating that is healthy, wholesome, and safe, it will be consigned to a minor role in the diet in developed countries during the next decade.” That prediction didn’t quite pan out. Looking at a graph of total meat consumption per person over the last 30 years or so, intake rises and rises. In 1998, when that Meat Science article worrying about the next decade of meat consumption was published, we see intake rise even further. It does then seem to kind of flatten out before it starts falling off a cliff. Indeed, meat consumption dipped down about 10 percent  but has surged back up. Still, millions of Americans are cutting down on meat.

So don’t tell me people aren’t willing to change their diets. Nevertheless, we continue to get diluted guidelines and dietary recommendations, because authorities are asking themselves, “What dietary changes could become acceptable?” rather than just telling us what the best available science says and letting us make up our own minds about the cancer risk as we feed ourselves and our families.


How Much Cancer Does Lunch Meat Cause? Good question—watch the video!

Can simply cutting down on meat consumption extend our lifespan? Find out in Do Flexitarians Live Longer?. For my overview on cancer prevention, check out How Not to Die from Cancer.

I think the role of health authorities is to share with patients the pros and cons of all the options and let the patients, their families, and their doctors decide together what’s right for them. I’ve produced a number of videos on this issue, including:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

The Five Most Important Dietary Tweaks

The Five Most Important Dietary Tweaks

Generally, adherence to healthy lifestyle patterns has decreased during the last 18 years. Obesity is up, exercise is down, and the number of people eating just five servings of fruits and veggies a day dropped like a rock. And we didn’t start out that great to begin with.

Only 3% of Americans at the turn of the 21st century had the following four healthy lifestyle characteristics: not smoking, not overweight, five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, and exercising a half hour a day at least five days a week. Whether people were wealthy or college-educated didn’t matter; no sub-group even remotely met clinical or public health recommendations.

Where are people falling down the most? You can see in my video What Percent of Americans Lead Healthy Lifestyles?. If you look at heart disease risk factors, for example, most people don’t smoke and about half are exercising. But if we look at the healthy diet score–which is based on things like drinking less than four cups of soda a week–a scale of zero to five, only about 1% of Americans score a four or five. The American Heart Association’s aggressive 2020 target to improve that by 20% would bring us up to 1.2%.

Since we’ve known for decades that advanced coronary artery disease may be present by age 20—with atherosclerosis often even present in young children—it is particularly disturbing that healthy lifestyle choices are declining rather than improving in the U.S.

In terms of life expectancy, the U.S. is down around 27 or 28 out of the 34 OECD free-market democracies. The people of Slovenia live a year longer than citizens of the United States. Why? According to the most rigorous analysis of risk factors ever published, the number one cause of death and disability in the United States is our diet.

It’s the food.

According to the Global Burden of Disease study, the worst five things about our diet are: we don’t eat enough fruit, we don’t eat enough nuts and seeds, we eat too much salt, too much processed meat, and not enough vegetables.

Studies that have looked at diet quality and chronic disease mortality risk found that those scoring higher (e.g. more whole plant foods), reduced the risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, cancer, and all causes of death combined. There is now an overwhelming body of clinical and epidemiological evidence illustrating the dramatic impact of a healthy lifestyle on reducing all-cause mortality and preventing chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.

Why do we eat so poorly? Aren’t we scared of dying from these horrible chronic diseases? It’s almost as if we’re eating as though our future didn’t matter. And there’s actually data to back that up, from a study entitled Death Row Nutrition.

The growing macabre fascination with speculating about one’s ‘‘last meal’’ offers a window into one’s true consumption desires when one’s value of the future is discounted close to zero. In contrast to pop culture anecdotes, a group of Cornell researchers created a catalog of actual last meals–the final food requests of 247 individuals executed in the United States during a recent five-year period. Meat was the most common request. The researchers go out of their way to note that tofu never made the list, and no one asked for a vegetarian meal. In fact, if you compare the last meals to what Americans normally eat, there’s not much difference.

If we continue to eat as though they were our last meals, eventually, they will be.

A few years ago I did a video called Nation’s Diet in Crisis. It’s sad that it doesn’t seem like much has changed. How Many Meet the Simple Seven? is another video in which you can see how your own habits stack up.

For more on fruits and veggies and living longer, see Fruits and Longevity: How Many Minutes per Mouthful? Surprised that nuts made the longevity list? See Nuts May Help Prevent Death. What about legumes? See Increased Lifespan from Beans.

The reason public health professionals are so keen on measuring lifestyle characteristics is because modest improvements may have extraordinary effects. See, for example:

Didn’t know the beginnings of heart disease may already be present in children? See my video Heart Disease Starts in Childhood. Think that’s tragic? Check out Heart Disease May Start in the Womb. Is it too late if we’ve been eating poorly most of our lives? It’s Never Too Late to Start Eating Healthier.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: