The World Health Organization has changed the classification of processed red meat, such as bacon, salami, and hot dogs, to a class 1 carcinogen; this means that there is sufficient evidence to label these foods as blatantly cancer-causing.
To put it into perspective, class 1 is the worst class of carcinogens placing processed meat into the same class as cigarettes. All other red meat has been labeled a class 2A carcinogen, meaning that it is probably cancer causing and thus should be consumed in moderation.
According to WHO, white meats such as poultry and fish have not been linked to cancer.
Although these findings appear to be accurate on the surface, this doesn’t mean that you need to avoid them in their entirety to live a healthy and cancer-free life. The rest of this article will be devoted to how to interpret and apply these findings.
To summarize the take home message in this article…try to decrease the consumption of the color red (red meat) and black (charred meat) and increase the consumption of the color green (vegetables) within the diet.
What is considered red meat?
Although the discussion is a bit more complicated than just labeling meat as white or red, for our purposes, we’ll label all meat that is not a bird or a fish as red meat. Yes, that means that pork is, in fact, considered red meat (my apologies to all you bacon lovers).
To complicate things, we’ll need to further separate red meat into processed versus unprocessed. Although both are linked to an increased risk of cancer, you’ll learn that processed meat is considered much worse. In fact, the World Health Organization considers processed meat to be a class 1 carcinogen similar to smoking.
Finally, how the meat is cooked may make a significant difference in how carcinogenic the meat may be when consumed.
Carcinogenic Doesn’t Mean “Cancer-Guaranteed”
Carcinogens are simply any compound capable of causing cancer in living cells. Really this term “carcinogen” speaks to potential rather than certainty and is likely dependant on the amount and length of exposure…
For example, every one of us are exposed to cancer causing compounds every single day. Even health foods such as aloe, coffee, peanuts, and certain teas have carcinogens found within them. That doesn’t mean that we should avoid these foods.
For a few reasons…
- Exposure is not enough. Throughout the millennia we’ve evolved to tolerate many poisonous compounds. This means that the body has the capacity to tag, metabolize and remove a significant amount of cancer causing “poisons”. There is a natural tolerance to carcinogens that protects us against small exposure to some very toxic compounds.
- Carcinogen potency. As with any poison, there is a wide spectrum of potency. Some poisons can kill us with just a drop or two, while others may require gallons before we’d suffer a catastrophic result. Luckily, most carcinogens require prolonged exposure before cancer is imminent. Which brings us to the next reason…
- The dose makes the poison. With carcinogens, exposure does not result in a linear increase in risk. In other words, small exposure results in tiny, almost imperceptible increases in risk, however, moderate exposure, may be significantly worse than small exposure. I have always said, “moderation kills” – we’ll talk more about this later on in the article but think of carcinogen exposure as logarithmic.
- You have defenses. Every one of us has cancer at this very moment…as you read this article you likely have hundreds or thousands of cancerous cells floating through your blood. Scary, I know, but thankfully, you have specialized cells that float right alongside those cancerous cells ready to gobble them up before they can make a home and turn into a tumor. These cells are the final defense against cancer cells and they save your life every day!
So, does red meat, processed and unprocessed, expose you to carcinogens? Yes. Does that guarantee that you will develop cancer? No. Should we take notice of these warnings and alter our lifestyle to stack the cards in our favor? Yes.
What’s in red meat that’s so darn unhealthy?
Although we haven’t yet pinpointed all the potential carcinogens, we do know of a few key suspects…
Suspect #1: Hertocyclic Amines
Herto-WHATS? Hertocyclic amines (HCAs) are compounds that occur during the cooking of food…especially when food is exposed to open flames and/or high heat.
HCAs are found mostly in the charred area of the meat. Sadly, red meat is higher in HCAs than it’s white meat counterpart.
You can decrease exposure to HCAs by avoiding meats cooked on an open flame, meats that are charred, or cooked in extremely high heat (my apologies to those of you who love filet minion).
Marinating meats prior to cooking has been linked to fewer HCAs, the same goes for spiced rubs! HCAs will still form, but less so when the meat is marinated and spiced.
Cruciferous vegetables may help the body to metabolize and remove HCAs before they can damage cells so eating some broccoli with your tasty charred beef may help to limit damage caused by those nasty HCAs!
Suspect #2: NOCs
N-nitroso compounds (NOCs) occur in the gut when hemoglobin is converted into these potentially carcinogenic compounds. Although all red meat can lead to increased exposure to NOCs, processed red meat is far worse because NOCs are produced at an accelerated rate.
Although the best medicine here is to limit exposure, research suggests that consumption of green vegetables with red meats can help to decrease the risk associated with NOC exposure.
Suspect #3: Advanced Glycation End-products (AGEs)
Advanced Glycation End-products (AGEs) occur when sugar and protein are complexed into one big, nasty disease causing compound. This happens when many foods are exposed to high heat, AGEs can also develop in the blood when sugar in the blood reacts with proteins in the cells.
To be fair to red meat, AGEs can occur in relatively high levels in many cooked foods and the levels will vary depending on how the food is cooked. For example a broiled beef hot dog can have greater than 10 times the amount of AGEs compared to raw beef.
For today’s discussion I just wanted to mention AGEs as a potential contributor because we have a great deal of control over how our food is cooked and this can make a big difference in the potential harm of the red meat that we consume!
Suspect #4: Pesticides
We often think of pesticides as being a problem in the fruits and vegetables that we consume. It’s a little known fact that pesticides can build up and concentrate in the fat of plant eating animals.
You see, pesticides are toxins to the cells and organs and so nature wants to get these poisons as far away from the organs as possible…which means they end up sequestered in the fat.
Red meat is, generally speaking, fattier than white meat and may explain why red meat is more problematic. This is certainly something to consider and may mean that organic meat may be less toxic than conventional meat (at least as far as cancer-causing pesticides is concerned).
7-Step Take Home Action Plan
It does appear that red meat, especially processed red meat, does increase the likelihood of developing cancer (especially colon cancer). So should we avoid or limit exposure?
Here’s how to act on this information…
1.Limit Unprocessed Red Meat To A Maximum of Two To Three Times Weekly
The take home message here is abstinence is likely unnecessary. Remember, small exposure may result in almost no increased risk while moderate intake may result in a logarithmic increase in risk. Although the research is not clear on how much is too much, we feel that 1-3 servings of unprocessed red meat per week will be safe for the majority of readers.
2.Limit Processed Red Meat To One Time Or Less Per Week
Ideally, we should avoid processed meats, however, if you decide to enjoy a hot dog from time to time then so be it…just know that you are consuming a class 1 carcinogen and limit it to one time per week or less! When you do enjoy that hot dog or bacon, savor it!
3.Choose White Meats When Possible
White meat appears to be much less problematic, so choose white meat over red meat when possible. This will allow you to consume a good dose of muscle-preserving protein without the unnecessary risk associated with red meat.
4.Choose Organic/Grass-Fed When Possible
There’s some controversy surround whether organic-grass fed meat is better than conventional meat and thus worth the extra money. To me, there is no controversy. If you can afford it, then always choose organic and/or grass-fed. This is especially the case for fattier cuts of meat. If you’re on a limited budget, realize that most of the harmful compounds, such as pesticides, will be stored in the fat of the meat so choose lean cuts of meat whenever possible. For example, with chicken breast, I often choose conventional over organic because there’s so little fat in the meat so pesticides are likely minimal – making the significantly increased cost unnecessary. Spend the extra money on an extra bag of vegetables.
5.Cook Your Meat Enough, But Not Too Much.
I know, I know, the char tastes good. The problem is it’s killing you. Ok, maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but sometimes we need a slap in the face to make a change. Do you really need the char to enjoy the flavor? Probably not. When you cook on a grill, perhaps consider a silicon grilling mat to decrease exposure to an open flame. Cook your meat so that it’s safe, but not overcooked. Also, look into other, less traumatic cooking methods such as a slow cooker, boiling, etc.
6.Always Eat Vegetables With All Meat (Especially Cruciferous Vegetables)
Vegetables have been repeatedly shown to be anti-carcinogens; they protect against cancer, especially when consumed at the same time as meat! Chlorophyll, found in greens, may be the lead superhero here (although there are likely other superhero nutrients involved). One other factor is that people who eat lots of meat may eat fewer vegetables and this may lead to deficiencies in nutrients and phytochemicals that have potent anti-cancer qualities. As a rule of thumb shoot for 4 times the volume of vegetables as meat. So, if you eat one palm sized portion of meat, try to consume at least four palm-sized portions of vegetables at the same meal.
7.Supplement With SGS & Chlorophyllin When Possible
For those who like to use supplements, two supplements may be especially powerful for inhibiting the carcinogenic effects of cooked meat: SGS (from cruciferous vegetables) and chlorophyllin. Chloropyllin appears to interfere with the carcinogens in meat by trapping the hetrocyclic amines within the gut and preventing them from damaging DNA. Simply take 100 mg with any meal that contain cooked meat and some research suggests that it may decrease the carcinogenic potential by up to 90%. SGS has many benefits within the body, including the activation of phase II liver metabolism of many cancer causing compounds to enhance their removal and disposal. In addition, SGS also appears to have direct protective effects at the cellular level, being a potent activator of NRF2 pathway, which detoxifies the cell and activates the cells natural antioxidant protection!