Meat can cause cancer

2015-11-04 12:38
THE relationship being established between red meat and cancer.

THE relationship being established between red meat and cancer.

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THE consumption of processed and red meat is associated with an increased risk for colorectal cancer.

This was announced by the cancer arm of the World Health Organisation (Who), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Prof. Vikash Sewram, the director of the African Cancer Institute at the University of Stellenbosch’s (US) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, who also chairs the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on the prevention and control of cancer, answers some questions about this announcement.

Who made the evaluation?

The assesment was part of the IARC’s monographs programme that has been involved since 1971 in the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans, whether it be exposure to chemicals, complex mixtures, biological agents, occupational exposures or lifestyle factors. Close to 1 000 agents have been evaluated in order to identify the potential risks to human health. Once the evidence has been evaluated and a consensus reached, the agent is classified into one of five categories:

) group 1 – carcinogenic to humans;

) group 2A – probably carcinogenic;

) group 2B – possibly carcinogenic;

) group 3 – not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity; and

) group 4 – probably not carcinogenic to humans.

What does the evidence show?

The IARC evaluated two types of meat: processed meat and red meat.

A working group of 22 experts from ten countries evaluated the evidence of 800 studies and found that processed meat is carcinogenic to humans (group 1), as there is sufficient evidence from epidemiological and mechanistic studies from around the world that show that processed meat consumption causes colorectal cancer. Red meat consumption was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans (group 2A) based on limited epidemiological evidence in humans, although there was strong evidence to support mechanistic events leading to cancer.

The classification of processed meat falls into the same category as alcohol, tobacco smoke, asbestos, HIV, and so on. However, it is important to note that all of these agents, whilst in the same group, do not all share the same level of hazard. For example, the risk of developing cancer as a result of smoking or being exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke is many orders of magnitude higher than that associated with eating certain kinds of meat.

Why is there a link?

The risk of developing cancer arises from chemicals that are produced by processing the meats and from cooking. For example, cooking at high temperatures or placing meat in direct contact with a flame can produce certain types of chemicals that can damage the DNA. These chemicals are known as carcinogens.

Should I stop eating meat?

The decision to stop eating meat is a personal choice. Meat is a good source of protein, contains all the essential amino acids, is rich in iron, zinc and selenium and contains vitamins A, B and D. Conversely, processed and red meat is relatively high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which are linked to increased risk of heart disease. Consumers are advised to moderate their meat intake. Regularly eating large portions of red and processed meat over a long period of time is not advisable.

What does the statistics tell us?

One in 27 males will develop prostate cancer and one in 114 males and one in 182 females will develop colorectal cancer.

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