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Red meat: Cutting down on 'probable carcinogenic' may have significant environmental benefits

There are sufficient grounds to describe red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans”

Monday 26 October 2015 20:55 GMT
Raising red meat consumption by more than half a serving a day was associated with a 48 per cent increase in risk over the next four years
Raising red meat consumption by more than half a serving a day was associated with a 48 per cent increase in risk over the next four years (PA)

Debates about the potential health hazards of red and processed meat have swirled for years. Studies have suggested varying levels of concern. But now the World Health Organisation is sufficiently convinced of the dangers to rank processed products such as bacon and salami in the same “group 1” category as cigarettes in its list of carcinogens.

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which reviewed more than 800 studies on the subject, also concludes that there are sufficient grounds to describe red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, placing it in “group 2a”. Anyone feeling stressed by the news should think twice about reaching for a calming glass of wine – alcohol is also a group 1 carcinogen.

In explaining its decision, the IARC says that the daily consumption of a 50 gram portion of processed meat can increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent. It is a small but significant figure, although the meat industry and some academics have already warned that the public should not overreact to the decision because meat can have a valuable role in a healthy, balanced diet. Indeed, the headline comparisons with tobacco – which vastly increases smokers’ risk of developing lung cancer – are not particularly helpful.

But there is another important factor to consider when assessing the merits, or otherwise, of consuming red meat: the impact of the world’s meat obsession on our climate. Emissions of greenhouse gases from the livestock sector account for a higher portion of the global total (around 15 per cent) than direct transport emissions. And past projections have suggested that global consumption of meat is on course to rise by up to 76 per cent by 2050, from the baseline of a decade ago.

It may be unpalatable, but burping cows are as much of a problem when it comes to climate change as beeping cars. For the good of the planet – just as much as our individual health – we should reconsider our approach to meat. In the long run, it may be the best way to save our bacon.

Equally, it is important that concerns about meat consumption do not obscure other, perhaps more immediate dangers, about food. Jamie Oliver’s celebrity status probably divides opinion when it comes to his role in promoting a tax on added sugar, but there is no doubt that our fondness for all things sweet is a problem for the health of the nation.

Likewise, sedentary lifestyles have left schoolchildren in England the least fit they have ever been. Numerous studies show a causal link between our increased inactivity as a society and the obesity crisis which has resulted in 61.7 per cent of adults in England being classified as obese or overweight. Projections by the WHO suggest the position will worsen considerably in the next 15 years unless our habits change.

But even if there are more obvious challenges than those posed by our love of chipolatas, the WHO’s tougher line on meat certainly tallies with past calls by cancer charities to take the issue more seriously. While some will take the latest warnings with a pinch of salt – ignoring another danger into the bargain – we should take heed. The WHO’s decision has not been taken lightly and is based on a mass of evidence. If it ultimately encourages people to think more carefully about their diet – and, in the long term, helps to reduce global carbon emissions and the pressure on our creaking healthcare system too – we should welcome the new classifications.

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