The popularity of diet trends shows no signs of slowing down, and we’re constantly deluged with another “breakthrough” that tells us what we should or shouldn’t eat. Most of the time, these claims are little more than an exaggeration, unfairly used for someone else’s gain. This time, though, when news broke of the carcinogenic condition of certain processed meats, the Internet was finally abuzz for good cause.
There has long been a group of care providers – myself included – who have cautioned our patients and clients against processed meat, pork, and shellfish. Our reasons might come from different places, but the deduction that some meats simply weren’t intended to be eaten has been shared by many.
While not widely accepted, the recent news of studies and statements that these meats may cause cancer has brought the subject to the cutting edge once again. With Paleo and low carb eating plans increasingly popular, it’s important to have these discussions and examine our diets.
Are we stuffing our diets with carcinogens for the sake of limiting carbs? Is bacon causing cancer? The answers aren’t necessarily black and white, but for me they are clear: pork, shellfish, and processed meat are not worth the risk.
Interpreting The Headlines
Thanks to “clickbait” communications, news is broken in one of two ways: without exception, either the issue at hand is extremely dangerous or the critics are overreacting and it’s a non-issue. Half of the articles condemn all meat everywhere, and the other half read as though a little carcinogen never hurt anybody.
As always, the truth isn't found until you peel back the hype and consider the conversation without the drama. At the heart of the discussion, we have the October, 2015 statement by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) categorizing processed red meat as a level one carcinogen (causes cancer in humans) for colorectal cancer, and regular red meat as level 2A (probably causes cancer). The full findings have yet to be released; a full detailed written study is set to be published at a later date. (1)
With that being the single statement – a small one at that, considering it is causing all this confusion – any discussion about meat causing cancer has to be broken down further. They simply haven’t released all of their findings and recommendations yet. So, if we’re going to speculate on the implications of this brief report, it’s important to note that there are two issues here:
- Processed meat vs. natural meat
- Pork vs. any other meat
There’s plenty of information to draw from and more on the way – we can develop a solid understanding of meat, pork, and the relative risks without any clickbait exaggerations.
Cautions to avoid certain meats have been handed down throughout the centuries. Many religious backgrounds carry a prohibition against pork and shellfish, sometimes among other meats. In the book of Deuteronomy, God’s law describes the kinds of meat that are to be considered clean or unclean, having this to say about pork and shellfish:
The pig, because it divides the hoof but does not chew the cud, it is unclean for you. You shall not eat any of their flesh nor touch their carcasses. These you may eat of all that are in water: anything that has fins and scales you may eat, but anything that does not have fins and scales you shall not eat; it is unclean for you. – Deuteronomy 14:8-10, New International Version
Of course, these aren’t the only two meats excluded. Camel – not exactly a menu favorite – and rabbit are mentioned with pork, among others not quoted here, and scale-less fish would include catfish, as well.
While both Jewish and Muslim faiths continue to abstain from pork, many Christians do not follow these detailed Biblical lifestyle laws, explaining that the law is no longer to be literally followed.
Wherever you stand on matters of theology, one must admit how intriguing it is that Biblical admonitions were breaking health “news” more than a millennia ago. The Bible doesn’t dig much deeper than the initial law, so we don’t have a written record of the idea behind this prohibition.
Some contend it is a matter of faith – rules to be followed as an expression of trust and belief. Others think there was a reason, and that ancient wisdom should not be ignored.
On the question of pork and shellfish compared with any other kind of meat, Biblical examples tells us that avoidance is wise and sensible. With science confirming this more and more, I tend to believe that the rules were originally put in place for our physical benefit, and we would do well to pay attention.
Nothing New Under the Sun
The supposed revelation about processed meats and other kinds of meat is not news for world religions, but it’s also a long held understanding in the scientific community. In other words, it isn’t really news at all.
Essentially, the research board only announced that processed meats increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18% per 50 grams daily, and that regular meat increases risks by 18% per 100 grams daily. It’s a moderate risk increase based on regular ingestion – but we have known about red meat for some time.
In 2008, the journal Nutrition and Cancer highlighted cancer risks associated with processed foods, stating:
The epidemiologic studies published to date conclude that the excess risk in the highest category of processed meat-eaters is comprised between 20% and 50% compared with non-eaters. In addition, the excess risk per gram of intake is clearly higher than that of fresh red meat. (2)
In 2010, Australian occurrences of colorectal cancer were analyzed, with one in six being found connected to red meat and processed meat consumption. (3)
Earlier this year, an assessment of the literature found links between red meat consumption and mortality, including cancer as well as cardiovascular disease. (4) Interestingly, the US population showed the most risk, which causes concern in regard to US production and consumption methods.
