Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Red meat causes cancer, not as dangerous as previously thought

For the nth time the media is warning us that eating red meat is dangerous. It could be any major publication and any science writer sounding the alarm, but this time it's the Huffington Post and their food and health editor Kate Bratskeir.

Bratskeir's piece isn't just an example of sloppy science writing, though. It's a great example of the newspeak that many health journalists deal in; they comfortably embrace contradictory ideas as they construct a narrative that fits their agenda. In this case, research that should deflate Bratskeir's argument just becomes background noise while she encourages her readers to eat less red meat, because veganism:

Major studies have shown a diet rich in red meat can contribute to a host of maladies, yet emerging research muddies this picture, suggesting that not all saturated fat is created equal...eating red meat in excess can be costly for your health. Plus, there are some really delicious meat-free alternatives in the world...

So with that blatant contradiction in mind, let's deal with the rest of her arguments. The piece begins with an observation that the price of ground beef has dropped, which has encouraged us to eat more of it. And "this is happening despite everything we know to be true about red meat consumption." I know this was meant as a "Come on, guys, red meat gives you cancer!" style warning, but her exasperation at people eating more sliders at Chili's is unnecessary.

Bratskeir cites a Harvard Medical School article summarizing some of the research supporting her claim, which includes several epidemiological studies (worthless surveys) and a small clinical study from England that lasted just 21 days. The limited amount of data provided here is enough to dismiss the conclusion, but there's actually some important methodological reasons to reject these studies.

 But if the science is out there for anyone who wants to see it, why are we still being told to fear red meat? Well, you see, "the World Health Organization went so far as to classify red meat as a ‘probable carcinogen,’ meaning there is some evidence that eating a lot of red meat could contribute to cancer."

Starting with their ignorant stance on secondhand smoke, which required them to ignore their own data, the WHO made it clear long ago that they're a political organization, not a scientific one. And they're misrepresenting the evidence in this case, too. The WHO reported a 17% increased risk of colorectal cancer per 100 grams of red meat consumed. That seems like a significant increase, but the absolute risk for developing colorectal cancer is less than 2% for someone at 50 years old, when the disease is most likely to strike.

Given those numbers, I'm not concerned in the least about eating red meat. If you are, though, be sure to add spices to your burgers, which reduces the risk of consuming compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that can cause cancer. Before you start to sweat at my admission that red meat may actually contain some cancer-causing compounds, I came across a study courtesy of Mark's Daily Apple which, comically enough, tells us that "associations with cancer risk or benefits have been claimed for most food ingredients."

I don't think there's a better way to some up my point about cognitive dissonance.

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