When the World Health Organization released the results of a study that found a link between processed meats and colorectal cancer about a month ago the news went viral.
Headlines decried the fate of bacon lovers everywhere – Bacon is as big a cancer threat as smoking says World Health Organization; Avoid bacon and sausages … they're as bad as cigarettes; Bacon's as bad as asbestos? WHO thinks so.
But according to one expert, if we strip away all the media hype what we're left with is actually the same old, boring story of moderation.
Timothy Caufield is a professor in the faculty of law and school of public health at the University of Alberta, the Canada Research Chair in health law and public policy and the author of the best-selling Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?
He hopes the findings will encourage Canadians to make smarter choices when it comes to what they put on their plates.
"I hope the take-away message is one of moderation," says Caufield. "People shouldn't eat a bunch of processed meat. It shouldn't be your go-to meat product. People should be thinking of it as a treat – something that they have occasionally," says Caufield.
Despite sensational headlines, the reality is that the risk associated with eating processed meats is relatively low. The study found that eating 50 grams of processed meats every day increases the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18 per cent and by 17 per cent for every 100 grams of red meat per day. The size of those percentages is deceiving due to the low risk of colorectal cancer to begin with.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the risk of developing colorectal cancer is 7.7 per cent for men and 6.6 per cent in women.
That means a hotdog a day would bump the average Canadian male's chance to nine per cent and the average Canadian female to 7.8 per cent.
That doesn't mean the warnings should be ignored though.
The reason that bacon and other processed meats were placed in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos is that the WHO deemed there was enough evidence to establish a definite relationship.
Meaning, if you eat too much sausages, jerky, bacon, mock chicken, etc. you are putting yourself at risk. The same can be said about smoking, asbestos and not wearing sunscreen.
As for red meat, the relationship was more tenuous. The data didn't show as strong of a link, so it was labelled as probably carcinogenic.
Although the relationship between processed meats and colorectal cancer has long been suspected, the official nature of the announcement and the formal categorization of a food beloved by most as cancer causing was 'frank' -ly upsetting, says Caufield.
This wasn't just one study after all; it was a review of 800 different studies by 22 international experts and commissioned by one of the top research organizations in the world.
"It's supposed to have a lot of persuasiveness to inform decision-making both at the policy level and for individuals," says Caufield.
In fact, some groups, such as the Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, an advocacy group in the U.S., immediately started campaigning against the serving of hotdogs, pepperoni and other processed meats in schools, hospitals and other public institutions – a policy-change Caufield does support. They also used the news to push vegetable-based diets, asking the public to consider cutting meat out entirely.
Caufield says this is not necessary, nor recommended.
There are certain health benefits associated with red meats after all. It is as the best source of B12, a vitamin that plays a key role in maintaining brain function and forming blood, and meats in general provide complete proteins and heme iron, which is more easily absorbed than iron found in vegetables like spinach and kale.
The Canadian Cancer Society for its part simply announced that the research had supported what it had been recommending for years: Limit the amount of red meat you eat to three servings per week – servings are 85 grams according to Canada's Food Guide. Choose poultry and fish more often, eat more alternatives to meat such as beans, nuts and legumes, and save processed meats for special occasions such as "ham for a holiday dinner or a hotdog at a sporting event."
In other words, moderation.
When asked if the food guide should be changed to reflect the information released by the World Health Organization – limit processed meats to 50 grams and red meats to 100 grams per day – Caufield abides by the principle of K.I.S.S. Keep it simple stupid.
"I think we have to think big picture. This is part of the big picture, but I wouldn't want the details to dominate the big picture," says Caufield.
That big picture being getting people to eat more balanced diets in general.
A critic of celebrity and fad health trends, Caufield says forget the gimmicks, the macro-nutrients, Gwyneth Paltrow. It's all noise. Concentrate on the tried and true basics: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins.
"There's no magic solution," he says. "Research tells us that again and again."
In his first book, The Cure For Everything!, Caufield pushes the healthy plate approach, which is probably the simplest breakdown of a healthy, balanced diet to follow.
Take a plate and divide it in half. Fill that half with vegetables, preferably raw or steamed so they retain their nutrients, and fruit. Take the other half and divide it in two – one for whole grains like brown rice, whole-wheat bread or whole-grain pasta, the other for protein like poultry, fish, beans, red meat, eggs or peanut butter. Wash it down with milk and water.
Diane Jackshaw, a registered dietitian in St. Albert, agrees whole-heartedly with this approach.
She says the biggest place her clients go wrong is portion size.
She knows that T-bone steak that covers the entirety of your plate is making your mouth water, but it's also two or three times the recommended serving, which looks closer to a deck of cards.
This way you're getting all the health benefits of meat, but you aren't putting yourself at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes or cancer.
Look to Mediterranean and Japanese cuisines, where meat plays more of a garnish role, for inspiration she says.
Not only does this address the portion problem, but the fish- and legume-heavy diets break up the meat and potatoes monotony, which is also unhealthy but unfortunately not all that uncommon in North America.
"Variety is key. In order to get all your vitamins and minerals you have to eat a variety of foods. Meat is in that variety, it's just smaller portions and sources – making sure you're not only picking one source all the time," says Jackshaw.
Caufield hopes that the mixed-messages flowing through the media won't frustrate the public and that individuals will make a concerted effort to eat in a healthy manner.
But he also recognizes that humans are creatures of habit.
While we may avoid the deli on our next few shopping trips, we will eventually find ourselves at the counter ordering 200 grams of old-fashioned thinly-sliced before we even realize where the wheels of our carts have taken us.
And that's OK.
Are all processed meats created equal?
The World Health Organization's study did not come to any conclusion about how different preservation methods could contribute to cancer, although it is suspected that the use of nitrites and nitrates used in curing salts play a role in the relationship between processed meats and cancer.
These chemicals contribute to the formation of N-nitroso compounds – several of which are thought to be cancer causing.
So if you are thinking of throwing a couple of dogs on the grill this summer, try going au naturale.
Ask your local butcher about their preparation.
Prairie Meats in St. Albert prides itself on not using preservatives in its homemade sausages. While you may need to run in a few days or hours before the birthday bash or team barbecue – remember the Canadian Cancer Society recommends limiting processed meats to special occasions – to make sure they don't spoil, the absence of nitrates makes them a healthier choice.
But only slightly, says Diane Jackshaw, a registered dietitian from St. Albert.
It's not just a question of preservation, she explains. Processed meats often use lower grades of meat that are higher in saturated fat content. Our beloved bacon for example is typically made from fatty, tough, less tasty parts of an animal such as the belly or cheek.
This puts us at risk for numerous health problems, namely obesity and cardiovascular disease.
What are you eating?
Processed meat: meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Can contain beef, pork, other red meats, poultry, offal, or other meat-by-products, such as blood.<br />Red meat: muscle meat from mammals, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, goat, bison, venison and other game.