Beef with meat: New report says processed and red meat may cause cancer

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Relax – you probably don't have to spit out that porterhouse steak you're chewing on, but it might not hurt to cut down on meat a little.

Consumers are digesting a new report from the World Health Organization's cancer watchdog that says processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans,” while red meat is "probably carcinogenic"; in other words, there's a chance they cause certain types of cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

The group, which met this month in Lyon, France, and is made up of 22 international scientists, says there is "sufficient evidence" that processed meat – which refers to any meat that has been "transformed" through salting, curing, smoking and other methods – is linked to colorectal and stomach cancer.

Meanwhile, red meat – which the scientists describe as "unprocessed mammalian muscle meat," like beef, pork, lamb, goat and more – has been "positively associated" with both pancreatic and prostate cancer.

Yes, that means cheeseburgers and steaks.

IARC says it used 800 studies on cancer-meat links in its report.

What does it all mean?

This is potentially big news for the average American, who consumed 71.2 pounds of red meat (that's per person) in 2012, according to the Wall Street Journal.

So what is it about meat that gives it such a cancer risk, and how much does this nation of meat-eaters really have to worry?

First, the carcinogens may come from the curing and cooking process. According to the BBC, N-nitroso compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – both suspected cancer-causers – can form during meat processing, while high-temperature, barbecue-style cooking can also produce the chemicals.

As for the risk, the network says the WHO group has put processed meats in the same category as cigarettes and other tobacco products, based on evidence that it "definitely does cause cancer."

However, BBC also points out that scientists admit the risk is "not yet fully understood."

So what can we do about it?

The consensus, so far, seems to be that simply moderating your diet might be the best answer.

While the connection between meat and cancer is "backed by substantial evidence," a top United Kingdom cancer researcher tells the Guardian the announcement "doesn't mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat. But if you eat lots of it you may want to think about cutting down."

Another scientist recommended simply blending one's diet with "plenty of fruit, vegetables and cereal fiber, plus exercise and weight control," and yet another called the IARC's likening of meat to cigarettes "very inappropriate," the Guardian reports.

What about meat producers?

A group representing the meat industry – namely the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) – has blasted the report, saying cancer is a "complex disease not caused by single foods."

The group also accused the IARC as having "tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome” in their vote to classify meats as carcinogenic, but didn't consider the nutritional benefits of meat, or the implications of drastically reducing or removing meat from one's diet altogether, the statement continued.

The report could have a limited impact on industry sales and prices, business analysts say.

"I think people know you're not supposed to eat as much red meat as you do," Liberum food industry analyst Robert Waldschmidt told Reuters. "(But) not everyone recognizes that some of these smoked and cured meats are bad for you, i.e. carcinogenic. I think on smoked, cured stuff it will have some negative impact."

The impact in Minnesota

It's not clear how the report could affect the industry in Minnesota.

According to NAMI, Minnesota is a "top livestock and poultry slaughtering" state, especially in hogs and turkey (in fact, Minnesota is America's top turkey producer).

Bacon falls under the "processed meats" category, as does sausage, according to Reuters.

Poultry (which includes turkey), on the other hand, is mostly not mentioned in the IARC report, but chicken and turkey often are among the many processed meats on the market, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. They're often used in sausages, meatballs and products like "chicken frankfurters" and "chicken ham".

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