Does Meat Cause Cancer? Identifying Science From Baloney

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Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, paurian

As holiday meals with piping hot turkey, steak, and burgers ensue in the winter, the dinner table becomes ripe grounds for raising questions like, “Does meat cause cancer?”

According to mainstream news sources like The Guardian, yes, “processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes [according to] WHO (World Health Organization).” However, recent criticisms have questioned the veracity of these claims.

Let’s explore this claim in-depth and provide an alternative to taking mainstream health news reports at face value.

The Claim

Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes.

How claims can be misleading

Often in the media, health claims can be reduced to fit sound bites and conveniently eye-catching headlines. Some unanswered questions raised by this claim are:

  • What kind of meat? Is it all kinds of meat or certain kinds?
  • How likely is meat a risk factor for cancer, compared to other risks like smoking and exposure to carcinogens in the environment?
  • How was the research done? Was it controlled?
  • How certain are the researchers of this finding?

Finally, what was the actual finding? Surprisingly, it is not uncommon for news stories to make health claims at complete opposition to the research cited as evidence for the claim. It has happened in nutrition topics ranging from sports drinks and soft drinks, to carbohydrates’ role in obesity and fat metabolism.

What the Science Actually Says

  • Processed meats are higher risk than unprocessed red meat. White meat and fish have not been found to have any of the risks that come with red meat or processed meat.

  • Smoking, obesity, and alcohol are more likely risk factors for cancer than meat. Even a member of the Meat Advisory Panel, Robert Pickard, admits, “What we do know is that avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer. The top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high alcohol intakes.”

Lesson Learned: What this means for you

It is unwise to make conclusions on health and nutrition based off of reports in mainstream publications, as the stories can be misleading, or even the exact opposite of the truth reflected in peer-reviewed scientific research.

As well-meaning as members of the media are, they find a need to satisfy the constraints of our dwindling attention spans by producing short sound bites and headlines made to appeal to the largest audience. Rather than ensuring all the facts are represented accurately when announcing a story, they are incentivized to create eye-catching sensations.

In other words, look beyond the initial story to tease out the real meat from the baloney.

To do so, here are some questions to ask yourself when reading findings on health in the news:

  • The Claim: What is the claim? What is used to back up the claim? (e.g. research to test the claim in question, logical deduction based on research on other claims, or “cherry-picking” of evidence)
  • The Evidence: Does the story cite sources? Which sources (e.g. peer-reviewed scientific journals, health-focused websites, blogs, or other news sites)? And how many “layers” of sources are there before you find the original source of the claim (if any)?
  • The Truth: Does the claim in the story match the claim in its original source?
  • Conflict and Controversy: Does the claim disprove any established claims previously thought to be true? If so, how does the story explain why the disproved claims were previously believed to be true?

Further Reading

For easy steps to feeling great this winter, read more on tips for flu season, healthy sugar alternatives, and the truth about eating fat for fat loss.

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The posts on this blog are for information only, and are not intended to substitute for a doctor-patient or other healthcare professional-patient relationship nor do they constitute medical or healthcare advice of any kind. Any information in these posts should not be acted upon without consideration of primary source material and professional input from one's own healthcare professionals.