World Health Organisation, meat & cancer

Today, 26th October 2015, the World Health Organisation declared the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans, based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans” and declared processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” The red meat association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer.

The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”

From the headline “carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat”, we’re already down to colorectal (bowel) cancer and “probably”.

The press release is here. The Lancet article is here or here (it may not be on open view for long).

So do we need to stop eating red meat and/or processed meat? Let’s dissect the headline more accurately:

1) Where this data comes from

The gold standard of evidence is a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials – pooling together studies where an intervention was matched against a control group to see what impact A had on B. As far as I am aware, no intervention studies have ever been done testing the impact of 50 grams of processed meat per day as an isolated intervention, or any amount of processed or red meat as a sole intervention for that matter.

We are thus looking at observational studies. This is where a large group of people (e.g. the Nurses’ Health Study or the Health Professionals Follow-up Study) are asked loads of questions and given health tests (blood pressure, weight, height, cholesterol ho ho etc) at the start of the study. This is called the baseline. These people are then followed for years to see what conditions they go on to develop.

Researchers then look at the data to try to see patterns. No pattern = no journal article, so look hard! They may observe a pattern between people who consume processed meat and people who go on to develop bowel cancer. This is then reported in a journal article and it is all such articles that have been reviewed by the World Health Organisation.

The first point to make, therefore, is that all of this is based on notoriously unreliable dietary questionnaires. Many ask what you ate yesterday or over the past 7 days. Here’s the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer questionnaire, one of the best possible questionnaires, as it asks for food intake over the past year. How accurate do you think yours would be?

2) One’s diet vs. one food

By singling out red meat/processed meat in this way, the whole diet and lifestyle of a person is not taken into account. There is a world of difference between the health of a burger/hot-dog/ketchup/white bun/fizzy drink guzzling couch potato and a grass-fed-steak eating/CrossFit/six-pack Paleo specimen.

As I showed in this blog, the baseline for the processed meat eaters showed that they were far less active, had a higher BMI, were THREE TIMES more likely to smoke and almost TWICE as likely to have diabetes. This makes processed meat a MARKER of an unhealthy person, not a MAKER of an unhealthy person.

Even if all the smoking/exercise/other conditions baseline factors are adjusted for, there is no possibility of adjusting for all the dietary factors that make up the couch potato vs. the Paleo buff. The whole diet is not adjusted for when the one line (meat) is targeted.

3) Real food vs. processed food

I’m a real foodie. I pretty much spend my life writing and talking about real food and the nutrition it contains. I am the first to say “Do eat real food; don’t eat processed food” and I include processed meat as processed food – something to avoid. However, this WHO report describes processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.”

As Peter Cleave, Surgeon Captain, (1906-1983) said: “For a modern disease to be related to an old fashioned food is one of the most ludicrous things I have ever heard in my life.” To think that real meat, or meat preserved in natural ways, is bad for us is ludicrous. 1) You’d have to explain how we survived the past 3.5 million years, since Australopithecus Lucy first walked upright; especially how we survived the ice age(s). 2) You’d have to explain why all the nutrients we need to live (essential fats, complete protein, vitamins and minerals) are found in meat if it were trying to kill us at the same time.

Meat needed to be naturally preserved with salting, curing, drying, smoking etc or we would have needed to binge on the kill and risk dying of starvation before the next kill. The WHO report should have separated traditional ways of preserving meat from modern manufactured processing (where sugars and chemicals are added – just read the label). Similarly – if there is any harm in red meat, it will be because manufacturers have got involved and fed the poor animals grains, which they cannot digest and then pumped them with drugs to medicate the resulting illness. (Chris Kresser presents the view on nitrates here, if you’re interested).

This should be a call to action to get back to your butcher, know him/her by name, know where your meat comes from, know how s/he prepares bacon & hand-made sausages and enjoy the health benefits of real food while supporting the grafters who provide it.

4) Association vs. causation

Even allowing for the weakness of observational studies, and the unreliability of dietary questionnaires, and the notion that food consumption can be a marker not a maker of health, and the whole dietary intake that has not been taken into account and the ignorance of the chasm between real and processed food, this is still association, not causation.

I always wish that these huge and expensive studies would ask what colour socks the participant is wearing. I bet I could find an association between red sock wearing and one type of cancer if I looked hard enough. Would the headline be red socks cause cancer?!

5) Relative vs. absolute risk

The press release headlines with “each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.” Crikey. 18%! Put that bacon sarnie down now (see – don’t blame the bacon for what the white bread & ketchup did!) This, however, is the game that all of these observational study research press releases play and it’s disgraceful scare-mongering.

Shall we look at the absolute risk?

Cancer Research UK has terrific statistics on all types of cancer. I’ve just looked at the UK. They do have data for other countries if you want to do your own rummage. The incident rate for all people in the UK, age-standardised (you pretty much won’t see bowel cancer before the age of 50 – look at the age data), in 2011 was 47 per 100,000 people.

47 per 100,000 people.

