Be Well, Marsha 11/10/15

Are we ‘meating’ cancer?

By Marsha Bonhart

It arrives through my front door mail slot faithfully each week. Like an obedient pet, I often take it for granted, not paying it much attention at first because its delivery is so loyal. Usually, I only glance and get back to it in a day or so. But this time the cover story of my Time Magazine alarmed me and I began reading it immediately, standing in my foyer until I finished. Its message was paired with a delicious picture of a sandwich, powerfully packed with bacon and beef, topped with a heavy slab of melted cheese.

The cheese isn’t the focus of the article’s news. Its authoritative account creates another updated, rude awakening about the link between cancer and meat. This time the well respected International Agency for Research on Cancer created reinforced concerns about nitrates and nitrites which are found in processed meats, heme iron (a molecule that carries iron to the body through red meats) and the frying, grilling or roasting of red meats at high temperatures. The theories conclude these elements lead to cancer.

The IARC is an arm of the World Health Organization, which takes responsibility for global wellbeing. The article tells us the review, considered the largest in this concentration, was released at the end of October with the WHO naming processed meat (smoked, salted, cured or any procedure that enhances flavor or extends shelf life) as a Group 1 carcinogen. That’s the A list for foods that are known as cancer connectors. Foods in Group 2A “probably” cause cancer—with red meats belonging in that category, which also includes the pesticide DDT and mustard gas. Then there is the stuff we eat in Groups 2B, 3 and 4. Those edibles are “possibly” cancer causing.

The Time Magazine check marks don’t look good. Processed meats (dangerously connected to Group 1) include what we all have consumed; hot dogs, corned beef, chicken nuggets, bologna, packaged turkey, pepperoni, beef jerky and sausages. The study’s authors wrote, “according to most recent estimates, about 34 thousand cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributed to diets high in processed meat.” The more I read, the more I thought about how I, like everyone else I know, have been eating carcinogens for decades. So, concerned that daily 50 grams of meat increase colorectal cancer risks by 18 percent, I grasped exactly how much meat that is. Six slices of bacon, a hot dog, two slices of Canadian bacon, six slices of hard salami and two slices of ham (pork, the so called, “other white meat” is included in this study), according to the new white paper, can lead you to a carcinogenic grave, with nearly 50 thousand global deaths predicted from colorectal cancer this year. I may not eat that combination (mainly because I gave up hot dogs years ago), but over the years, I have certainly eaten that amount of some kind of meat each day.

Here’s how Time explained the processed meat danger. Salts that are added to those meats for preservation are either synthetic or natural and are called nitrates or nitrites. The nitrates often become nitrites in the body, which is where they react with the meat. That creates the carcinogens that impair your DNA, the body’s instruction book. Damage to DNA is how cancer starts. Now we read, even if you buy products that are labeled “no nitrates added,” Time researchers say you’re still not out of the cancer woods because those foods are treated with celery juice, which has high levels of nitrates. Earlier in this writing, you read about heme iron, the metabolic molecule that acts as the mule carrying iron throughout the body. Diets in the Western world are made up of 10 to 15 percent of heme iron, of which a great quantity is found in red meat. All kinds of meat also contain non-heme iron, which is found in plants as well. But scientists in the related article say experiments with rats show heme, more than non-heme, is absorbed and may contribute to cancer. Also, meat that has been fried, roasted or grilled at high temperatures is shown to contain heterocyclic amines, or HCA and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH. Those two compounds are known to be carcinogenic in animals. They, too, like the synthetic and natural salts, also change DNA patterns, which through an evolutionary process, become tumors.

Think about the amount of beef, lamb, veal and pork that is individually consumed and then imagine how much of that the average American eats. Singularly—more than 71 pounds of it in 2013. In 2014, U. S. consumers collectively ate more than 24 billion pounds of just beef itself. A few years earlier, another report analyzed a link between red and processed meat that connected directly to colorectal cancer.

“One way that I’m thinking about this finding is it actually gives us the opportunity of identifying one of the many important factors that contribute to colorectal cancer that we can do something about,” the article quoted Dr. Mariana Stern. Stern is a specialist in the study of cancer at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She was also one of the authors of the IARC study.

By now, those of us who have read this study or the Time article are fairly confused. In the past, it has been strongly suggested that we stop frying meat and that grilling or roasting are better choices for its consumption. Now a high temperature grill and roasting are being firmly connected to cancer. Even the popular alternative, turkey bacon, is still regarded as processed meat. This information can bring some amount of guilt to backyard chefs—summer cookouts may never be the same. And while earlier reports have checked the world’s eating habits are in fact slowing meat consumption, we are still a public that loves meat. The initial link was uncertain for the most part, but now, the October release of this study, seals the information that can make us all re-think what we eat.

Be well,


Marsha Bonhart is an assistant vice president of public relations and programs at Wilberforce University, the nation’s first private, historically black college. Reach her at

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