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Putting the IARC announcement on meat into context

Of the 982 products reviewed since 1971, only one — yoga pants — 
was found to have no association with cancer


An evaluation of red and pro­cessed meat from IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer) was released in October 2015.

As with any study, there needs to be some context and perspective to be more fully understood. For expanded details of the IARC evaluation click here. Here’s some background information that can help with understanding:

What is IARC and what does it do?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer is part of WHO (World Health Organization). It promotes, conducts and reviews cancer research. It classifies products (food stuff) and environmental agents in relationship to cancer (of note: it looks at ‘relationship’ not ‘cause and effect’). It looks at identifying cancer-causing hazards (not risk).

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Hazard is something that can cause cancer under some circumstances. Risk is the chance you will get cancer after being exposed to this hazard. IARC identifies cancer hazards even when risks are very low at current exposure levels.

Cancer relationship classifications are based on degrees of certainty: definite, probable, possible, not classifiable and probably not.

Examples of some items classified by IARC include: coffee (possible), tea (not classifiable), alcohol (definite), sunlight (definite).

According to an article in The Globe and Mail, “Since 1971, the IARC has reviewed 982 products, substances and exposures. It found every one of them — from plutonium to sunshine, from cellphones to sawdust — posed a theoretical risk of cancer (with one exception: yoga pants).”

What IARC did in its evaluation of processed and red meat:

A 22-member working group reviewed red and processed meat evidence (studies) and discussed for eight days.

They were divided in their opinion. IARC was unable to reach a consensus and settled with a majority agreement. It announced the following classifications:

  • Processed meat: carcinogenic to humans based on an association with colorectal cancer and stomach cancer.
  • Red meat: probably carcinogenic to humans based on an association with colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer.

IARC acknowledges that people who consume the most red meat are the most likely to smoke and eat fewer fruits. IARC acknowledges that red meat contains high-quality protein and important micronutrient such as B vitamins, iron and zinc plus essential nutrients to support growth, development, maintenance and repair of the body.

“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” said Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the IARC Monographs Program.

“For each 50-gram portion of pro­cessed meat eaten daily, we see an increased risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent (of note: a relationship not a cause and effect).

Canadians on average consume 22 grams of processed red meat per day (half the amount noted by IARC).

“We see a 17 per cent increased risk per 100 grams per day of red meat (a relationship not a cause and effect).

Canadians consume 52 grams of fresh red meat a day (half the amount noted by IARC). Beef consumption in Canada has decreased by 3000 kj per person per day over the last 30 years.

“Some foods need to be limited as part of a healthy diet but do not need to be completely eliminated. It is important not to eliminate foods but to limit and manage them correctly,” said Dr. Oleg Chestnov, assistant director general, World Health Organization.

What we know:

Based on years of scientific evidence no one single food — including red and processed meat — can cause or cure any type of cancer.

There is no causal relationship between meat (processed or fresh) and cancer.

Beef (and red meat) provides essential nutrients necessary for proper growth and development.

The best way to minimize your cancer risk is to live a healthy lifestyle.

  • Do not smoke, maintain a healthy weight, be physically activity, eat plenty of vegetables and whole grains, and if you do, drink alcohol responsible.
  • Genetics and aging are risk factors which we cannot control.

Canada’s Food Guide recommends one to three, 75-gram servings of meat and alternatives a day.

On average, Canadians eat 52 grams of fresh red meat and 22 grams of processed red meat a day = 1 Food Guide serving.

Men may benefit from keeping their meat portions to 225 grams a day. Children, teen girls and women of childbearing age, may benefit from an additional serving of beef.

Some suggestions for action:

Assess yourself. The best way to minimize your cancer risk is to live a healthy lifestyle.

Don’t smoke; maintain a healthy weight; enjoy regular physical activity; serve all your meals with plenty of vegetables and whole grains; and if you do, drink alcohol responsibly.

Check your grocery cart. Are most of the items whole or minimally processed foods or ultra-processed?

Is there a variety of vegetables and fruit, whole grains and fresh, high-quality proteins?

A healthy balanced diet does not include highly processed and highly refined foods, confectioneries, sugary drinks, and snack foods.

Track your food intake. Are you under, over or within Canada’s Food Guide recommendations?

Keep a food diary for a few days to track what you eat.

A dietitian’s perspective when it comes to the ‘magic bullet’ for eating well:

  • There is no magic bullet;
  • Make the most of food: choose fresh, unprocessed — frozen fresh foods are OK too;
  • Cook from scratch and eat socially;
  • Eat a variety of foods;
  • Work on eating more veggies and fruits;
  • Be a mindful eater: be conscious of eating — even when you’re on the run;
  • Enjoy food as a ‘slice of life.’

Make it Beef is an initiative of Canadian Beef, which promotes beef consumption on behalf of producers.

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