The Truth is Out There
So yesterday, in a moment of weakness, you had a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich for lunch. Now you've got a tumor the size of a casaba melon growing inside your gut, or so the lay press and social media would have you believe since that dire report came out about the alleged connection between red and processed meats and cancer.
Fret not, sweet meat eater, because it's not all that bad. Epidemiological studies – on which the World Health Organization (WHO) report about meat and cancer were based – tend to sometimes be a little sloppy and the truth is generally a whole lot more nuanced than the researchers would have you believe. And, even if the worst is true about red and processed meats, there are several things you can do to protect yourself while continuing to eat at the meat buffet.
Let's start by looking at the problems usually associated with self-reported epidemiological studies.
First off, a lot of biochemists are probably scratching their heads over why this meat/cancer thing is making such big waves in the first place. Scientists have known for over 50 years that the chemicals in processed meats (hot dogs, jerky, bacon, salami, etc.) combine with chemicals in your digestive tract to form carcinogens.
Of course, the WHO report is the first time anyone's undertaken such a herculean effort to quantify the effect by trying to figure out just exactly how many people have actually gotten cancer from eating both processed meats and plain old red meat. But, as stated earlier, the results are a lot more nuanced than reported, and the evidence needs to be put under the microscope.
It's safe to say that there are no randomized, controlled clinical studies showing that these meats cause cancer, so scientists resorted to the far easier and cheaper (and much less reliable) method of doing epidemiological studies. Generally, they recruit a bunch of people, ask them a series of questions about their diet and lifestyle, and then conduct follow-ups at prescribed intervals.
Now keep in mind that epidemiological studies in general don't really offer any proof of anything; they just suggest kinda-sorta hopefully significant statistical trends. Take for example an epidemiological study on cancer and meat conducted by Harvard Medical School back in 2012. The questionnaires gathered from their test subjects revealed a correlation between red meat eaters and cancer, but what they failed to consider in their final report was that the meat eaters in the study displayed a shocking disinterest in living any semblance of a healthy life.
As meat consumption went up, so did inactivity, smoking, and diabetes. In fact, the top 20 percent of cancer-getters smoked three times as many cigarettes than the bottom twenty percent. The biggest meat eaters also drank more, didn't take vitamins, and ate a lot more in general.
So yeah, the biggest meat eaters had the highest rate of cancer, but their overall lifestyles served as a giant welcome mat for cancer, meat or no meat. And while the current report issued by the WHO looked at over 800 of such studies, one wonders how many neglect to consider, as the Harvard study did, any mitigating factors such smoking and a crappy lifestyle in general.
Besides, these studies depend on people remembering exactly what they ate every day, and most people are notoriously bad (dishonest?) when it comes to reporting food intake.
Based on the collected studies, the WHO concluded that each time you eat a 50-gram portion of processed meat (about two slices of bacon), you increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. Processed meats are defined as meat that's been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes intended to either preserve the meat or increase its flavor.
Let's look at what that seemingly grim statistic means in easier-to-understand terms. If you eat two slices of bacon a day your chances of developing colorectal cancer go up about 18%, so that over your lifetime your chance of developing this type of cancer goes from the normal 5% to about 6%. That means that for every 1000 meat eaters, you'd expect 65 of them to develop bowel cancer at some point instead of the ordinarily expected 55, or about 10 more cases.
On the other hand, eating plain ol' red meat (muscle meat such as beef, pork, veal, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat) increased the risk of cancer by 17% (instead of the 18% of processed meats), but that statistic caused a lot more panic because people would rather give up an arm than give up eating steaks, burgers, and chops. Give up salami? Big deal. Give up my cheeseburgers? Eff you.
There's probably nothing inherent about red meat itself that might cause cancer. However, when you cook red meat, you're possibly entering a whole other carcinogenic universe.
