Cancer is the word you never want to hear come out of a doctor’s mouth after getting tests done. It is one of the top things that kills people each year and unfortunately, we all know someone who has cancer. Despite how healthy you are, there’s no way to avoid cancer in its entirety. For example, one would think that the only people who get lung cancer are those who smoke. That’s not true at all. A past teacher at my high school was one of the healthiest people around. She exercised and ate right, yet she was diagnosed and lost the battle to lung cancer! There are so many other cases like this with different types of cancer around the world. We’re always hearing about a new food or action that may cause cancer. It’s so hard to figure out what’s actually a possible cause of cancer and what’s just a fluke. In recent news though, a very shocking claim came out: meat causes cancer. A common American food causes cancer?! That’s the first thought that popped into my head when I read those headlines. So it is really true???
Before going into the headline itself, let’s look at the possibilities:
- Meat eating could be directly causing cancer (direct causality)
- Cancer could be causing meat eating (reverse causality)
- A third variable like obesity could cause cancer and continued consumption of meat.
- The correlation between meat consumption and cancer could be due to chance alone.
According to Cancer.org, on October 26, 2015, the World Health Organization announced their finding that meat consumption causes cancer. Now I know what you’re thinking when you see another discovery like this… all meat causes all types of cancer?! No, not exactly. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared that processed and red meat can cause cancer according to Stacy Simon’s article called World Health Organization Says Processed Meat Causes Cancer. To clarify, the International Agency for Research on Cancer is a group of highly claimed experts who are well known, according to Casey Dunlop’s article Processed meat and cancer- what you need to know. In the Cancer.org’s article by Stacy Simon, it further explains that processed meat has been declared as a carcinogen and that red meat is a possible carcinogen. For those of you who don’t know, a carcinogen is a substance that can likely cause cancer, according to dictionary.com.
Now let me explain to you what actually makes up the categories of processed and red meats. According to The International Agency for Research on Cancer study on THE LANCET Oncology, red meat refers to beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse or goat meat. On the other hand, processed meats include pork or beef (2015). The scary part about this is that that’s a significant amount of meat! The study published by the IARC claims that the meat consumption is linked with colorectal cancer. According to Cancer.com, colorectal cancer is cancer developed in the colon or rectum.
According to THE LANCET Oncology, the study done by the IARC found that 7 of the 14 cohort studies found a positive correlation between red meat and colorectal cancer. They also found that 7 of the 15 informative cases saw a positive correlation between cancer and red meat again. When it came to processed meat, 12 of the 18 cohort studies and 6 of the 9 informative studies had a positive correlation between processed meat consumption and cancer. According to the article by Annette Gerritsen, titled Cohort and Case-Control Studies: Pro’s and Con’s, cohort studies start with a random group of people. Gerritsen explains that this group has no disease, so in this case, no cancer. After the group is selected, they are separated into groups who have been exposed to the cause and those who haven’t. They then watch the results unfold. Gerritsen then explains that a case-control study is one that selects people already with cancer and those without cancer. The group who doesn’t have cancer though has still been exposed to meat, they just haven’t gotten the disease (Gerritsen). We need to take into consideration that these studies found by the IARC were all observational. That being said, reserve causation and third variables should be taken into consideration. Since it is observational, you can’t definitely conclude that direct causation is the correlation between red meats/processed meats and cancer. The problem with this correlation is that it’s pretty unethical to have an experiment be conducted. Forcing certain people to eat a lot of meat just to see if they’ll get cancer is cruel and nothing anyone would want to be involved in. That’s one of the reasons why finding a cure to cancer is so hard.
After this report was announced in late 2015, there was a misunderstanding as to if people should stop meat consumption. A few days following the announcement, the World Health Organization (WHO) put a statement out titled Links between processed meat and colorectal cancer. In the statement, it clarified that the report is encouraging people to decrease processed and red meat consumption, not stop it in its entirety. In that statement they also mentioned that they were experts in their field.
After the report was released, the meat industry lashed back in annoyance at the WHO for stating the correlation according to Forbes article by Geoff Williams. The article titled WHO’s Report On Processed Meat And Cancer Not Likely To Hurt Meat Industry explained that the companies (specifically, Personal Trainer Food) in the meat industry fired back claiming that they always make known to their customers there can be correlation to cancer, so don’t consume too much. The day after the announcement came out, Personal Trainer Food claimed they got no phone calls in relation to WHO’s announcement (Williams 2015).
In the end, the report announced by the IARC rejects the null hypothesis stating that nothing is going on, when in fact researchers say there is. We can’t fully say though that this statement is true, but we can say that there is definitely a small effect when it comes to meat consumption and colorectal cancer. Even with all that being said, it’s very hard to convince people to stop eating meat, especially when the correlation being causal can’t be determined 100% true. It’s a year later and people are still consuming meat!