From the December 2015 issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

The recent declaration by the World Health Organization (WHO) that “red meat” may cause cancer is not likely to change consumer behavior.

An arm of the WHO said specifically that processed meats — bacon, salami, anything that’s received some kind of preservation method like salting or curing — can cause colon cancer, and red meat “probably” does too.

The WHO gave processed meats Group 1 classification, the highest designation — the same as tobacco, plutonium and asbestos. That doesn’t mean processed meat is as dangerous as those other things; the WHO added: “Not all substances in the Group 1 classification are equally dangerous.”

So it’s not the case, as some headlines blared, that eating meat is as dangerous to your health as smoking. While smoking raises a person’s lifetime risk of developing lung cancer by 2,500 percent, consuming two strips of bacon each day would translate to about a 6 percent lifetime risk for colon cancer — but that’s up from the baseline 5 percent risk for people who avoid processed meat, according to the New York Times.

Then there was this news from the University of Texas: All meats are associated with increased risk of kidney cancer. Grilled meats were the worst offenders. People who reported eating the most grilled meat had the highest risks of kidney cancer, and people who also had certain genetic mutations were most susceptible to those risks.

That’s because the process of grilling meat is sort of similar to exposing it to cigarette smoke. The high heat causes the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in muscle meats, whether beef, pork, chicken or fish. The process of smoking meats can also cause the formation of PAHs. Well-done meats generally have the highest levels of these compounds. PAHs also turn up in other foods that have been charred, but meat cooked at high temperatures are the only foods in which HCAs are found in significant amounts.

Do something?

So what’s a consumer to do? First might be to remember that meat is a good source for protein, essential amino acids, iron, zinc, selenium and vitamins A, B and D. The World Cancer Research Fund doesn’t recommend eliminating red meat but encourages people to limit their consumption to less than 18 ounces a week (about three hamburgers), with very little of it being processed meat. The healthiest way to cook that meat would be low and slow (less than 300° F), with moist methods — not grilling or frying.

Long before this research was published, most nutritionists were already recommending moderating red-meat intake; a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is nothing new and still stands as an ideal goal. In terms of preventing cancer — and many other health problems — experts also agree that the most effective strategies remain unchanged: smoking cessation, reduction of alcohol intake and maintenance of normal body weight.

If history is any guide, consumers may not change their meat consumption habits much in response to these cancer study stories. Following a 2002 American Cancer Society report recommending that consumers limit their consumption of processed and red meats (especially those high in fat), researchers at NPD Group, which tracks eating attitudes and behaviors, analyzed consumption behaviors. They found no discernible differences in consumption of either processed meats or red meats (or any other animal proteins) after those guidelines were released.