You would need to know 2,128 people, including enough older people, to know 1 person who developed bowel cancer in the UK in 2011.

Now – let’s do that relative vs. absolute risk thing.

Assuming that everything the WHO did had been perfect and that there really was an 18% relative difference between those having 50g of processed meat a day and those not (and assuming that nothing else was impacting this), the absolute risk would be 51 people per 100,000 vs. 43 people per 100,000.

Now where’s the bacon and egg before my CrossFit session?!

The likely harm of this report:

The Lancet article does at least have the decency to mention the nutritional value of red meat: “Red meat contains high biological value proteins and important micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron (both free iron and haem iron), and zinc.” That’s still a bit of an understatement. Try both essential fats; complete protein; and the vitamins and minerals needed for life and health.

What will be the consequences of this report scaring people away from real meat? It takes approximately 250g of sirloin steak to get the daily 10mg of zinc; over a kilo of the same steak to get the recommended daily iron requirement – and in the right form for the body. How about over 20 eggs to get the same iron intake? Still in a useful form to the body. Or 4.5 kilos of brown rice to get iron in the wrong form for the body?

What do I take from this report? There is a heck of a lot of bad science coming out the World Health Organisation, an organisation that should know better, but then there have previous cases of not knowing better.

Nothing has changed from my fundamental belief that human beings should eat real food (especially grass-fed, naturally reared meat and naturally preserved meat). Avoid processed food, including meat processed by fake food companies. And take every observational study that doesn’t know these five points above with a hefty pinch of salt.

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129 comments on “World Health Organisation, meat & cancer
  1. avatar Jeff Plucker says:

    I just finished reading “Red Meat and Colorectal Cancer: A Quantitative Update of the State of the Epidemiologic Science”, published online 05 May, 2015, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, and much of what Zoe’s explanation of the dangers of meta-analysis was born out in this article. This was a similar Study but was less critical of red meat’s impact on CRC.

  2. avatar david parkman says:

    might it not be a good moment to look at who is funding this study, ie who is giving money to the WHO ??

  3. avatar Jose Venancio da SIlva Filho says:

    It’s too complicated a disclosure like this without a scientific study, solid and reliable, there is other food far worse than the meat, bacon, for example wheat, which are bad for your health and almost no one talks about it.

    • avatar BobM says:

      Jose, I think you brought up a good point. I have been on a low carb diet for almost two years now. Every time I would go on vacation or travel, and eat wheat, or go off the diet slightly and eat wheat (pizza tends to be my downfall), I would get chest congestion, allergies, joint pain, gastric distress, etc. And we’re talking a few slices of bread, some pizza, and the like over the course of at most a week. So, I started researching this and ended up reading Wheat Belly:

      http://www.amazon.com/Wheat-Belly-Lose-Weight-Health/dp/1609614798/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1446119037&sr=8-1&keywords=wheat+belly

      Because of what I experience when eating wheat and what I believe to be true from Wheat Belly, my wife and I have started to get our entire family off of wheat. I’m convinced now that wheat is bad for me and us.

      I’ve been convinced for a while that high carbohydrates are bad, but now I’m convinced that wheat is also bad. Which one is worse? If you believe Wheat Belly, wheat might be worse.

      • avatar Don Peat says:

        I think that anyone in ketosis (since May 2014 myself) will already have marked grains off their list of permitted foods. This is why I never bought the Wheat Belly ebook. I had already bought and “digested” the books by Taubes, Phinney/Volek and Teischoltz (sp?) in my keto journey, and figured: “been there, done that”.

        When you go to <50g of carbs a day, the grains/glutens issue should take care of itself.

        I love a good burger or pizza. However, my burgers are always lettuce-wrapped, and I happily and defiantly scrape the cheese and meats off my pizza slice and discard the useless bread. By the way, eating pizza this way is way less filling…

  4. avatar Linda Ford says:

    Great article enumerating many of the things I was thinking as I discarded it. The problem being that it was splashed all over every news broadcast and talk show as fact with half ass rehearch – even by the Lancet. Good God. I am a nurse and just shake my head. No wonder people pay no attention to important research…

  5. avatar steve openshaw says:

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you

  6. avatar John says:

    As usual, spot on Zoe, and we owe you a huge debt for spending time and effort in unravelling all the real facts behind the hysterical headlines. Please keep doing what you do. Thanks

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Many thanks John – actually it took about 90 mins! Was on the way to the dentist when I heard the news breaking on the radio – knew the report was due out sometime that day. By the time I’d had the mouth numbing injection, half an hour of a childhood filling being drilled out and refilled, I got home at 2.15 and posted about 4pm. Anger is good for adrenaline is good for speed writing!
      Trouble is – there’ll be another one to do in a few weeks :-(
      Best wishes – Zoe

  7. avatar Sharon says:

    Hi Zoe, didn’t think you’d get such a detailed article out so quick. I did a more visual and shorter one here, with one of your older quotes http://joiningdots.com/2015/10/27/killer-headlines/ If the chart is of any use, grab it.

