The Meat of the Matter | The Body of Evidence

The Meat of the Matter

The World Health Organization has just declared processed meat to be a Class I carcinogen. So is this the end of smoked meat in Montreal? Not unless we're also prepared to destroy the sun and stop getting hair cuts. I explain that in my latest for the Montreal Gazette.


I should begin by saying that I like smoked meat, like any self-respecting Montrealer should. That is why it was so troubling to hear the World Health Organization recently declare processed red meat a Class I carcinogen and malign this much beloved Montreal staple.

Now, I have my problems with how the WHO categorizes carcinogens. To explain, let’s take an example. The WHO lists asbestos and tobacco as Class I carcinogens. This is very appropriate because both are clear causes of lung cancers. We can also take steps to eliminate our exposure to these products. We have done much good by encouraging people to stop smoking, and by limiting the use of asbestos in building material.

But there are some other Class I carcinogens that seem just a little weird. Both alcohol and sunlight are listed as Class I carcinogens because they increase the risk of liver and skin cancer. However, there are some redeeming qualities to these things. Though many of the claims for red wine being healthy are vastly overstated (as I wrote in these pages Monday), at the very least it does make me seem more interesting at dinner parties. As for the sun, trying to blow it up to spare us its daily dose of radiation would be bad for humanity’s long term survival prospects.

One of the more ridiculous molecules listed as a Class I carcinogen was tamoxifen, used to treat breast cancer. If this seems strange to you, it would to most people. The problem here is the most chemotherapy agents are not “safe.” They have side effects, obviously, and can disrupt DNA synthesis. This is a good thing when you’re trying to stop a fast growing tumour, but a bad thing if you’re otherwise healthy.

Unprocessed red meat was classified as a IIa carcinogen and shares that designation with “Hairdresser or barber (occupational exposure as a).” Given that designation, maybe I should let my hair grow out and start rocking a mullet, à la Uncle Jesse from the early days of Full House. On second thought, maybe not.

Interestingly, the WHO has only ever declared one molecule to be Class IV or “probably not carcinogenic to humans.” That molecule is caprolactam. You probably know it by another name, Nylon. Perhaps I should start wearing yoga pants to work, but I doubt I could pull that look off, either.

To be serious for a moment, eating a lot of red meat is not good for you. The results of the WHO report found that eating 50g of processed meat a day increased your risk of colon cancer by 18 per cent. And eating 100g a day of red meat increased your risk by 17 per cent. In practical, terms if you assume your lifetime risk of developing colon cancer is about 5 per cent, then a lifetime of carnivorous indulgence will increase that risk to about 6 per cent. This is significant on the population level but maybe not so important to you as an individual.

Clearly though, you should not eat a smoked meat sandwich every day. We would do ourselves a world of good if we ate less red meat and more fruits and vegetables. We should also substitute fish for red meat whenever possible, and save smoked meat sandwiches for the occasional indulgence. My issue here is not with the call for healthier diets, which I wholeheartedly support; it is with the increasingly ludicrous designation of all things as carcinogenic. Though thankfully my yoga pants are safe.