WHO: Going Veggie?

Posted By: Selerant RSA

Being a ‘foodie’ person, you have no doubt been reading about the latest report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary of World Health Organization (WHO). To add to the general writing and eye-brow lifting on the topic, here’s a brief overview from Selerant.

Media headlines last week brought forward a long existing debate, including a very high profile research already done (take the example of the 2012 Harvard Medical School research), only this time adding an international organization affiliation to it, thus making it sound quite credible. Also, internationally relevant.

So, is there really anything new in the recently published study and should the meat eaters together with the meat industry worldwide start worrying?

What's it all about?

In short, a panel of 22 scientists, from 10 countries, after having concluded a review of over 800 peer-reviewed scientific papers, has issued a statement saying that the consumption of red meat is probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A, together with agents such as acrylamide, glyphosate or UV B radiation). This is the group for which IARC states it has limited evidence in humans, but sufficient evidence in experimental animals.

The consumption of processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1, together with asbestos, cadmium or X rays), based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. Both findings are mainly related to colorectal cancer.  

Just as a reminder, processed meat is meat that has been transformed by processes like salting, curing, smoking and similar, to prolong its shelf life or enhance the taste of the product.

The report concluded that chemicals (like nitrates) added to processed meats are likely to increase the risk of cancer.

The same goes for high temperature cooking, by which we most often mean barbeque or pan-frying, which have very high probability of creating chemicals with carcinogenic effect, like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic aromatic amines, to mention a few.

The IARC experts concluded that each 50 g portion of processed meat eaten daily would increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. Just to get you an idea, this quantity equals about 2 slices of bacon.

The Consequences?

The news has echoed word wide. From daily papers and news websites, to scientific and food safety conferences that were taking place last week. What everyone is still wondering is whether this is a media thing that will pass quicker than it had been brought to the headlines, or would the IARC report be able to influence policy makers or even lead to a revolution in consumer behavior?

The industry did not go without a response, either. One has to bear in mind that meat-consumption has been for years now steadily increasing in low- and middle- income countries, and the possibility of such a study reversing the trend could be perceived as a realistic threat.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an industry association based in Washington D.C., promptly issued a statement saying that there were insufficient evidence to support the IARC findings, reminding that many factors contribute to cancer development.

The opposite scenario could be that the IARC report would only remain that talk-of the-month “I told you so” article, and not really persuade the already meat eating people into changing their habits and switching to the veggie side.

Will the dust settle before the opening of the next barbeque season in the northern hemisphere? Remains to be seen. In the meantime, moderation (in everything), is what the experts are recommending.


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