Red meat and cancer
by Antonio Facchiano
The recent World Health Organization (WHO) statement (october 2015 (http://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/) on the possible red-meat carcinogenicity has made sensation and raised controversy about the actual relevance of the data to which WHO refers.
But at a careful sight, for those well informed (unfortunately always the minority), this is nothing new.
Searching the biomedical literature (the one indexed on Pubmed), the first scientific work in which “red meat” and “cancer” words appear, dates back to 1972.
In 1990, 10 manuscripts were published having “red meat” and “cancer”.
Since then, the number has constantly increased every year, to a number of 31 papers published in 2000, 70 papers published in 2010, and 107 papers published in 2014, for a total of more than 1100 published studies having “red meat” and “cancer” words.
Therefore, is nothing new the fact that association between the red meat consumption and cancer development is possible.
WHO, in its recent statement, draws attention mainly on treated meat (for example smoked) and cooked with hugh temperature ways (like barbecuing).
Again, indeed, the fact that smoking treatment is potentially dangerous has been published for the first time in 1946 and then in 1953, with dozens new papers published in the following years.
So at a careful sight, the novelty lies not in what the WHO says; the novelty is not in the improved attention WHO suggests giving to diet and to the way of cooking and processing meat.
The novelty is not about the advice to reduce the meat consumption.
Rather, the novelty lies in the courage finally WHO takes, to tell an inconvenient truth, hard to say (and to calculate) in its true proportions because the effects of a misunderstanding and the resulting panic would perhaps be worse than the disease they are trying to denounce.
Besides, a meat-free diet would be virtually impossible in the Western world; furthermore, in all emerging economies meat consumption and animal-derived products consumption (like milk and eggs) is an unequivocal index of improvement of living conditions.
A totally meat-less diet would also be dangerous for children and elderly.
So, do not panic.
WHO does not recommend eliminating meat from our tables, it suggests to significantly reduce meat-consumption, perhaps by promoting the consumption of high-quality beef and appropriate ways of cooking and handling.