    Went with the lifetime risk of getting bowel cancer – 1/16 or 6 out of 100 that increases to 7 out of 100 if the studies could actually be proven. And added a visual for context about the claim that eating bacon is as bad as smoking. Weak science supported by bad reporting is a recipe for nothing good.

  8. avatar Margaret says:

    No..This gives us another side instead of just accepting WHO’s inaccurate results. WHO is another arm of government who has proven they don’t really care about people in the United States.

  9. avatar Wayne says:

    Zoe:

    I may have missed it in your article, but there is one glaring missing factor in the WHO analysis. Nowhere did they separate out the effects of eating totally grass fed red meat vs. eating anything else which is loaded with antibiotics just for starters. Healthy meat, whether muscle or organ meat is healthy.

    Regards

    • avatar julian says:

      You touched a key point here. They have a really poor definition of processed meat. They defiantly should have separated organic and non-organic meats into different categories.

  10. avatar Jose Ruiz says:

    Excellent article Zoe. Finally a voice of reason in the midst of bad science. Which is always the result of political manipulation rather than sober and careful analysis.

  11. avatar Robert Norris says:

    Excellent article. My suspicion is that this is really a politically motivated move by the WHO, and related to the UN’s Agenda 21. The views expressed by the authors of said agenda have expressed the meat eating is “unsustainable.”

    • avatar Mark Chapman says:

      Lets just forget about the diet argument…the bigger one…much bigger…7 billion people ,soon to be 8 then 9 can not be sustained with meat…meat production pure and simple is killing our planet..

      • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

        Hi Mark
        I argue the opposite – it’s the ruminant-displaced grain/soy-driven soil erosion that is killing our planet. There is nothing more sustainable than ruminants feeding on pastures – naturally irrigated by rain. (http://www.zoeharcombe.com/2011/08/the-vegetarian-myth-lierre-keith/)

        I suspect you and I would have a heated agreement that we must stop feeding ruminants grains – they can’t digest these any more than humans can. It is the production and feeding of grains to grass living animals that is the biggest insanity – and destroyer of finite resources. Let humans eat grains (if they want to); let the cows eat grass.

        Best wishes – Zoe

        • avatar Hugh Mannity says:

          Pastured animals fertilise and till the land they graze on. The trick is to keep them moving so they don’t over-graze the pasture. This can be done fairly easily with movable fencing for small herds, or for larger herds having cowboys driving them.

          Chickens can be kept following small herds of cattle from pasture to pasture. They’ll break up the manure and scratch it into the soil, while at the same time keeping the bug population down. Chickens are not vegetarians. They like bugs.

          Additionally, you can keep sheep and cattle on land that isn’t suited to arable agriculture. You can’t grow wheat on the Yorkshire moors, or on the Vermont “rock farms” (incredibly rocky soil, very little of it flat). But you can keep sheep there pretty easily. Sheep have the added advantage of providing wool for clothing as well as meat and milk.

          Pigs can be kept in woodland, which gives you dual use of the land: pork and timber.

          It requires more work to run a mixed farm than monocropping 1000 acre fields of grain takes. The yields aren’t that much lower and the cost in terms of fertiliser, pesticides, and animal medication is much lower. Especially as monocropping and large-scale cereal farming require increasing amounts of fertiliser over time as they deplete the soil. That’s one of the dirty little secrets of industrial farming: yields only stay as high as they are by upping the quantities of chemicals applied to the fields. It’s a great short term solution, but long term it doesn’t work.

          • avatar Larry AJ says:

            Zoe,
            You will like what is being done at Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont.
            Here is link:
            http://sugarmtnfarm.com/

            They raise hogs on pasture predominantly on grass with supplemental feed like spent barley from micro-breweries as well as whey from cheese making, etc.
            It is a very interesting departure from the traditional “factory farms” that raise most of the pork in the USA.

            Hope you enjoy their site, much to read there.

          • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

            Hi Larry
            Many thanks for this – looks fab! The irony of the mountain name! ;-)
            Best wishes – Zoe

        • avatar Lewis Lydon says:

          Zoe, from my understanding you are 100% “Spot on” in this and pretty much everything in your article above… Keep up the great work!

  12. avatar Noora says:

    Vegetable and meat consumption: could you dig into the raw data of these studies and write about how much vegetables conteract the so called cancer effects of meat?
    This is often referenced in paleo podcasts but I have never seen it written clear numbers.
    I know that much of the raw data is not published even on supplementary info but if you could pull the triggers and get the info from the researchers. This would be a subgroup analysis which quite likely will not reach statistical significance as there are quite a few people in these observational studies which eat more than 2 pounds of vegetables and meat and do not smoke, drink excessively alcohol, are “normal” weight according to their muscle mass and exercise regularly.

  13. avatar Bet says:

    Well the one good thing about this article is I found your site! Great article and I shared it. I’ve been paleo/AIP for awhile. I get bacon that has no added sugar and is minimally process. I try getting grass fed beef and pastured pork/chicken etc. I do not worry about anything the WHO says. Maybe there will be more bacon left for us!!!

