“Neurotic rejection of broad swathes of food ingredients,” I wrote last week, “…distracts from the real goal: simply enjoying a balanced, nutritious, affordable and tasty diet.”
What doesn’t help is when the World Health Organisation (WHO), which ought to command our respect for having eradicated smallpox, and having made great strides against tuberculosis, measles, polio and malaria, degenerates into crass sensationalism and radical eco-activism.
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies almost everything it encounters as possibly, probably or certainly carcinogenic, or “not classifiable”. In fact, out of 1043 substances or activities the WHO has evaluated, it determined only a single one, caprolactam, to be “probably not carcinogenic to humans”. Not that you don’t have to worry about caprolactam, which is a chemical precursor to nylon. It is a mildly toxic irritant, and an endocrine disruptor.
This kind of “science”, by which more than half of all substances tested are classified as possibly carcinogenic or worse, stirs up panic, without so much as providing context about how big the actual risk is. The IARC’s latest monograph, as it pompously calls its reports, declares fresh red meat to be a probable carcinogen, when eaten by humans, and lists processed meat as a certain carcinogen. This has stirred the imagination of radical activists.
The radical vegans at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are infamous for their extreme shock tactics. They have yet to find a level too low to stoop to, in search of publicity. In their hateful campaign against perfectly innocent plants, they regularly generate Streisand-effect publicity by creating ethically questionable advertising. They have objectified and fat-shamed women, and manipulate children by declaring that fish are sea kittens, and that mothers kill animals.
A radical outfit like PETA often makes sweeping, selective, and crude claims such as “hot dogs cause butt cancer”, and “you wouldn’t let your child smoke; like smoking, bacon, sausages and other processed meats is linked to cancer”. Most people know to ignore them as a lunatic fringe. Their latter claims have recently been relaunched, and this time PETA bases its loony alarmism on the presumed authority of a WHO-IARC monograph. And they are not alone.
I wrote “tabloid” in the introduction, but that is unfair to tabloids, which have been uniformly skeptical of the IARC’s claims. I really intended to refer to a more high-brow publication, printed on the slightly larger Berliner format. Last week, the venerable Guardian declared: “Processed meats pose same cancer risk as smoking and asbestos, reports say”.
“Even fresh red meat,” the paper says, “is to be listed as unhealthy.”
The Guardian published a second piece on the same day, with its health editor declaring: “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO”.
“Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, World Health Organisation declares,” declared the equally venerable Washington Post.
The IARC’s rash statements give ammunition to PETA, and to assorted health nuts and media sensation-seekers alike. It is true that bacon, wet-cured as it is, falls under “processed meat” and therefore is, technically speaking, carcinogenic, but that is also true about sunshine, woodwork and beer. What is not disclosed in the screaming headlines is the fact that the IARC paper claimed only a minor relative risk for colo-rectal cancer of 18% in people who eat 50g of bacon, or other processed meat, per day.
The average American, whom the media would have us believe is a morbidly obese glutton in a grease-stained t-shirt riding a motorised scooter, is reputed to eat only 22g of bacon, as part of 50g of processed meat, per day.
The report itself does not disclose the absolute risk, which, based on the population lifetime risk in 50-year-olds, increases by a mere 0.324%. Given that one in three people die of some form of cancer, it is hardly grounds for panic. As for red meat, the evidence that it is “probably carcinogenic” is explicitly described as “limited”. This means “that other explanations for the observations (technically termed chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.”
It’s much ado about not very much at all. All the hysteria is an artefact of the IARC’s confusing cancer warnings. The Atlantic magazine has a good explanation. In short, the categories carcinogenic, probably or possibly carcinogenic, and not enough data, merely state the strength of evidence, not the degree of risk. If something is associated with a small risk of cancer in a small minority of people, the WHO calls it carcinogenic as long as we’re sure.
For example, the relative risk for processed meat is 18%. This compares to a relative risk of smoking of 2,700%. The two are unceremoniously dumped in the same category, despite a 250-fold difference in the relative risk they present.
It isn’t the first time I’ve taken issue with the WHO about its cancer sensationalism. A few years ago, based on the flimsiest evidence, the WHO listed mobile phones as “possibly carcinogenic”. In fact, the cited study showed an increased cancer rate in only one case. In others, cellphones appear to cure cancer. This is equally untrue, of course. Either way, the absolute risk is on the order of two or three per 100,000 people – almost vanishingly small. All this does is prove how meaningless such findings really are.
The Guardian itself ran a story a few months ago, entitled, “What’s so bad about processed food?”
In the story, the author points out that processing enables people to prepare decent meals without having to deploy cooks to slave away in the kitchen all day, that some foods are actually more nutritious, thanks to processing, and that processing can make food taste great.
“There are, of course, crappy processed foods…” the writer concludes. “But even then, they’re only bad if eaten too regularly. Tricky thing, discourse. But surely we’re smart enough to use language properly? Surely we can debate without oversimplifying?”
Evidently not the Guardian. Or, can it? Without conceding that at least two articles on the same day were blatantly misleading, the paper also ran an editorial: “The Guardian view on meat and cancer: a little of what you fancy will do you no harm.”
That’s hypocrisy at its best: unloading a double barrel of rank sensationalism, followed by an editorial, on an inside, page designed to hedge its bets as a sober, serious-minded paper.
You have to die somehow, and almost anything you do, or eat could contribute to that death. If I’m going to go, it might as well be at the hands of a good steak or a plateful of crispy bacon rashers. At least I’ll die with a full belly and a smile on my face, which is more than I can say for the average Guardian reader. Sadly, my absolute risk of dying of bacon bliss is negligibly small. DM