Confusion Reigns in Wake of Study Linking Processed Meat to Cancer

A study shows too much conflicting dietary advice causes some people to tune it all out. Nuances in the report from WHO are lost on most consumers.

My morning bacon causes cancer? Say it isn’t so!

The study released by the World Health Organization (WHO), conducted by the International Agency into Research on Cancer (IARC), is drawing fire everywhere—from both the meat industry and consumers, who have pushed back hard against reports that some of their favorite foods are carcinogens.

The North American Meat Institute, already unhappy with proposed US dietary guidelines that call for eating less red and processed meat, accused the IARC of a major overreach, saying in a statement that the agency was asked to examine whether meat posed hazards under some circumstances but “was not asked to consider any off-setting benefits, like the nutrition that meat delivers or the implications of drastically reducing or removing meat from the diet altogether.”

The IARC gained worldwide attention yesterday for a study reported in Lancet Oncology that found processed meat belongs in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos. The study said that each 50 grams of meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.

However, everyday consumers will likely miss the fact that such classifications deal with evidence of a substance being a carcinogen, not its level of risk. Smoking offers a much greater likelihood of causing cancer than the occasional bacon sandwich—10 times the risk of processed meat, according to the study.

The Meat Institute only added to the confusion by noting that things like coffee, grilled food, working the night shift and sunshine can all “cause cancer.”

What’s a person to do? Or eat, for that matter?

It’s this type of confusion that makes life difficult for registered dietitians, nutrition counselors, and family counselors. Data from the Annenberg Health Communications Survey found that conflicting dietary information made readers or viewers more likely to ignore information that was widely accepted among the scientific community.

The more exposure to inconsistent information, the more confusion—and the more likely viewers are to just throw up their hands, according to a study by a researcher from the University of Minnesota.

“Confusion and backlash may make people more likely to ignore not only the contradictory information, but also widely accepted nutritional advice such as eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and exercising regularly,” said Rebekah Nagler, PhD, assistant professor.

The February report released by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) said that a number of dietary patterns can make up a healthy diet, including the so-called Mediterranean diet that focuses on fish, vegetables, beans, nuts, fruits, smaller amounts of meat and dairy, and some oils and red wine.

DGAC did not call for eliminating red or processed meat but did say it should be eaten in smaller amounts. Lean meat was considered part of a healthy diet. DGAC sought more emphasis for plant-based foods than in prior reports. DGAC also called for daily limits on saturated fats and added sugar, but lifted the longtime claim that cholesterol is a “nutrient of concern” for healthy Americans. That means that foods like eggs that are natural sources of protein are fine for those without health conditions that require them to limit cholesterol.