Despite a report last week from the World Health Organization which proclaimed a link between processed or red meat and cancer, experts say there’s no need for consumers to avoid steak, bacon or hot dogs just yet.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, made headlines by saying there’s a relationship between eating red meat and processed meat to higher rates of colorectal cancer.
The agency classified processed meat as carcinogenic based on "sufficient evidence" in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.
However, Ruth MacDonald, professor and chair of the department of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University (ISU), said cancer is more complex and the report doesn’t hold much value.
"What they (the IARC) have done is convened a group of experts and reviewed the literature again," MacDonald said. "They have not done any statistical analysis of the literature."
Ruth Litchfield, ISU associate professor of food science and human nutrition and state nutrition extension specialist, said it’s not clear which studies were even reviewed for this report.
"From my standpoint, they’re not really saying anything new. But we can’t say how they came to those conclusions because we don’t know what studies they looked at or what processes they used," Litchfield said. "This is more of an epidemiological and observational study, not cause and effect."
A large meta-analysis, published online in May in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, studied the relationship between red meat intake and risk for colorectal cancer and concluded "red meat does not appear to be an independent predictor of CRC (colorectal cancer) risk," according to Dominik Alexander, the epidemiologist who conducted the research on behalf of the Beef Checkoff.
Ceci Snyder, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the National Pork Board, said the pork industry has also studied the risks.
"What we have seen in the science are these weak associations that need further investigation," Snyder said. She’s worked for the National Pork Board for 20 years. "We (the National Pork Board) actually have funded research to try to understand any kind of relationships with cancer and meat. As of now, if you look at the full body of literature out there, there is no way you can tie a causation to either red meat or processed meat, which they tried to do. We were quite surprised by the findings."
No single cause
Chris Freland, executive director of the Iowa Beef Industry Council, agreed. "Understanding that cancer is complex, no single food has either been proven to cause or cure cancer, and that includes beef," she said.
Litchfield said the IARC’s report simply says what nutritionists have known for a long time.
"A lot of their recommendations are things that we’ve known about and talked about for years, that moderate intake of beef — the more processed, smoked, higher processed, higher sodium items — tend to present a greater risk than your fresh meats," Litchfield said.
Experts agreed that there are several risk factors when it comes to cancer.
"I’m recommending people think about two other factors that are probably much stronger risk factors for colorectal cancer than consuming red meat: a sedentary lifestyle and obesity," MacDonald said.
Snyder said she will continue to serve her family both red meat and processed meat.
"All foods can fit in a healthy diet," she said.
MacDonald said this report won’t change her advice.
"It’s about nutritional balance. We recommend people consume a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, with moderate amount of lean, red meat and low-fat dairy. Those are the recommendations that we’ve had forever, and are probably not going to change any time soon," she said.
"Continue to enjoy meat," Snyder advised. "There’s absolutely no reason to eliminate meat."