  14. All I can say is that I am from Africa and we eat meat. None of my family nor forefathers have shown any of these kind of symptoms.

    As a last point, we consider chicken to be part of the “vegetable” group. thus we will eat meat and chicken for a braai! ;)

  15. avatar rob says:

    hi zoe,

    great article once again. One point to make here is that processed meats may increase cancer risk but that’s in my opinion largely to do with the added sugar, preservatives, food acids, regulators etc when packaged.
    go to any supermarket and look at packaged bacon for example and there is a load of added CRAP in there.

    anything processed in a factory situation is not good for both body mind and more importantly gut flora stability.

    I hope that people will start to see how beneficial going back to cooking real food really is and that maybe we may see a small shift to mini vege gardens again where the consumer doesn’t have to worry about over chemical sprayed produce from agribusiness farming. We as a society have become soooo lazy about our food choices and have been duped by big foods advertising tricks on ease of use etc that we have become a world of sick and sicker individuals who play right into the greed of company profit over human health.

    one thing surely we must push if WHO say this is true is to point the finger at big fast food giants like McDonalds, KFC, Burger King etc who quite clearly use processed meats daily as part of there food regime and say …”what you going to do about that?”

    Why the big hoohah about this when chemo and radiation therapy are much much greater concerns for causing cancer developed originally from mustard gas use in WW1 but we seem to not hear much about this in the media and press do we ? hmmmm…

    Anyway …I’m off now to have a lovely 300gm T-bone steak with avocado and mango salad.

    cheers

    rob

  16. avatar Jacqui says:

    I don’t want to repeat any of the conversation above (except for, thanks Zoe for the article, and I agree with all you said) but can I ask where ‘white meat’ comes into all of this?

    I know the amino acid profile is slightly different in white meats (all meats) and they don’t have nearly as much myoglobin… and assuming they are all fed naturally and not on grains, etc, why is red meat always castigated and not white meat? (Not that either should be.)

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Hi Jacqui – good point! White meat is less nutritious than red meat (compare the steak ref in the article for chicken/turkey on the same site for a comparison), but it never gets attacked in the same way does it!? Probably because the powers that be secretly know we need to eat meat to get the nutrients but they can’t bring themselves to say this.
      Best wishes – Zoe

      • avatar Jacqui says:

        Haha and oh dear!

        Thanks, Zoe. I notice also they never say don’t eat intensively-reared anaimals. It makes me cringe (and weep inside) when I see whole chickens for sale for £3.00… and what must their nutritional profile be like?

    • avatar Martin Holmes says:

      We don’t eat chicken for breakfast

      • avatar BobM says:

        I personally try to avoid chicken. We’ve been buying locally grown, grass fed beef and locally grown pigs. For both of these, once you have grass fed beef and “natural” pigs, you can’t go back. The pork is unbelievably delicious, particularly the fat. The beef has a unique taste, and takes a while to get used to, but after getting used to it, “normal” beef is tasteless.

        We’ve also been getting locally raised chickens. They’re tougher than store-bought, but are also tastier. Regardless, I’m still not a fan of chicken and in particular, white meat from chicken.

  17. avatar Chris york says:

    Thank you Zoe,
    Glad to see something we have been eating for many thousands of years is not going to kill me because I eat 50g a day. Although maybe we should eat less redmeat and more fat from pork and beef not to mention ofal and bone broth. Muscle meat is really just for the dogs compared to the rest we throw out.

    • avatar Phil. says:

      Thanks Chris York. That’s what I say too. Today we throw away what we grew up on because it is too much effort to cook it properly. It takes too long and is too inconvenient. But our lifespan is considerably shorter and the average person suffers far great from far worse diseases. What is it really all about. I can’t trust doctors anymore either.

      • avatar Lisa Chase says:

        Yes, people used to eat all parts of the animal, not just the muscle meat. But interestingly, if you eat processed meat- (I’m talking about only the highest quality processed meat here of course, no fillers)- it is an easy way to get the offal. Meats like sausage use all different parts of the animal; or salami; blood sausage, etc. Here in Germany, you can get tongue with gelatin. Also, traditionally people ate raw meat, and once again, it’s possible to eat raw meat in the form of dried and hung hams- (Serrano ham, prosciutto, etc.); again, salami-type meats. Fermented meats are supposed to be very high in vitamin K2 which has many health benefits. So, yeah…..the way I see it, eating good quality “processed” meat is a good way to eat traditional, healthy foods.

  18. avatar Bill Giles says:

    Hello Zoe, by chance I read your article on Meat and Cancer. I then read more of your blogs and was delighted to see a clear thinking mind—a person with nous.

    Kind regards

    Bill Giles (immunobiologist)

  19. avatar Ric says:

    Great article, but don’t stop with this issue.
    My late brother and I used to speak weekly about allegedly scientific studies that were poorly conducted, or misinterpreted.
    American newspapers are filled with bad science.

  20. avatar Evelyn Wong says:

    Does this mean that all carnivores should avoid red meat? Will the lions and tigers in zoos be put on a strict vegan diet now?

