Curing meats has been as much a part of the human fabric as civilization itself. Using smoking methods and/or salts has been part of preserving meat as far as anyone can remember; it dates back to as early as 3000 BC in the Roman Empire. Meat preservation innovation was an integral part of European survival before advanced refrigeration. With harsh winters and an urban population to supply, finding ways to preserve food literally was the difference between life and death. As food safety standards have increased with global urbanization, there are some unforeseen side affects. A new World Health Organization (WHO) study suggests that consuming processed red meat or poultry may lead to certain cancers.
The study, published on Monday, shows that even as much as two slices of bacon a day can increase ones’ odds of colon cancer by up to 18%. Although the parameters were confined to meats that have, “been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” So far, the main blame-getters have been meats like sausage, ham, bacon, and bologna. While I’ll be the first to tell someone that there are better meats than bologna, I feel the overarching umbrella should not be applied to every meat.
Firstly, the study focused only on processed meats, with a very broad definition of what it means. There has been a counter-attack stating that meats provide protein, iron, and critical B-Vitamins that are tough to find in such compact quantity elsewhere. Many point to consumer responsibility, i.e. reading ingredient labels, as the first line of defense in this processing battle.
Ingredient labels, as oversighted and corporate as they can be, are strangely complicated. A basic meatloaf mix which contains every ingredient other than the raw hamburger required, is legally obligated to include every ingredient that is used. This makes sense, as consumers should be able to know what they are consuming. Yet the requirements for ingredient labels can be extensive, to say the least. While someone making a homemade meatloaf might use breadcrumbs from a loaf of bread, the pre-made mix is required to list every ingredient required to make that bread. Given the other basic ingredients one typically has around a kitchen, a meatloaf mix might look as complex as: Bread Crumbs (Bleached Wheat Flour, Salt, Yeast, Dextrose, Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Soybean and/or Cottonseed), Salt, Spices (Paprika, Mustard, Black Pepper, Basil, Sage), Onions, Garlic, Natural Flavors, Parsley Flakes, Tomato Powder, Modified Food Starch, Sugar, Salt, Onion Powder, Spices Including Paprika, Garlic Powder, Beet Powder (For Color), Silicon Dioxide (Prevents Caking), Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Cottonseed and/or Soybean), Maltodextrin, Citric Acid. What a mouthful! Considering a homemade recipe would consist of: Hamburger, Breadcrumbs, Vegetable Oil, Eggs, and (if you’re feeling REALLY adventurist) ketchup.
Disclosing nutrition info in a transparent way is very vital to a population our size and to the giant companies that produce and package our food. Without an eye on specificity and with current health science, society would definitely know what not to eat, albeit through more traumatic and costly measures. But deeming red meat and poultry, essentially a staple of American diet and culture, as a carcinogen on par with asbestos and cigarettes, might be a little premature.
This new study focused only on “cured” meats, whose arbitrary and broad definition has already been referenced. Living in a unique culture which provides many avenues for locally sourced and minimally changed meats is something that should be taken advantage of. Here in northeastern Wisconsin, there are a great amount of beef, pork, and dairy farms that have products available as close to the slaughter as possible. While the WHO study suggests that the amount of processed meat consumed increases the risk of colon cancer, it failed to mention which exact meats where used. The spectrum between Oscar Meyer bacon, butchered from large farms all over the country and distributed in an even larger manner, and Cudahy or Nueske bacon, sourced from farms within a day’s drive and consumed within a week of packaging, is not mentioned.
Connecting any product with cancer is always a tricky slope, as the battles with Big Tobacco will show. Even the WHO admits that there is only a noticeable link between processed red meat and cancer, and that any speculation is just speculation. While further study must be done on this perceived link, the nutrients found in meat and the cultural backbone which processing and preserving meat has built isn’t something that should be shrugged off as disease-prone from one study. In the meantime, if the study scares you, rub some shoulders with your hunting friends; venison was conspicuously excluded from the study.