The prevalence of diet trends shows no signs of slowing, and we’re constantly bombarded with another “breakthrough” that tells us what we should or shouldn’t eat. Most of the time, these claims are little more than hyperbole, exploited for someone else’s gain. This time, though, when news broke of the carcinogenic status of certain meats, the internet was finally abuzz for good cause.
There has long been a faction of care providers – myself included – who have cautioned our patients and clients against processed meat, pork, and shellfish. Our reasons might stem from varying places, but the conclusion that some meats simply weren’t intended for consumption has been shared by many.
While not universally accepted, the recent news of studies and statements that these meats may cause cancer has brought the subject to the forefront once again. With Paleo and low carb eating plans increasingly popular, it’s important to have these discussions and scrutinize our diets.
Are we filling our diets with carcinogens for the sake of limiting carbs? Is bacon causing cancer? The answers aren’t necessarily black and white, but for me they are clear: pork, shellfish, and processed meat are not worth the risk.
Breaking Down the Headlines
Thanks to “clickbait” media styles, news breaks in one of two ways: either the issue at hand is dramatically dangerous or that the naysayers are overreacting and it’s a non-issue. This has been no exception. Half of the articles interpret the WHO declaration to be condemnation of all meat everywhere, and the other half read as though a little carcinogen never hurt anybody.
The truth, as always, cannot be found until you peel back the hype and consider the conversation sans drama. At the heart of the discussion, we have the October statement by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorizing processed red meat as a level one carcinogen (causes cancer in humans) for colorectal cancer, and regular red meat as level 2A (probably causes cancer). The full findings have yet to be released; a full monograph is set to be published at a later date. (1)
With that being the sole statement – a small one at that, considering it’s causing all this fuss – any discussion about meat causing cancer has to be broken down further. They simply haven’t released all of their findings and recommendations yet. So, if we’re going to speculate on the implications of this brief report, it’s important to note that there are two issues here:
- Processed meat vs. natural meat
- Pork vs. any other meat
Set aside the headlines telling you bacon is out to get you or carcinogens aren’t a big deal. There’s plenty of information to draw from and more on the way – we can develop a solid understanding of meat, pork, and the relative risks without any clickbait exaggerations.
Cautions against certain meats have been handed down throughout the centuries. Many religious backgrounds carry a prohibition against pork and shellfish, sometimes among other meats. In Deuteronomy, God’s law describes the kinds of meat that are to be considered clean or unclean, having this to say about pork and shellfish:
The pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, it is unclean for you. You shall not eat any of their flesh nor touch their carcasses. “These you may eat of all that are in water: anything that has fins and scales you may eat, but anything that does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you. – Deuteronomy 14:8-10, New International Version
Of course, these aren’t the only two meats excluded. Camel – not exactly a menu favorite – and rabbit are mentioned with pork, among others not quoted here, and scale-less fish would include catfish, as well.
While both Jewish and Muslim faiths continue to abstain from pork, many Christians do not follow these detailed Biblical lifestyle laws, explaining that the law is no longer to be literally followed.
Wherever you stand on matters of theology, one must admit how intriguing it is that Biblical admonitions were breaking health “news” more than a millennia ago. The Bible doesn’t dig much deeper than the initial law, so we don’t have a written record of the idea behind this prohibition. Some contend it is a matter of faith – rules to be followed as an expression of trust and belief. Others think there was a reason, and that ancient wisdom should not be ignored.
On the question of pork and shellfish compared with any other kind of meat, Biblical precedent tells us that avoidance is prudent. With science confirming this more and more, I tend to believe that the rules were originally put in place for their phsyiological benefits as much as anything, and we would do well to take heed whenever possible.
Nothing New Under the Sun
The supposed revelation about processed meats and kinds of meat is not news for world religions, but it’s also a long held understanding in the scientific community. In other words, the WHO declaration isn’t really news at all.
Essentially, the research board only announced that processed meats increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18% per 50 grams daily, and that regular meat increases risks by 18% per 100 grams daily. It’s a moderate risk increase based on regular ingestion – but we have known this for some time about red meat.
In 2008, the journal Nutrition and Cancer highlighted cancer risks associated with processed foods, stating:
The epidemiologic studies published to date conclude that the excess risk in the highest category of processed meat-eaters is comprised between 20% and 50% compared with non-eaters. In addition, the excess risk per gram of intake is clearly higher than that of fresh red meat. (2)
In 2010, Australian incidences of colorectal cancer were evaluated, with one in six being found attributable to red meat and processed meat consumption. (3)
Earlier this year, a review of the literature found links between red meat consumption and mortality, including cancer as well as cardiovascular disease. (4) Interestingly, the US population bore the most risk, which gives us pause regarding US production and consumption methods.
