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Worst News Ever? World Health Organization Says Steak "Probably" Causes Cancer

Back in June, we highlighted the sobering and yet totally unsurprising fact that Americans are, at the risk of being crass, getting fatter all the time.

Researchers had just released a new report based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the conclusions were not encouraging. Around 35 percent of men and 37 percent of women are obese, the researchers said, adding that another 40 percent of men and 30 percent of women are overweight. In all then, some 74% of men are at risk, a rather precipitous increase over the past several decades:

And while none of that is particularly surprising given the proliferation of processed food and ready availability of 84 ounce Big Gulps at the local 7 Eleven, what was shocking about the report is the following: "This generation of Americans is the first that will have a shorter life expectancy than the previous generation, and obesity is one of the biggest contributors to this shortened life expectancy because it is driving a lot of chronic health conditions.”

Of course Americans are used to their sedentary lifestyle and have become accustomed to gorging themselves at meal time and if persisting in such creature comforts means shaving a few years off their lifespans well, for most people that’s probably a reasonable trade off. 

But while Americans may not be frightened of heart attacks, they’re still generally scared of cancer and so one way to get everyone to stop blowing themselves up like balloons might be to make people scared to eat. Cue the World Health Organisation (via Reuters):

Eating processed meat can lead to bowel cancer in humans while red meat is a likely cause of the disease, World Health Organisation (WHO) experts said on Monday in findings that could sharpen debate over the merits of a meat-based diet.


The France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the WHO, put processed meat such as hot dogs and ham in its group 1 list, which already includes tobacco, asbestos and diesel fumes, for which there is "sufficient evidence" of cancer links.


"For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed," Dr Kurt Straif of the IARC said in a statement.


Red meat, under which the IARC includes beef, lamb and pork, was classified as a "probable" carcinogen in its group 2A list that also contains glyphosate, the active ingredient in many weedkillers.


The lower classification for red meat reflected "limited evidence" that it causes cancer. The IARC found links mainly with bowel cancer, as was the case for processed meat, but it also observed associations with pancreatic and prostate cancer.

Got that? Steak is now in the same category as weedkiller (Monsanto execs are laughing somewhere).

Here’s more color from Bloomberg

The red meat study is just the latest of many that WHO has conducted since the 1970s, when it set out to identify and catalogue suspected carcinogens. The organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has evaluated 984 agents, from chemicals to careers, that can be linked to cancer.


They fall into one of five classifications, according to the strength of the evidence: agents or activities that definitely, probably, or possibly cause cancer in humans; those that probably don’t cause cancer; and those for which the evidence is inconclusive.


It’s important to note that the agents at the top aren’t necessarily the most dangerous. They’re the ones with the clearest evidence of hazard. WHO seeks to identify carcinogens “even when risks are very low at the current exposure levels, because new uses or unforeseen exposures could engender risks that are significantly higher,” the agency says. In other words, even though WHO has determined that red meat is a carcinogen, the report doesn’t quantify how much meat it would take to cross into the danger zone.


Full infographic here

The question now, we suppose, is whether this will be used as an excuse for government to begin ever so gradually enacting a set of paternalistic regulations on red meat and Lunchables in an all too familiar attempt by lawmakers to save us from ourselves.

Guard your steaks.