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Good point Evelyn! Our moggie would not like this idea!

    • avatar Matic says:

      Homosapiens are NOT carnivores. Even the term OMNIVORE is questionable at best. You reference to homosapiens as being carnivores really takes you knowledge into question. Or maybe I am wrong and in your case you eat raw meat 99% of the time and occasionally chew some grass?

  21. So the text from the article “There is inadequate evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of consumption of red meat and of processed meat.” never made it into the press release.

    Quelle surprise!

  22. avatar Mauricio Trambaioli says:

    WHO did not find substantial evidences against red meat, although HSPH reported an association with CRC using nutritional epidemiology. Seems not a robust approach …

    And now what, WHO does not report that according to Harvard HSPH eating anything at anytime show higher risk for CRC than red meat… With a plus: higher insulin and peptide-C
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/21520042/

  23. avatar Mauricio Trambaioli says:

    WHO did not find substantial evidences against red meat, although HSPH reported an association with CRC using nutritional epidemiology. Seems not a robust approach …

    And now what, WHO does not report that eating anything at anytime show higher risk for CRC than red meat… With a plus: higher insulin and peptide-C
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/21520042/#fft

  24. Here’s a curious thing. We know FFQs are notoriously unreliable, and the epidemiologists are trying to improve on them with food diaries. The Malmo Diet And Cancer study is an example using a 7-day food diary, FFQ, and interview – it can also exclude people who change their diets from the statistical model if needed. This is a step above the old FFQ studies in terms of reliability.
    So where is the Malmo paper on meat and colon cancer? I can’t find one, though I can find plenty of information on fat and cardiovascular disease (good news), fat and diabetes (good news), and some on fat and cancer (bad news for women consuming vegetable fat – I think this is Unilever’s liquid margarine) or powdered soups (why would you?).
    Either this means this study is still being written (the diabetes one just came out this year), or its not easy to publish because the results are negative. Or I just can’t find it but it’s out there.
    If so, and if anyone has it, please post in a reply to this comment.
    In Malmo men ate more meat than women, and meat was one of the main sources of MUFA (vege fat was the other). So we can try to extrapolate from fat types. In men, who ate more MUFA from meat, no association at all between MUFA and cancer. In women, who ate less MUFA from meat, total fat is associated with cancer, and this is driven by the MUFA component.
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2796.2005.01520.x/full

    In a case-control study we see that vegetable fat (not meat) is associated with breast cancer,
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16573374

    and this effect is associated with high omega-6 intake (RR 2.08). There is a good discussion in this paper about the sources of this and the association between MUFA and PUFA in those foods.
    https://www.dropbox.com/s/l7gudbor3cwkf7m/Malmo%20omega%206.pdf?dl=0
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12588084

    One of the papers that the IARC/WHO would have drawn on is this EPIC study. It followed 448,568 men and women and there were 26,344 deaths. It included a Malmo cohort but I can’t find those results separately. In any cases the methods are very heterogenous, with the 7 day diary Malmo data lumped in with that from Oxford – “In Oxford, half of the cohort consisted of ‘health conscious’ subjects from England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.”

    “After multivariate adjustment, a high consumption of red meat was related to higher all-cause mortality (hazard ratio (HR) = 1.14, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.01 to 1.28, 160+ versus 10 to 19.9 g/day), and the association was stronger for processed meat (HR = 1.44, 95% CI 1.24 to 1.66, 160+ versus 10 to 19.9 g/day). After correction for measurement error, higher all-cause mortality remained significant only for processed meat (HR = 1.18, 95% CI 1.11 to 1.25, per 50 g/d). We estimated that 3.3% (95% CI 1.5% to 5.0%) of deaths could be prevented if all participants had a processed meat consumption of less than 20 g/day. Significant associations with processed meat intake were observed for cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and ‘other causes of death’. The consumption of poultry was not related to all-cause mortality.”

    What this doesn’t mention – the consumption of poultry was associated with a significantly higher rate of death from respiratory illnesses.
    But anyway, meat and processed consumption is divided into 6, and if we look at people in the highest sextile there are actually far fewer deaths in all categories. But this is where the effect is. The sextiles haven’t been divided to contain equal numbers, but arbitrality at set limits of meat intake. This means conclusions drawn from a significant association at the upper sextile alone (as the red meat conclusion is, and probably the processed meat one) are drawn from the relatively small number of subjects eating 160+ g/day.
    (fig 5 here – fig 1 for baseline data)
    http://www.biomedcentral.com/1741-7015/11/63

    This means that a few thousand people, out of half-a-million, are driving the conclusions. This doesn’t seem right. Not that the conclusions are that resounding anyway.
    As for confounding, I’ve yet to see a diet study that tries to control for carcinogen exposures. Who eats most processed meat? Isn’t it the factory worker, truck driver and so on? Isn’t it the people who are more likely to live near busy roads, and work night shifts? Might not an increased cancer incidence in these occupations be partly or wholly explicable in other ways?

