Meat, Cancer and the (deliberately Misleading but Trendy) Headline Race

By Lisa Haessler

For Ethical Omnivore Movement (

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” – H. L. Mencken

Well, there you have it folks: definitive evidence that “Processed meats do cause cancer” (BBC: I guess we should all toss in the hat here at Ethical Omnivore Movement, right? We can’t argue with science: meat causes cancer! We’re informed, rational, open-minded people; that’s how the EOM community got started: people looking at our broken food system that is horrible to animals, people and the planet on one side of the spectrum and the total removal of animals from the human food chain on the other side and realizing, “there is more to the world’s Food story than just these two perspectives”. But headline after headline is proclaiming the new food truth:

The Telegraph : “Processed meat ranks alongside smoking as major cause of cancer, World Health Organisation says”

The Guardian: “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO: UN health body says bacon, sausages and ham among most carcinogenic substances along with cigarettes, alcohol, asbestos and arsenic”

Except that, as it always seems to be the case on the internet, the most popular headlines are often the most misleading. In today’s news cycle it’s the trendy, shocking headline that gets the clicks (re: website traffic that translates into advertising dollars for online news publishers). What it doesn’t get is accurate information into the hands of the general public. Take, for example, this portion of the Telegraph article cited above (emphasis added): “Dr Ian Johnson, nutrition researcher and Emeritus Fellow, Institute of Food Research, said: “Meat consumption is probably one of many factors contributing to the high rates of bowel cancer seen in America, Western Europe and Australia, but the mechanism is poorly understood, and the effect is much smaller than, for example, that of cigarette smoking on the risk of lung cancer. It is also worth noting that there is little or no evidence that vegetarians in the UK have a lower risk of bowel cancer than meat-eaters.

The BBC article cited above, writes this in the third sentence of the article: “The WHO did stress that meat also had health benefits. Cancer Research UK said this was a reason to cut down rather than give up red and processed meats. And added that an occasional bacon sandwich would do little harm.”

And the Guardian, includes this in their write up: Prof Ian Johnson, emeritus fellow at the Institute of Food Research, also said the effect was small. “It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke, which is loaded with known chemical carcinogens and increases the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers by around twentyfold.”

Okay, wait, so then what is the big deal with this WHO report? Why is it showing up all over my social media feeds? There are two things you should keep in mind:

  1. Food-related research findings are very popular news bites and get passed around a lot on social media, so they tend to make headlines. Remember the old media adage: “If it bleeds, it leads”. So if the paper can link its topic to death, it will.  Everybody eats and everybody is very worried about things that mightkill you. It has universal appeal.  But before you swallow that headline, remember: any food-related headline trend must be taken with a grain of salt. If it sounds too simplistic, too cause-and-effect-case-closed, it’s probably is.

    The WHO report isn’t false, but the way its findings are being reported is very misleading. What is does tell us is not new information. It is a meta-data study of previously completed research (much of that research has already been reported in the news media over the past two decades). The American Institute for Cancer Research has been recommending the reduction of red meat intake and processed meats for some time now. We have also had health and nutrition experts warn about the possible dangers of modern preservatives (used heavily in commercially “processed meat” products) for quite some time. Nitritein particular, seems to get most of the bad rap, even though it is naturally occurring in many vegetables. You have to dig a little further into the science to understand why certain substances can be harmful to your health in some contexts and totally harmless in others.

    One facebook page, Dihydrogen Monoxide Awareness, has been having a really fun time lampooning our human tendency to react too quickly to a scary sounding headline when it’s connected to products we regularly consume.

  1. Meat is not “bad”. Broccoli is not “bad”. Cheese is not “bad”. Yes, even bread is not “bad”. In order for you to make that kind of broad, universal statement you have to assume that all methods for producing that food are equal and unchanging and that each human beings immune and digestive systems respond the same to all foods. Our complex food system refutes the ability to make such statements. Every farm, climate, and food processing facility has unique characteristics that could impact the food that lands on your plate. Stop making (or accepting) blanket statements about food. more here

One thought on “Meat, Cancer and the (deliberately Misleading but Trendy) Headline Race”

  1. To write the report off as bullshit or media hype is a shame. Most Americans probably aren’t going to pay attention to this report or even remember it in a week. I agree the media is doing a complete disservice to this story. Everything is fine in moderation. But it’s the levels of processed foods we consume that is the issue.
    If I had time I’d could go into this more but why doesn’t the media report that its the chemicals we use to process our food or the way we slaughter our animals the real problem not the food we are meant to eat. So have your bacon drink a glass of orange juice. The vitamin C neutralizes the nitrates anyway. Just do in moderation.
    Always available to talk more. We should really start a podcast. If that’s my real name. 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s