Friday, October 30, 2015

This week's big news about meat and cancer

Big news this week--the World Health Organization announced that, after reviewing the data, processed meat is a Type 1 carcinogen. This is the highest level of classification for cancer causing substances. Tobacco, arsenic, alcohol, and asbestos are also Type 1 carcinogens (a carcinogen is a substance that can cause cancer).

They also included red meat in the next category below this, Type 2a. This means that the WHO thinks that red meat "probably" causes cancer.

Hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, and canned meat are all processed meats. A processed meat is a meat that has been preserved by salting, curing, smoking, drying, or canning. Red meats include pork, beef, lamb, and other meats from mammals.

These results are consistent with what I wrote about in an earlier blog post--"A Whole Foods, Plant Based Diet." It's great to hear that such a large, influential group like the World Health Organization broke the news because they've made quite a splash and turned a lot of heads.

When I first saw the news, I almost glossed right over it. "Yeah, I've known this for years," I thought. "What else is new?" But when I began to see it plastered everywhere--all over mainstream websites and news outlets, I became interested.

Unfortunately, the response to this really important news has been disheartening. Many people's knee jerk reaction is to look for ways to continue doing what they've been doing despite the facts. They are now pushing the message of moderation, which, honestly, sounds crazy to me (See this video from the YouTube channel "Happy Healthy Vegan." They have also noticed the lack of seriousness in the response to the important news).

Remember, processed meat is a Type 1 carcinogen. What person in their right mind recommends smoking in moderation? Who says to breathe in asbestos in moderation? What about using arsenic in moderation??? Back when I still lived in the States I remember old schools and other old buildings being completely demolished because they had asbestos in them. That's less of a hassle than not eating salami??

If you live in the United States especially, be careful who you listen to: 
"The $95 billion U.S. beef industry has been preparing for months to mount a response, and some scientists, including some unaffiliated with the meat industry, have questioned whether the evidence is substantial enough to draw the strong conclusions that the WHO panel did." (source)
To be clear, the WHO panel based their conclusion on about 800 studies. This is not just another single study based on a handful of people. The beef industry has deep pockets, and you can be sure they're not going to go down without a fight. As is made clear in Dr. Michael Greger's video about eggs (below), it's not below these groups to pay scientists and bloggers to promote their products as a health food.

As I was washing the dishes last night, I listened to an episode of the radio show "On Point with Tom Ashbrook," which discussed the WHO announcement. The panel of guests seemed blindsided by the news. Most of them were stuttering and unprepared to answer many questions (Aside from Marion Nestle--a professor of nutrition at New York University, who basically said, "Ya, we've known about this for a long time--what's the surprise all about?" You can find her written statement to CNN here.).

One man called in and asked about nitrate free lunch meats, wondering if he would be safe if he continued to buy them. When I heard this, my initial reaction was disbelief as to why someone would continue eating processed meat after hearing the news. But after thinking about myself as a former meat eater, I can understand. When I ate meat, I mostly ate processed meat. It was so much easier to buy a few slices of ham than to buy meat in its original, raw form. In fact, when I lived on my own I don't remember buying raw, unprocessed meat even once. I've worked at a couple of delis, and, now that I think about it, we only sold processed meat to people. People eat the stuff daily--it is called "lunch meat," after all. And when something is so pervasive in a culture and you see everyone doing it, it's hard to believe that it is actually dangerous.

This is understandable. Wasn't the response to the dangers of tobacco similar? Doctors and celebrities were paid to endorse the products and gave the general public a false sense of security. People took half measures like smoking light cigarettes and cigarettes with filters, which actually turn out to be more detrimental to health.

The same thing is happening now. People are grasping at straws, hoping that nitrate free or organic lunch meat will not be as harmful to them. Many people misinterpret the news, reasoning that, since processed meat doesn't instantly kill you, the news has been over hyped. People also claim that since meat has vitamins and minerals, it is still alright to eat it sometimes. As one YouTube news reporter puts it, "Vegetarians, don't rejoice too much, though. Meat is still a great source of B vitamins, minerals, iron, and zinc."

This reminds me of wine advocates who point out the fact that wine has antioxidants--as if other foods don't have them. In a similar vein, meat advocates still highlight the fact that meats have nutrients as if plant foods don't have B vitamins, minerals, iron, and zinc.

I understand that if you've been eating meat everyday for fifty years or if you depend on ham and bologna to feed your children at lunch, this may be a lot to take in at once. It may be more comfortable to react in disbelief along with millions of other people. While I was initially surprised and a little angry at the public reaction, I am left feeling compassionate because I know what it is like to live and eat that way.

However, Yulia and I want you to know that it is possible to change for the better. We are encouraged to see that even non vegetarians are taking interest in the mounting reasons to not eat meat. The same people from "DNews" in the video above link to another video about the meat industry in the United States. They acknowledge that meat production produces more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined.

So eating a plant based diet is not only better for your health, it is also better for the health of the planet. If you are at all interested in environmentalism, you might want to consider a plant based diet. But this is a topic for another post...


  1. But wait, it gets worse.

    Rather than grow Amaranth, a nutritious leafy vegetable and cereal loaded with vitamins, protein and minerals including Zinc (and also gluten free for those that care about such things):

    We humans have instead decided to grow corn as a staple corp. Corn which requires massive amounts of herbicides (and GMO crops) to kill off "weeds" that grow in corn fields... Weeds like Amaranth.

    Why? Because Amaranth is toxic to pigs and cows. And most corn goes to feed pigs and cows so we can have bacon and hamburgers.

    And I have a vineyard. Anyone telling you to drink wine for its antioxidant properties is simply pushing marketing BS. Such properties come form the grape seed and skin and are in too low concentration to offset the negative affects of alcohol (as more modern research is showing). You are better off simply eating grapes and chewing on the seeds to benefit from grape antioxidant phenolics (ie. American "seedless" grapes are not so great after all). One should drink wine for other reasons (simply because one enjoys doing so -- even I enjoy a Cuban cigar from time to time just because I like it), not because of some "health" benefit BS.

    1. Thank you, as always, for the interesting information! I (Michael) had no idea about amaranth and corn.

      70% of grain grown in wealthy countries goes to livestock (something we will write about in future posts). Even when it comes to our neighbors, most of the pumpkins, potatoes and corn in their gardens goes to their animals. So the scale on which this happens is very big. Just come to where we live and look at the oceans of corn and wheat grown by agribusinesses around us.

      When I was writing I forgot about your vineyard! :) I'm glad you could contribute to that comment!

    2. It is shocking, and sad, how much energy is spent to eradicate plants that are actually food sources:

      I have growing on our property many such plants such as: amaranth, bull thistle, chicory, lambs quarters, mallow, pig weed, sunflower, dandelion and others. All edible. And all considered "weeds" by most others, but not by me.