  25. avatar Snogoose says:

    Thanks for the timely response to this dreadful report.
    I wasn’t going to pay any attention to it anyway. My liver has served me well for 68 years and I am staying with it. No statins or margarine for me ever. I may celebrate with eggs and fried pork tomorrow.
    I check your site often but have never responded.
    Thank you so much Zoe.

  26. Hi Zoë!
    I just love your blog! it’s brilliant.
    In Sweden we have deaths by bowel cancer as high as 73 per 100 000
    Colon cancer is just 20 per 100 000 according to the statistics from Socialstyrelsen (Swedish Social and Welfare Board, http://www.sos.se)
    But I just wonder, how do WHO officials survive as they consists of about 40 kg (88 lb) red meat in their own bodies? Red meat aka muscles.
    Or are they without any muscles at all and survives thereby?

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Hi Björn
      Ha ha – good point! We get all those Swedish cholesterol lowering product adverts in our magazines and newspapers – maybe the grains are abrasive and damaging the bowel!?
      Best wishes – Zoe

      • The grain fibres are abrasive, just check the articles by the late Barry Groves in his book Trick and Treat and his Second Opinions website
        http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/bran_and_cancer2.html#.Vi8427cvfDc

        • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

          Ah – the awesome Barry RIP – he nailed most topics decades ago – the evidence remains in that brilliant book :)

          • avatar Paul Hughes says:

            Lovely man Barry Groves. I met him twice when he gave talks to our Probus group. Always replied to any email queries too. Trick and Treat was a real eye opener for me. Sadly missed.

            Thanks for your excellent blog, Zoe. Our daughter is studying for a masters degree in Nutrition and, thankfully, she is learning proper science, not government dogma. She is a reader of your blog too. Hopefully things may eventually change.

  27. avatar David Evans says:

    Hi Zoe,
    Thank you for providing a calm common sense analysis in a media world full of hysteria.

    Here’s a study that shows red meat consumption lowers the risk of colon cancer by 10% in men. (It has no effect on women).

    http://healthydietsandscience.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/eating-red-meat-cuts-colon-cancer-by-10.html

  28. avatar Colin Kelly says:

    My sister was diagnosed as a diabetic this year. She also has developed basal cell carcinoma. ( has had this on her face before and was operated on).
    Her diet was very high carb , low meat. She was also very low on energy.
    They put her on the waiting list for an operation. Meanwhile she switched to my diet: fatty meat eggs bacon cheese plus a few low carb veges. No diabetes,no acid reflux, lots of energy and the cancer has all but disappeared. In recent weeks she has put coconut oil on her face daily and ingests a teaspoon of oil daily.

  29. avatar Ali says:

    Unless those studied only ate red meat or sausages/bacon, it is impossible to make any definitive statement as there are way too many variables.

    I envy you your decent butcher. Don’t have one around here….

  30. avatar Hugh Mannity says:

    Ha! The BBC World Service reported on this study this morning (I listen to them in the car — better than anything on US radio) and I yelled at the radio: Observational studies! Bah Humbug! Just wait till Zoe rips that study a new one!

    And you did not disappoint.

    If there’s anything wrong with meat it’s the garbage the poor animals get fed and medicated with. I buy exclusively grass-fed meat (along with butter, eggs from pastured chickens) from a local cooperative. So I’m about to go home and eat a glorious burger made from grass-fed ground beef, with cheese from grass-fed cow’s milk, and a side salad of organic veggies. And they can put that in their observational study and smoke it!

    I can’t decide whether it’s bad science, or a deliberate push to make us all vegetarians…

  31. avatar Matt dsy says:

    A fabulous reasoned argument – you have put my mind at rest ! Our local butcher only sells grass fed meat – is there an equivilant definition for a natural curing process ?

  32. avatar Kwyjor says:

    > it will be because manufacturers have got involved and fed the poor animals grains, which they cannot digest and then pumped them with drugs to medicate the resulting illness

    Got a source for that? I’m very curious about what ruminants are supposed to be eating if not “grains”. And while it is not disputable that there are a lot of antibiotics being used, those antibiotics are expensive and I question whether every animal can be descried as pumped full of drugs. (Alas, a suitable reference eludes me.)

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Ruminants are supposed to eat pastures

      • avatar Kwyjor says:

        Fair enough. Do you have a source suggesting that grass-fed cattle require substantially smaller quantities of drugs?

      • avatar Steve P says:

        I recently spent time with a deer hunter in New Zealand who over 50+ years has studied deer and their eating habits. He noticed that deer that graze on bark and leaves as per their design have healthy teeth right until their final years. Grain fed deer lose theirs to wear after only 3-4 years depending on the ground.
        We should eat what we are designed to eat and humans are omnivorous.

      • Ruminants evolved to eat pasture grasses and these are their main diet on a traditional farm. However, grains have long been used as a supplemental feed and I’ve been able to trace this back as far as Canadian practice during World War Two. The practice of using grains to fatten pasture-fed cattle before slaughter is probably more recent, and basing animal diets on grains is a modern convenience of factory-farming. Winter feeds include root vegetables such as swedes and dried alfalfa.