One such concern that is US-specific surrounds the drug ractopamine, used to make the end product more lean and desirable. Unfortunately, it is found in traces of the meat, and its safety record is so unstable that over 150 countries have banned its use. (5)
Farming and harvesting practices are in question for shrimp production, as well, another of the main “unclean” animals. A Bloomberg article in 2012 called attention to shrimp raised on pig feces and other waste, then sold to market. (6)
Pork itself, production methods aside, is second only to beef in worldwide livestock cultivation (7), and despite being marketed as “the other white meat,” is most certainly a red meat. The consumption of pork has posed concern in the literature previously, as well, leading to studies intended to fill the gap on our knowledge of pork and health risks.
While conclusions are always dependent upon many variables, meat has always been under the microscope, if you will, in terms of risks versus benefits, and the “unclean meats” have stood out with added concerns of their own.
Calories are of Little Concern
When the term “processed meat” is thrown around, many people assume that the problem lies in caloric content. We associate pork with bacon and shellfish with indulgence. This trap is especially problematic for those following a Paleo type diet, where meat is a staple rather than an addition. But the problems with processed meat extend beyond indulgence, and the problems with pork extend beyond fatty, caloric bacon.
One line of thought centers around the “clean” meats being animals that ruminate – cows and sheep, for example- who eat grass and digest it in a long process through multiple stomachs, which would have not only less exposure to bacteria and parasites, but also more time to eliminate them. Pigs, on the other hand, eat just about whatever you’d give them, and have just one stomach and a short digestive process to handle it.
As a result, pigs – and their meat – are often plagued with viruses, bacteria, and parasites, including Hepatitis E, Y. enterocolitica, listeria, and more. (8) This is a concern whether the meat is fresh or processed – it’s simply what you get with pork.
In processed meat, you have much more to be concerned about on the nutrition label than the caloric content. On fact, lower calories may indicate an even bigger problem if they are processed more heavily.
Just some of the concerning ingredients found in processed meat can include:
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- corn syrup
- hydrolyzed milk protein
- sodium phosphate
- sodium erythorbate
- sodium nitrite
- ascorbic acid
Is it any wonder that these chemical concoctions can increase the risk of cancer in our intestinal tract?
Nitrates have gained some attention recently, with producers attempting to overcome consumer doubts by producing nitrate-free lunchmeats and bacon. The concern is justified, as nitrates are converted to nitrites, in a process described by a New Hampshire environmental science fact sheet:
In some laboratory studies in which rodents were given high levels of nitrites along with amine-containing chemicals, cancers of the lung, liver, and esophagus were observed. (9)
Nitrate-free meat would be preferable to standard products, but the ideal would be to avoid processed meat and its laboratory-concoctions altogether.
Moderation and Relative Risks
You’ve heard “all things in moderation,” especially in response to the recent WHO statement on red meat, but do you know how closely that phrase really is connected to dietary choices? Later-developed beliefs, in the Christian faith in particular, moved away from the strict dietary laws of the Old Testament – namely, pork and shellfish restrictions shared with Judaism and Islam. The saying “all things in moderation” has its direct roots in early statements on those beliefs.
While the subject of religious beliefs and theology are for another article, we should ask ourselves whether this declaration of moderation has been taken out of context. We wouldn’t choose poisons in moderation – so why toxins?
The very fact that these animals – pork and shrimp alike – are the “bottom feeders” of the earth and sea gives pause as to the quality of meat and state of health. Could it be that they simply tolerate toxins and microbes, gathering it up in their tissue?
Even if the tissue is relatively clean considering their biologic tendencies, they are naturally designed for scavenging and cleaning, not necessarily for food. Natural access to bottom-dwelling shrimp would have been limited, with these workers of the sea doing their due diligence far from the reach of human hands and nets. And would you choose your living garbage disposal for dinner, if food weren’t in short supply?
The documented risks and chemical additives found in processed meat and processed pork in particular make a clear decision – it’s just not worth the risk. There is no unique nutritive benefit to processed meat that would make the end justify the means. Processed meat is a drain on our health and has no place in the diet.
Taking it a step further to pork, shellfish, and other “unclean” meats, the jury may still be out for some of you. The cancer risks do seem to lie in moderation, and there are farmers who raise all sorts of meat with conscientious practices.
If you do choose these meats, know your farmer and trust your source. Standard farms should be assumed to raise pigs in relative squalor, using antibiotics to counter the spread of disease inherent in the mass production of waste-tolerating animals.
For me personally, I not only trust the Creator to have established what is and isn’t food, but also the progression of human history to confirm avoidance, and the ever-emerging science to discover what we’ve known all along. I’ll continue advising against all forms of pork and shellfish, and we’ll watch as the WHO, researchers, and society continue to uncover the reasons why.