Moderation message remains the same in wake of study of cancer risk associated with processed meats

WHO report serves a useful purpose in informing consumers on healthy choices

 

In the wake of shock headlines in some quarters linking consumption of processed meats such as bacon, sausages, ham and frankfurters to bowel cancer, food safety organisations have adopted a more nuanced approach – advising that moderation; a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle remain the best protection. They do, however, recognise the risks involved in eating processed meats on a regular basis from an early age and are likely to amend their guidelines on diet and nutrition. There is greater clarity on risk.

The preservatives and chemicals used in these processed meats have attracted much medical attention. Research over many years identified specific concerns that the World Health Organisation has now drawn together and published. It raises questions for consumers, food safety organisations and processors. Should the use of chemicals and preservatives – and cooking methods – be reviewed and production methods altered?

As a cursory examination of any supermarket shelves will show, the products on display vary considerably in price and, perhaps, in terms of health-related quality. More detailed analysis focussing on additives, quality, consumption and likely medical effects would be useful in the context of this latest study.

The popularity of the “Irish fry” has been waning for decades. Full-fat, cholesterol-rich meals have given way to more healthy eating habits. But the iconic meal still forms the breakfast centrepiece for many catering establishments and retains a following of aficionados. As health specialists confirm: eating the occasional sausage, rasher or ham sandwich is not going to give you cancer. But if they are eaten in quantity on a regular basis over many years, the risk is increased significantly. That is why this alert is particularly important for parents of young children.

With a meat industry valued at €3 billion a year, much of which is exported, Ireland has a particular interest in current developments. The bulk of the output, involving fresh and frozen red meats, is unlikely be affected because the WHO did not find their consumption definitely caused cancer. Even there, however, moderation was suggested. Rather than dismiss the WHO report as simply a digest of earlier research findings, the processing side of the industry should evaluate its findings.

Moderation remains the key. The food pyramid, prepared as a guide to healthy eating, provides valuable advice on a balanced diet. But longevity and good health depend on much more. Processed meats have been officially designated as a measurable health threat and the public may modify its eating habits in response. The prevention message has not changed: Protection from all forms of cancer can best be achieved through never smoking, controlling one’s weight, taking regular exercise and limiting alcohol consumption. It’s not rocket science but it works.

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