        • avatar chris c says:

          Ask a competent livestock farmer and they will tell you that grains are fed specifically to fatten the animals, and that overfeeding grain, especially wheat, makes them ill in a curiously similar way to humans. (Think how they make pate de fois gras!)

          Our farmers mostly have their animals graze on grass in summer, and feed haylage and silage in winter (and sometimes also roots especially for the sheep). The most grain they get is with whole crop forage maize or barley: some may be added to the winter feed in anatomically correct quantities – ie. the percentage you would get from ripe grass, which they obviously evolved to eat seasonally, not all the time.

          They rely on bacterial digestion of fibrous carbs to generate fats.

          The only exception is pigs, even the free range ones get a lot more grain, soy etc. but then they are omnivores.

      • avatar Heather says:

        Seriously? Someone didn’t know that ruminants weren’t supposed to eat grains? Interesting.

      • avatar Jamie Logie says:

        This is why cows have four stomachs and a bacterial fermentation digestive systems compared to our hydrochloric acid based one. They convert the grass into fatty acids but are basically extracting every possible nutrient out of that grass. They need to eat all day long and use all of these stomachs.

        Eating grains leads to inflammation in cows as it makes them more acidic.

    • avatar ez says:

      Here’s a document with a little explanation of grains impact on a healthy bovine. Introducing grains cause stress from forced adaptation. How many conventional beef growers will ensure their feed is clean?
      http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/101338/grain-poisoning-of-cattle-and-sheep.pdf

  33. avatar Kurt Lass says:

    Thanks for being first out of the blocks and for the links…

    Here we go again…

    Associational HR of 1.18 and associational NNH of 12,500. Good grief! I have far more chance of dying driving a car for a year.

    Associational epidemiology is so out of control. These people really need to read Bradford Hill and understand that any associational HR under 2 should probably be simply ignored.

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Hi Kurt – ah – Bradford Hill! Prof Tim Noakes did his final presentation in SA on this great man and the HRs that count and those that don’t. You’re so right – these don’t!
      Best wishes – Zoe

  34. avatar Dr Jay Wortman says:

    Hi Zoe, good rebuttal. I don’t remember his name, but the doc who did the North Karelia study vaulted into the WHO on the basis of his work in health promotion in Finland. The results of North Karelia have since been pretty much discredited but people like this still populate the upper echelons of these organizations. There was a study on colorectal cancer in Chinese men in N. America done a few years ago where they found that those in the upper quartile of carb consumption had more than double the risk of those in the lowest quartile. That’s way more of an effect than the one on which the WHO is basing their meat recommendation. And the low quartile is not a low-carb diet, just the bottom of a normal distribution. I’ll put my bet on carb, not meat or processed meat, thank you very much.

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Hi Jay!
      Lovely to see you (virtually). My bets go the same way.
      Best wishes – Zoe

    • avatar Tom Welsh says:

      “The results of North Karelia have since been pretty much discredited but people like this still populate the upper echelons of these organizations”.

      Simply explained! Those responsible know little or nothing about science (and care less) – although they are seriously into money and power. Secondly, no promotion can ever be withdrawn – that would imply that the Gods had made a mistake, which of course is inconceivable.

      Once a government body has been induced to take some action or make some statement, it is set in granite for the ages.

  35. avatar Alexander Ruhle says:

    Zoe excellent article! Clearly the science is poor. Even if we assume the conclusions are correct and followed the recommendations, what will we end up eating instead? Extruded soy protein? I suspect it would be helpful to explore the politics behind such studies – what are the interests that lead to such studies? Whom will this benefit? Animal rights? Environmental concerns? The grain farming industry?

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Hi Alexander – all great questions! It would be nice to be able to ask the writers their motives…
      Best wishes – Zoe

  36. avatar Barry says:

    In complete agreement with you.
    I am so fed up with so many meaningless “studies” that fail to advance our knowledge. Rather than do some original research these me-too food/diet studies just serve to confuse and mislead the general public. It has got to the point where you can almost guarantee that some study somewhere will find a certain food bad for you while another will find it good. Just look at the endless this week good, next week bad, diet/food articles that serve as click-bait in the daily rags. Ever has it been more important to do your own research to sieve out fact from propaganda.
    Keep up the good work!

    • avatar Tom Welsh says:

      ‘I am so fed up with so many meaningless “studies” that fail to advance our knowledge’.

      I couldn’t agree more. But “you get what you measure”, and most universities and other research establishments measure their academic staff on the number of papers published. It’s lazy and almost meaningless, but hey! it’s easier.

      Very few great scientists have made more than a handful of important discoveries in a whole lifetime, and some have only made one. Yet each of those was worth more than 1,000 trivial (or, worse, wrong) pot-boiling studies.

