Meat and cancer: not all animal products are created equal

Earlier this week, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) released its global report on diet and cancer. WCRF acts as an umbrella group for several leading international organizations, including the American Institute for Cancer Research and cancer organizations in Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong. The group released its last global report in 1997, stirring up more than a little controversy. At that time, the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Association, and other industry groups were upset about the report’s key conclusions about the connections between meat (especially red and/or processed meats) and different types of cancers.

A decade later, the complaints from the meat industry are even louder. For weeks, meat industry websites (including meatingplace.com) have been anticipating the report’s release and criticizing it even before they see an actual copy.

For the record, here’s what the new report has to say on meat:

  • The “evidence on red meat and processed meat [as a cause of cancer] is stronger than in the mid-1990s”;
  • “The evidence that red meats and processed meats are a cause of colorectal cancer is convincing”;
  • There is “limited evidence” that red meat alone is a cause of various types of cancers (esophageal, lung, pancreatic, and endometrium);
  • For processed meat, there is little evidence it is a cause of cancers of the esophagus, lung, stomach, and prostate; foods that are grilled, barbecued, and smoked are not a likely cause of stomach cancer; and
  • Because of the high content of animal fats (and calcium) in most dairy products, milk and cheese can contribute to the risk of different cancers, such as colon and prostate cancer.

In conclusion, the panel recommends limiting red meat consumption to 18 ounces per week, which amounts to a couple of hamburgers or three lamb chops. They also recommend avoiding most processed meats, such as bacon and lunchmeats like bologna.

Obviously it’s not hard to see why the meat industry may be a little upset by these findings. They’ve countered WCRF’s conclusions, saying the Fund has a well-known “anti-meat” bias. I personally find it hard to believe that this respected panel, made up of expert scientists from all over the world, is being paid off by PETA or another animal-rights groups to promote vegetarian diets.

But believe it or not, I have my own criticisms of the panel’s report. Nowhere in its 537 pages does it talk about the benefits of grass-fed animal products. Nor does it differentiate between meat and dairy products that are factory farmed and those that are raised outside, usually on pasture. There’s growing evidence that leaner, grass-fed meat from animals raised outdoors is full of Omega-3 fatty acids (what nutritionists like to call the “good fats”), and that this is beneficial in not only preventing some types of cancers, but also heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and food-borne diseases.

Hopefully, by 2017 (when the cancer panel is set to release its next report), the evidence about the role of grass-fed animal products in preventing cancer will be too hard for either the WCRF or the meat industry to ignore.