Sausages and other processed meats are now ranked alongside cigarettes and asbestos as known carcinogens, according to a recent announcement by the World Health Organization Processed meats can cause cancer, and red meat is likely to cause cancer, the health agency says in its report.
The new investigation involved 22 scientists who were invited by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer to assess the association between more than 16 types of cancer and the consumption of red meat and processed meat.
Over the course of seven days in early October 2015, the scientific panel examined more than 800 epidemiological studies from the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia and elsewhere. The scope covered multiple ethnic backgrounds and global diets, according to the report published in the journal Lancet Oncology.
The WHO group classified consumption of processed meat as ‘carcinogenic to humans’ on the basis of sufficient evidence for colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer is the second most lethal form of cancer in the U.S., causing nearly 50,000 deaths per year. Processed meat was also linked to a higher incidence of stomach cancer.
Red meat carries a slightly lower risk, the group says, but is still “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Aside from the “strong mechanistic evidence” related to colorectal cancer, the “consumption of red meat was also positively associated with pancreatic and with prostate cancer.“
To support their hypothesis, the group cites one study from 2011, which combed through 28 studies on meat consumption and cancer risk dating back to 1966. That a analysis found that colorectal cancer risk jumps by 17 percent for every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of red meat consumed each day. Meanwhile with processed meat, colorectal cancer risk increases by 18 percent for every 50 grams (1.7 ounces) eaten each day.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer keeps a list of compounds or activities with suspected, probable and definitive links to cancer, with each possible item falling into a designated grouping based on whether or not it causes cancer.
Processed meat now falls into “group 1,” meaning it ranks as high as tobacco smoking and exposure to asbestos in terms of causing cancer. Red meat lands in “group 2A” together with inorganic lead.
Research in rodents and human tissue shows that meat consumption increases the production of chemical compounds, including heme iron and its chemical byproduct N-nitroso-compounds (NOCs). These compounds cause oxidative damage to intestinal tissue which in turn can cause cancer. Curing meats elevates the levels of NOCs as well as carcinogenic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Heating meat leads to the formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines, a known mutagen and cancer-causing agent.
“High-temperature cooking by pan-frying, grilling, or barbecuing generally produces the highest amounts of these chemicals,” the report states.
The new analysis makes a definitive connection between eating meat and cancer. In recent years, studies and health policy groups have linked the two activities, but often without explicitly saying that meat causes cancer. the American Cancer Society’s position says that “because of a wealth of studies linking colon cancer to diets high in red meats (beef, lamb, or liver) and processed meats (hot dogs, bologna, etc.), the Society encourages people to eat more vegetables and fish and less red and processed meats.” This is not as definitive as the new directive of WHO but also acknowledges the link demonstrated in these studies.
However the World Cancer Research Fund concurs with WHO and says that there is convincing evidence that processed meat causes bowel cancer.
What does the beleaguered beef industry say to all this? In their press announcement they say “We simply don’t think the evidence supports any causal link between any red meat and any type of cancer.”
What does the Torah have to say about eating meat? Is it a good thing to consume meat or not? Despite the fact that the Torah permitted Noach and his descendants to eat meat and allowed the consumption of regular meat when the Jews entered the land of Israel, it does not necessarily approve of meat consumption. Rav Yosef Albo (1380-1444) in his Sefer Ha’Ikarim (3:15) maintains that the allowance to eat meat is similar to that of marrying a beautiful gentile woman during war, which is only in order to pacify one’s evil inclination. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook writes similarly in a number of places that meat was only reluctantly permitted by the Torah to placate one’s evil inclination but there is no ideal of eating meat and this is also the opinion of Rashba (Chulin 11b).
On the other hand, Rav Saadia Gaon derives a positive commandment on a person to eat meat from the wording of the Torah (Deuteronomy 12:20) “With all your desire eat meat” and this may also be the basis of the Yerushalmi’s exhortation (Kiddushin 4:8) that a person who sees something (permitted) in this world and covets it will be held accountable if he does not eat it”, since it causes a person anguish when he desires something and cannot fulfill his desire. Moreover Kabbalistic sources also view meat consumption as a positive ideal.
Despite this it is possible that Rav Saadia would agree that meats which are particularly harmful should be avoided, as even the Torah stresses that one should very careful to guard one’s health. It is possible that small amounts of certain meats could still be healthy and thus one could fulfill the prerogative to eat meat on festivals with these meats.