‘Bacon as bad for you as smoking’, ‘sausages akin to asbestos’, screamed the headlines this week. ‘That’s not what it means’, I screamed back.
The World Health Organisation’s decision to put processed meats into Group One on the carcinogenic classification scale was met with a flurry of sensationalism that missed the point and ran the risk of turning people off health education all together.
Yes, salami and hotdogs are now in the same category as cigarettes and alcohol, but that category is based on evidence, not risk – there is as much evidence that processed meats can cause cancer as there is to show cigarettes can cause cancer.
That doesn’t mean they are equally likely to do so. It’s like saying George Orwell and Katie Price have equal value as authors (they have both written books, after all) or that Justin Bieber is on par with Beethoven.
As Cancer Research helpfully point out, tobacco causes 86% of all lung cancer, and 19% of all cancers overall. If no one in the UK smoked, there would be 64,500 fewer cases of cancer every year.
By comparison, processed and red meats (now in cariogenic group 2a, meaning they ‘probably cause cancer’) cause 21% of bowel cancers and 3% of all cancers.
If no one in the UK ate any processed or red meat, there would be 8,800 fewer cases of cancer each year. That’s quite a contrast, particularly when we know 22% of men and 17% of women in the UK smoke, while around 98% of the population eat meat.
Another news report used friendly cartoon bacon to inform us that for every extra rasher we eat over and above the Government’s recommended 70g a day, we are 18% more likely to get cancer.
Compared to what, exactly? At that logic, how many rashers until we are all at some super-inflated, exponential risk of bacon-induced death?
As a former news reporter, I see how these headlines come about. You need to capture attention quickly, you need to tell the story in as few words as possible. But this kind of coverage confuses the message and stops people listening. If even ham will give you cancer, what’s the point of cutting out booze?
Health warnings come thick and fast, and are often contradictory. Red wine is good for you, but drinking is bad for you; chocolate is good for you, but sugar is bad for you. If no one knows what to believe, no one believes anything, and public health suffers as a direct result.
This is why evidence-based, trusted information, such as that published by WHO is so important and why it needs to be reported accurately. It needs to stand out above the oft-reported small-scale studies that command headlines but don’t really tell us any more about the science behind what we are eating and how it will impact on us.
Cancer Research has issued some pretty sensible advice – if you have a very meaty diet and you are worried about cancer, think about cutting down.
Casey Dunlop, health information officer said: “That doesn’t mean you need to start stocking up on tofu, unless you want to, it just means trying to eat smaller and fewer portions or choosing chicken or fish instead.
“Our advice on diet stays the same: eat plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables; cut back on red and processed meat, and salt; and limit your alcohol intake. It might sound boring but it’s true: healthy living is all about moderation.
“Except for smoking: that’s always bad for you.”
How many people make it through the media meat storm and onto the facts, however, remains to be seen.
Infographic by Cancer Research UK
Published on: October 28, 2015