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World Health Organization Report Links Red, Processed Meats To Cancer


A headline-grabbing announcement today regarding meat and cancer - the World Health Organization says processed meats like hot dogs, bacon and so on can cause cancer. That's according to a committee of scientists at the WHO. The organization will now list processed meats in the same risk category as tobacco and asbestos. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on how the scientists came to this decision and how to think about these findings when you decide what to eat.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: In order to determine the potential risks of processed meats and all red meats, a group of 22 scientists pored over the findings of a whole bunch of long-term studies. And when they put the body of evidence together, they found that people who consume the highest levels of processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, and sausages, have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.

DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: There's consistent evidence that processed meat intake is linked to higher risk of cancer.

AUBREY: That's Dariush Mozaffarian of Tufts University. He was not on the panel. And he says, actually, these findings are nothing new. These studies have been out for several years. What is new is the World Health Organization, the body many countries look to for health advice, using its megaphone to get people to pay attention. And now that many people are, the question lots of us have is, what does it mean to me? Should I reconsider how much meat I eat? Now, to put the risk in perspective, I reached out to Andrew Maynard who directs the Risk Innovation Lab at Arizona State University.

ANDREW MAYNARD: There are a lot of things we're exposed to that elevate our risk of developing some sort of cancer.

AUBREY: To name just a few cancer-causing things that many of us face every day...

MAYNARD: So being exposed to sunlight, as does breathing polluted air.

AUBREY: Now, this doesn't mean that a little bit of sunlight or a little air pollution will harm us. Generally, the risk increases with the amount of exposure. And this is true for meat consumption too. So Maynard says the take home from this WHO report, as he sees it, is this.

MAYNARD: If you're eating excessive amounts of meat, you might want to cut back a little bit.

AUBREY: Now, to be clear, the evidence linking hot dogs and other processed meats to cancer is stronger than the evidence linking all red meat - things like cuts of beef, pork or lamb - to a cancer risk. Again, here's Dariush Mozaffarian.

MOZAFFARIAN: The associations with cancer for unprocessed red meat are much weaker and much less consistent than for processed meats.

AUBREY: And so Mozaffarian says this means that a recommendation to cut back makes sense.

MOZAFFARIAN: Once in a while, you might want to have a BLT. Once in a while, you might want to have a pastrami sandwich. I think, you know, as a once in a while thing, the size of the risk is fairly small and, you know, you can't tell people to not eat something ever.

AUBREY: The World Health Organization stopped short of saying what a safe amount of red or processed meat is, and Mozaffarian says there's not great evidence to give a specific amount or an exact target. Currently, Americans eat, on average, about a quarter pound of red meat per day. But there's a lot of variation from heavy meat-eating Paleo followers to vegans, who eat no meat at all.

MOZAFFARIAN: But I recommend no more than, you know, one or two servings per month of processed meats and no more than one or two servings per week of unprocessed red meats.

AUBREY: The meat industry does not agree with the recommendations to eat less meat. And Janet Riley of the North American Meat Institute says these new classifications from the World Health Organization are flawed. She says red meats are a healthy source nutrition.

JANET RILEY: The benefits of the protein, the iron, the zinc, the B vitamins that are in meat products far outweigh any theoretical risk.

AUBREY: In making its determination, the panel of scientists at the World Health Organization did point to these benefits. But it's also clear the science points to risks. And to minimize the cancer risk, the advice from many health organizations is to limit your consumption of red meat. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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