One such concern that is specific to the United States is the drug ractopamine, used to make the end product more lean and desirable. Unfortunately, it is found in traces of the meat, and its safety record is so unstable that over 150 countries have banned its use. (5)
Farming and harvesting of shrimp production practices are in question, as well. Shrimp is another of the main “unclean” animals. A Bloomberg article in 2012 called attention to shrimp raised on pig feces and other waste, then sold to market. (6)
Pork itself, production methods aside, is second only to beef in worldwide livestock cultivation (7), and despite being marketed as “the other white meat,” it is most certainly a red meat. Previously, the consumption of pork has posed concern in the literature as well, leading to studies meant to fill the gap on our knowledge of pork and health risks.
Though judgments are always dependent upon many factors, meat has always been under the microscope in terms of risks versus benefits, and the “unclean meats” have stood out with added concerns of their own.
Calories Are Not The Concern
The term “processed meat” is regularly used, and many people assume that the problem lies in the caloric content. We connect pork with bacon and shellfish with indulgence. This can be a problem, especially for those following a Paleo type diet, where meat is a staple rather than an addition. But the problems with processed meat extend beyond indulgence, and the problems with pork extend beyond fatty, caloric bacon.
Meat from animals that ruminate – cows and sheep, for example – who eat grass and digest it in a long process through multiple stomachs – is considered “clean” meat. These animals would have less exposure to bacteria and parasites, and also more time to eliminate them. Pigs, on the other hand, eat just about whatever you give them, have just one stomach and a short digestive process to handle it.
Therefore, pigs – and their meat – are often afflicted with viruses, bacteria, and parasites, including Hepatitis E, Y. enterocolitica, listeria, and more. (8) This is troubling whether the meat is fresh or processed – it’s simply what you get with pork.
You have much more to be concerned about on the nutrition label than the caloric content when consuming processed meat. In fact, lower calories may indicate that there's an even bigger problem if they are processed more heavily.
Just some of the concerning ingredients found in processed meats can include:
- hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- dextrose corn syrup
- hydrolyzed milk protein
- sodium phosphate
- sodium erythorbate
- sodium nitrite
- ascorbic acid
Nitrates have gained some attention recently, with producers attempting to overcome consumer doubts, by producing nitrate-free lunchmeats and bacon. The concern is justified, as nitrates are converted to nitrites, in a process described by a New Hampshire environmental science fact sheet:
In some laboratory studies in which rodents were given high levels of nitrites along with amine-containing chemicals, cancers of the lung, liver, and esophagus were observed. (9)
It's no wonder that these chemical concoctions can increase the risk of cancer in our intestinal tract. The perfect situation would be to avoid processed meat and their laboratory-concoctions altogether, but nitrate-free meat would be preferable to regular standard products.
“All Things In Moderation”
The phrase “all things in moderation,” is closely connected to our dietary choices, especially since a recent World Health Organization report stated that red meat is “probably” carcinogenic. Later-developed beliefs, in the Christian faith in particular, have moved away from the strict dietary laws of the Old Testament – namely, pork and shellfish restrictions that are shared with Judaism and Islam. The saying “all things in moderation” has its direct roots in the later-developed statements of those beliefs.
We need to ask ourselves whether this declaration of moderation has been taken out of context. We wouldn’t choose poisons in moderation – so why would we want to choose toxins?
The very fact that these animals – pork and shrimp alike – are the “bottom feeders” of the earth and sea gives us a reason to consider what the quality of meat is and its state of health. It's possible that they simply tolerate toxins and microbes and gather it up in their tissue.
Considering their biological tendencies, even if the tissue is relatively clean, they are naturally designed to scavenge and clean, but not necessarily for food. Natural access to bottom-dwelling shrimp would have been limited, with these workers of the sea do their due diligence far from the reach of human hands and nets. If food weren't in short supply, would you choose your living garbage disposal for dinner? No, I don't think so, but that's what they do.
The documented risks and chemical additives found in processed meat, and processed pork in particular, makes a clear decision – it’s just not worth the risk. There is no unique nutritional benefit to eating processed meat that would make the end justify the means. Processed meat is a drain on our health, and it has no place in the diet.
Let's take this discussion a step further. The jury may still be out for some of you regarding pork, shellfish, and other “unclean” meats. The cancer risks do seem to lie in moderation, plus there are farmers who raise all sorts of meat with conscientious practices.
If you do choose to eat these meats, know your farmer and trust your source. Assume that standard farms raise pigs in relative squalor, using antibiotics to counter the spread of disease that naturally survives in the mass production of waste-tolerating animals.
For me, personally, I not only trust the Creator to have established what is and isn’t food, but also the progression of human history to confirm avoidance, and the ever-emerging science to discover what we’ve known all along.
I’ll continue advising and warning people against all forms of pork and shellfish, and we’ll watch as the World Health Organization, researchers, and society continue to uncover the reasons why.