Myth: 800 Studies Found Meat Causes Cancer


The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization (WHO), reviewed 800 studies during its evaluation of red and processed meat, but it only based its findings suggesting a relationship between meat and cancer on a very limited number of the 800 studies. The panel looked at just 18 studies on processed meat and 14 studies on red meat.1 In both cases, some studies showed a link to cancer and others did not. In addition, the panel reviewing the studies did not unanimously agree about the claimed association between meat and cancer.

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The IARC panel is charged with identifying hazards as opposed to risks. A hazard is something that could possibly occur under some circumstance. For example, banana peels and ice are slipping hazards. IARC did not identify how likely that hazard is to occur; that’s what a risk assessment does. Under IARC’s hazard assessment scheme, banana peels and ice are both considered slipping hazards, but common sense suggests that ice is a far greater risk. Similarly, your risk of getting cancer from smoking is thousands of times higher than any theoretical risk posed by meats like salami or bacon, but IARC’s crude analysis puts them in the same category.

It’s notable that the panel has looked at nearly 1,000 agents and only found one that definitely does not cause cancer.

The panel also does not consider nutrition benefits of products it looks into, and when it comes to meat, there are many nutrition benefits. This failure to consider benefits makes for a confusing message.

So how should consumers view this information? The best advice is to look to WHO’s clarification following all the media attention on this issue which said that red and processed meat provide a number of healthy nutrients and when consumed in moderation have a place in a healthy, balanced diet.23