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Why You Should Not Get Alarmed About Study Linking Red And Processed Meats To Cancer


An agency within the World Health Organization recently concluded eating processed or cured meats like bacon or hot dogs – as well as red meat – can lead to colon cancer.

The Director of the Master of Clinical Nutrition--Coordinated Program at UT Southwestern Medical Center says not quite. Dr. Jo Ann Carson has researched ties between food and cancer for decades. In this edition of "Vital Signs," she explains why the report did not surprise her.

Highlights from Dr. Carson’s interview:

Reaction to the report: “This is not a study. This is the World Health Organization’s group within that looked at the evidence from many different studies and came to this conclusion. One of the messages I heard in the media was ‘eating processed meat is as bad as smoking.’ No, that’s not what this found. It found that there was comparable consistent evidence to say that people who eat processed meats get more colorectal cancer like people who smoke get more lung cancer. But it’s only a hundredth of the effect. So, for a man who smokes, he’s maybe 20 times greater likelihood of getting lung cancer. But for the same man who eats a lot of sausage and bacon and that type of thing, he’s maybe 0.2 more likely to get colon cancer.”

When suspicion began of a tie between cancer and red or processed meat: “Well, I’ve been in the business for 40 years, and 40 years ago we were talking about nitrites in cured meats. But then we’ve had more evidence since then. So I would say the American Institute of Cancer Research – certainly it was at least 15 years ago that it first said limit your red meat intake.”

If you’ve been a heavy consumer of red or processed meat, is the damage already done? “Damage can have been done. But certainly making a change can be helpful. So, if you think about how cancer occurs, there’s a couple of stages and first one is initiation. So let’s say at some point when you were bathing your G-I tract with more compounds from these processed meats, there was a change in one cell that make more cells that could become a tumor eventually. That cell might just die. But that cell might just go on and make more cells like itself, and if you have an environment that promotes that, you’re more likely to end up with a cancerous tumor. But it’s a sequence over time. Remember we’re talking about something that has a small effect, not a big effect. Let’s say you feed hot dogs to your ten year old child. Your child’s not going to develop colon cancer next week because he ate hot dogs.  But if they keep eating a lot hot dogs and many fruits and vegetables, maybe 20 or 30 years later, they’re going to develop colon cancer. Especially if, maybe, they had a genetic propensity to it, and they became overweight and they didn’t exercise - all of that is more likely to do that but it’s over a 20 to 30 year period that our environment influences the development of cancer rather than something in a short period of time."

For more information:

Q&A: IARC on Carcinogenicityof the Consumption of Red Meat and Processed Meat

American Cancer Society: Known and Probable Human Carcinogens

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.