Subjecting meat to high temperatures causes various chemical demons to emerge. High temperature grilling, frying, or broiling leads to the production of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and acrylamides. Likewise, if you cook outdoors, combusting wood, gas, or charcoal emits polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which take up residence in your pork chop. All three are known carcinogens.
It's a slightly different situation with processed meats. Processed meats employ nitrites as preservatives and coloring agents. When they're eaten they form nitrosamines in your stomach, which are another class of carcinogens.
So here's the problem with carcinogens: They damage the lining of the bowel so cells have to replicate more than usual in order to heal, and these extra replications increase the chance of errors in DNA, which is often the first step in developing cancer.
It all comes down to the degree of carcinogenicity, the length of exposure to said carcinogen, the number of exposures to said carcinogen, and how adept your immune system is at handling any mutations that might arise from said carcinogen.
IF it's true that high-heat cooking and nitrates are the cause of many, if not all, of the carcinogens found in red meats and processed meats, there are plenty of things we can do to limit our exposure to them:
Warm it up.
Regardless of how you prepare your red meat, let it sit out for a while so that it reaches room temperature. The idea here is to limit the exposure of the meat to heat, so taking a frigid cut straight out of the fridge and slapping it on the grill would take all that much longer to cook.
Cook it a bit before grilling.
To further reduce the time the meat spends exposed to flames or high heat, consider baking or microwaving the meat a bit first before exposing it to a frying pan or grill.
Bake your bacon.
When preparing bacon, lay it out flat on a cooking sheet and bake it in the oven. (It really makes it crispy, too.) Here's how.
Use some foil.
If you're cooking outdoors away from a microwave or oven, wrap the meat in aluminum foil before grilling it. Then, just before it's done, remove the foil and "finish" it on the grill.
Use a slow cooker.
Consider using Crock-Pots or slow cookers in general. The heat provided is generally low enough to prevent the formation of many of the offending chemicals.
Take Vitamin C.
Before eating any meat, take a hit of Vitamin C. The vitamin inhibits the nitrites from combining with the amines in your stomach. Alternately, make sure you eat plenty of Vitamin C-rich vegetables with your meat. Also, consider marinating the meat in citrus before cooking.
Don't eat the black bits.
If any of the meat appears burnt or charred, cut it off before eating.
Buy quality meat.
When buying processed meats, try to buy higher-quality items made by local artisans. Apparently, and the reasoning is probably more instinctive than scientific, meat made from happy cows doing pirouettes in dewy pastures is better than meat from barbaric factory slaughterhouses. You can even find bacon without added nitrates in most regular grocery stores these days.
We do know for certain that meat contains chemical carcinogens, but we don't know just how carcinogenic they might be. However, we might all need to consider the words of Betsy Booren, the vice-president of scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, who sat in on the WHO meeting.
Granted, Booren might be partial to meat interests, but she said the IARC (the cancer-research arm of the WHO) "tortured" the data to ensure a specific outcome. "Red and processed meat are among 940 agents reviewed by the IARC and found to pose some level of theoretical 'hazard.' Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by the IARC not to cause cancer.
"The IARC says you can enjoy your yoga class, but don't breathe air (class 1 carcinogen), sit near a sun-filled window (also a class 1 carcinogen), apply aloe vera (class 2B) if you get a sunburn, drink wine or coffee (class 1 and class 2B), or eat grilled food (class 2A). And if you are a hairdresser or do shift work (both class 2A), you should seek a new career."
So yeah, a lot of stuff might cause cancer, but some things are less worrisome than others. For instance, while eating red or processed meat might increase your chances of getting cancer by 17 or 18 percent, smoking increases your relative risk of developing lung cancer by 2500 percent.
Clearly, we only have three choices when it comes to dealing with all these numbers and statistics: Cower in fear and live in a plastic bubble every time a report comes out on some new carcinogen, say to hell with the science and do and eat whatever you want, or practice moderation when it comes to exposing ourselves to carcinogens.
After all, there's life, and there's quality of life.