In the Zeitgeist: the kerfuffle over processed & red meat

If you’re a meat-eater, you may be feeling a bit anxious following the World Health Organization’s release last week of a monograph evaluating consumption of processed and red meats.

The report cited red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (specifically colorectal cancer, with associations also seen for pancreatic and prostate cancers) and processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans,” citing sufficient evidence that consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.

Read the WHO press release, with links to the full report and Q & A’s here.
Read the WHO’s statement in response to all the hoopla.

There was spontaneous combustion in the media and around water coolers, with  #bacongeddon, #FreeBacon, and #JeSuisBacon trending on Twitter and stories about bacon grief abounding on television. Look at how central bacon is to Americana! Bacon sizzling, the smell of bacon, “bringing home the bacon”, the crunch, bacon and eggs!

If you’re a bacon lover, take a breath! And let’s calmly consider this report.

First: Regarding processed foods, there is nothing new here.

We’ve gotten all in a whirl about bacon, hot dogs and other processed meats. But there’s no news here. Meats have been processed the same way in this country since the 50’s. Large quantities of processed meats have never been a healthy choice, which modern nutritional science has clarified for those of us who grew up eating baloney sandwiches on Wonder bread and hot dogs on white rolls (oops!).

Normally my mantra is everything in moderation, including moderation. I am NOT an extremist, nor do I believe in villainizing foods; I refer you to my blog post last week, What you can’t have, I won’t tell you. But here, I would strike a cautionary note.

Is it a good idea to eat hot dogs daily at the sidewalk lunch cart? I would say no. Is it okay to have a few slices of bacon here and there? It’s a very individual choice. If you are thinking about a cancer-preventative diet, processed meats would not be on your menu. If you’re an uber bacon-lover, take a moment to consider quantity, and calibrate. As the WHO report says, “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.”

Second: All red meat is not created equal.

The WHO report lumped all red meat together -- feedlot meat pumped up with hormones and antibiotics right alongside pasture-raised meat, with cattle grazing and eating what they’re meant to eat. Mistake! Read the Environmental Working Group’s Meat Eater’s Guide articles “Meat and Your Health,” “Antibiotics and Toxins,” and “Why Go Grass-Fed” to learn details. Personally, I think choosing to eat small amounts of high-quality, pasture-raised meat can be a healthy approach.

These several articles from The New York Times are the best and most balanced I have seen on the WHO report, for your further consideration:

Meat, Cancer, Fear and Carcinogenic Headlines on Dot Earth, Opinion Pages.
So Will Processed Meat Give You Cancer? from the Sunday Review, News Analysis.

Meanwhile -- how do we deal with all these things being thrown at us, splashed all over the media?

When you’re at the stove, you’re in control.

People hear scary food info and get into a state of paralysis. My advice: Come on back to the stove, and focus on the things you can do to take care of yourself. Take control.

  • Eat lots of fiber and keep yourself well hydrated. This is good advice for all of us, and critical for processed meat eaters. All the chemicals used in processing the meats hang around in the gut for too long, because we are slower to digest meats. When chemicals that the body does not recognize hang out in your gut, our cells get confused and think, Ah! Maybe we should go rogue! A recipe for ill-health. Instead, load up on your vegetables to move things along.
  • Be in control of the quality & quantity of what you eat. If you’re a meat eater, look for the best quality possible -- grass-fed, pasture-raised. Find out where the meat is coming from and how it’s processed, and make the best choices you can.
  • Use meat as a condiment. Think of all the delicious meals you’ve had in which small amounts of meat are sprinkled on top of a dish full of vegetables, instead of in a big old slab. There’s a lot of creative culinary potential here!

The lesson here is that a little beef goes a long way. What people crave is the taste and texture of beef, not to be overwhelmed by it, and this dish satisfies that need by turning beef into a supporting player. The headliners are the veggies and the dressing, and the combo brings down the house!

When you get behind the stove, when you’re in control, you’re on terra firma. We’ll talk more about this next week, when I delve into the Mediterranean diet, about which there are so many POSITIVE studies and reports. Mediterranean cultures can teach us so much about food and lifestyle competency, stewarding the land, and, of course, flavor! More soon.

Meanwhile, breathe! Make informed choices, and enjoy your food.