  37. avatar Darren says:

    Thank you for this. Its always nice to have one voice of reason when fear based articles rear their ugly heads. As someone who’s been on the other side of the fence, serving time as a drug rep I know studies serve specific purposes mainly to sway opinions and support certain causes. Most studies aren’t done fairly and look to place fear in the public’s eye. How many times have you seen someone who’s eaten bacon their whole life and lived to be 100 years old? Or… someone who is vegan dying at 40? Everything is relative to how we take care of ourselves namely are we getting the right nutrients. In most cases people are looking for articles like red meat causes cancer to support their beliefs and its mostly those who support veganism. Its all ego..I’m right, you’re wrong. Great article Zoe…Thank You!

  38. avatar Sandy says:

    Hello Zoe,

    I would like to know just when the *ahem* experts who do these studies will separate red meat from the processed meat! Just as there is a world of difference between a couch potato and a cross fit aficionado, there is a world of difference between a fresh steak and a product manipulated to look like a food (pepperoni sticks that can sit on your counter for a month spring immediately to mind)! I have yet to read an article about the various studies that doesn’t say “processed and red meats” – how can supposedly intelligent people not see the difference?

    Thank you for this sane and balanced commentary on this craziness!!

    • avatar chris c says:

      Yet the same “experts” will tell you there is a huge difference between white bread and brown bread etc. when any diabetic with a glucometer can prove this to be incorrect.

  39. avatar BobM says:

    So, the actual (increase in) risk would be about 0.008 percent (8 people per 100,000)?

    You know, at times I wish there was an organization I could trust to know what the heck they’re doing. I have yet to find one of those, though. To base recommendations like this on observational evidence is ludicrous. (Then again, all of the low fat is based on such evidence…and ignoring any contrary evidence, including that from randomized controlled trials.)

  40. avatar chris c says:

    Many meat eaters eat an unhealthy diet – they eat the meat WITH the bun and the fries and the sugary sauce and chase it with a Coke.

    Many other meat eaters eat a healthy diet – they eat the meat with brown rice, pasta or baked potatoes and a salad with low fat salad dressing followed by fruit with low fat yogurt and a glass of orange juice.

    Oh wait a minute . . . not really that different.

    The numbers of people who eat their meat with healthy veggies and healthy fats, like us, and without all the carbs and sugar and Omega 6 oils, are vanishingly small in the modern population.

    Yet it MUST be the meat that’s to blame, T Colon Campbell said so.

    Prepare for incoming vegan and high carb trolls to invade . . .

  41. avatar Lynne says:

    Just wondered about the nitrates added to bacon

  42. avatar Guy Ben-Zvi says:

    Great post Zoe!
    How come the UK GI cancer numbers are so similar to the Israeli numbers? Are we eating the same **it in israel?
    Sharing on my facebook
    Guy

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Hi Guy
      Ha ha – eating the same pita bread maybe? Far more likely that abrasive grains cause bowel cancer than the meat of hundreds of thousands of years.
      Best wishes – Zoe

  43. avatar James Marshall says:

    Really good counterpoint arguments, clearly laid out and easy to understand. Thanks.
    But, using crossfit as an example of good exercise practice is way out of sync with the rest of your blog.
    It’s like me talking about McDonalds breakfast as a healthy start to the day!

    • avatar Zoë Harcombe says:

      Hi James
      Fair point! I walk the dog personally – CrossFit would terrify me! It was just to highlight the extremes of health fanatics vs don’t give a damns.
      Best wishes – Zoe

    • avatar Emma says:

      Hi James,

      Could you please explain why you are so strongly opposed to Crossfit? I understand that it has received a lot of bad press, largely due to people performing exercises with bad form (which, when you look around, happens a lot in standard gyms). But when performed well, I feel it can be a great way to improve physical competence.

      I do participate in Crossfit classes (still consider myself a beginner), and have an excellent trainer who will always comment on my form and help me to perform better. I’d never get this sort of advice in a standard gym, and I feel fitter and stronger for it.

      But keen to hear your opinion, so please share…

    • avatar Nick Preece says:

      Hi James.

      It’s clear you have either had a bad experience with cross fit training or don’t really know very much about it?

      Either way, making crass comments likening it’s effects on people to McDonald’s is unhelpful and wrong……..and goes against what this blog is all about…….facts and good science based research.

      Thanks.

      Nick.

    • avatar David says:

      Hi James
      This is about nutrition not fitness but they are closely linked. The “sick – well – fit” state of your body is a spectrum and the fitter you are the healthier you are, even when it comes to mental health.
      Crossfit methodology has an incredible ability to generate fitness (therefore health) and is a hugely growing sport because of its unique approach to functional movement. Part of the method strongly guides nutrition too.
      Of course people who engage in the sport with poor form and truing will more than likely develop sports injuries. Its important to distinguish the methodology of CF from the individual and coaching. Many sports have significantly higher and more serious injury rates and do not attract the same criticism that CF has attracted. Feel free to call me.
      Regards
      Dr David Johnson (Brain and spinal neurosurgeon, CF coach, Olympic weight lifting Coach, CEO City To Coast Neurosurgery – Functional Movement Training (for low back pain)

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