Will The Link Between Meat and Cancer Change the Way We Eat?

There’s a new report linking certain types of meat to cancer.

By Rhonda FanningOctober 27, 2015 12:16 pm

The World Health Organization‘s International Agency for Research on Cancer announced yesterday that processed meats are “carcinogenic to humans,” meaning their consumption can cause cancer.

The report suggests that there is a risk associated with consuming large portions of processed meats. It also suggests eating large quantities for red meat could be linked with cancer.

Not surprisingly, the news was met with cynicism from around the globe. The North American Meat Industry released a statement saying it’s a “dramatic and alarmist overreach.” But the report has been lauded by scientists, nutritionists and medical professionals not involved in its making.

They all say the information is nothing new.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition and public health professor at New York University, tells the Wall Street Journal that processed meat’s link to cancer is supported by “increasingly compelling research.”

“There seem to be many reasons to eat less beef – climate change among them – but cancer is a more personal worry,” she says.

As the public digests the report, it’s hard to overlook what history says about personal risk versus the public good. What exactly are the health risks? Will the WHO’s emphasis spark a new conversation over food policy?

Dr. Shreela Sharma, associate professor of Epidemiology, Human Genetics & Environmental Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, says we’re not too far off from having the same conversation we’ve had about other vices, like alcohol and cigarette smoke.

“Food is a little bit different from smoking,” she says. “Smoking you can stop and survive, but with food you have to eat to live. So it’s a little bit of a different conversation.”

The WHO doesn’t recommend that people stop eating meat altogether, but to be aware of the risk factors.

“As more evidence comes in this area, the conversation will definitely shift from just individual choice towards more policy recommendations,” Sharma says. “When it comes to policy, there is a little bit of moderation that needs to be taken into consideration.”

Either way, Sharma says the science is in front of us with regards to the increased risk; the decisions come next at the individual and family level.

“I have kids and I have a family and I have to make these choices every day for them,” she says. “My number one question is, ‘What are the nutritional benefits of eating this food? And will my family eat it?”