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COLUMN: How carcinogenic is red meat?



For a long time, red meat has been one of the many fall guys for most of the health problems of the United States. We knew red meat was higher in saturated fat than other meats. Now, we know that your hotdog is carcinogenic and your hamburger might be too.

But this news is no reason to necessarily toss them.

The World Health Organization recently listed red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” and processed meats, such as bologna or hotdogs, as definitely carcinogenic, according to CBS News. This puts them in the same rating group as 
tobacco smoke and alcohol.

However, these ratings say nothing about the extent to which each of these substances will increase your cancer risk. Tobacco, for example, is strongly carcinogenic, while alcohol is most carcinogenic when someone drinks approximately 3.5 drinks per day — well within the bounds of alcoholism .

Similarly, the absolute increase in cancer risk from eating processed meats is not very significant, especially when eaten in moderation. The lifetime risk for the average person of developing colorectal cancer is about 5 percent, according to cancer.org. The relative increased risk of colorectal cancer from eating as little as a tenth of a pound of processed meat is 18 percent. However, that only amounts to a 1-percent increase in absolute likelihood if you do the math, which is fairly insignificant.

The link between non-processed red meats and cancer is more dubious. There have been a number of epidemiologic studies on this relationship, often with weak or conflicting results, according to Aaron E. Carroll of the New York Times. The evidence is inconclusive, which might warrant its designation as “probably carcinogenic,” but it is difficult to say how accurate that statement is.

On the other hand, the meat industry denies the validity of any claims of a connection between red or 
processed meats and cancer, according to motherjones.com. This position is simply contrary to fact. Yet due to the size of their industry, there will be many people who believe this is the case, namely Republican lawmakers.

The agricultural and meat industries spend millions each year on lobbying the federal government. Since many Republican Congress members represent areas economically dependent upon these industries, according to salon.com, the GOP often takes a stance contrary to the facts on their behalf.

Anyone who eats at IU’s food courts knows how hard it is to eat healthy while on the meal plan. There are options low in saturated fats, sugar and calories, but finding these dishes requires a fair amount of research on inconsistently-designed nutritional guides. Furthermore, everything is fairly high in calories, which makes eating smaller portions 
difficult.

I find many IU students and people throughout the Bloomington community are concerned with public health — we do have a school dedicated to the pursuit of it, after all. Oftentimes, it seems that for every health-conscious person at IU, there is someone else who is self-righteous about their diet, who will shame anyone who even looks sideways at a steak.

Merely being health-conscious doesn’t mean you have all of the information, or that certain foods can’t be touched with an eleven-foot pole. Rather, as knowledge is a terrible thing to hold over others, it means those of us who are relatively knowledgeable about the subject have a responsibility to educate others without egotistical self-indulgence.

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