The Unfounded Meat Scares of 2008

US - Two meat-related news stories made the American Council on Science and Health’s (ACSH) Top Ten Unfounded Health Scares of 2007 list.
calendar icon 4 January 2008
clock icon 3 minute read

Claims that red and processed meat increased breast and colon cancer risk were selected as the number three unfounded health scare, while news about a very preliminary and unconfirmed study that suggested that cured meats increased the risk of lung disease was the number five unfounded health scare.

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"There are too many instances of preliminary studies being reported as if they are the final word, but studies must be replicated before we can have confidence in their results," said Ruth Kava, Ph.D., director of nutrition for ACSH.

ACSH said the breast cancer scare was based on two studies – one published in the April issue of the British Journal of Cancer and the other published in the November issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.(12) The studies claimed that women who ate red and processed meat regularly were at an elevated risk for breast cancer.

"It is imperative that the public examines the report with a keen eye."
American Council on Science and Health(ACSH)

The scare linking red meat to colorectal cancer was the product of a report, released in October, by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) examining diet and cancer. The report specified that high consumption of red meat and processed meat were dangerous and increased cancer risk.

ACSH also noted that the AICR is an organization devoted to finding links between diet and cancer.

“It is imperative that the public examines the report with a keen eye. It is not the consumption of large amounts of red meat and processed meat that causes cancer, only that there is a weak association between the two due to obesity,” ACSH said. “A more accurate report would focus on how obesity as a whole can increase risk for cancer.”

The claim that cured meat consumption was linked to an increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) stemmed from an April 2007 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. According to ACSH, critics of the study highlighted that cured meat no longer contained the levels of nitrite that were present 10 or 20 years ago – citing the fact that only five percent of nitrite consumption comes from cured meat.

ACSH criticized inflammatory headlines about the study, noting that the study’s author, Rui Jang of Columbia University, acknowledged, “The study’s design did not allow her to state definitively that the nitrites caused lung disease.”

"Nitrites have been used to cure meat for almost a century with no evidence of any risk to human health,“ ACSH wrote. ACSH also noted that the use of nitrite in cured meats has dropped by 80 percent since the 1970s and that today, less than five percent of human nitrite intake comes from cured meats (the vast majority comes from leafy green and root vegetables and from human saliva).

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, ACSH president stated "ACSH hopes this list of health scares -- and the science which shows they are bogus -- will alert consumers to be wary of the health scares that will inevitably be launched in 2008." She continued, "Bogus health scares distract our attention from the real threats around us -- so beware."

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