Prof Hettie Schönfeldt, Institute of Food, Nutrition and Well-being of the University of Pretoria
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published its evaluation of red and processed meat on 26 October 2015 in the British Medical journal, The Lancet Oncology. It states that “red meat contains high biological value proteins and important micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron (both free iron and haem iron), and zinc.”
In response, Cancer Research UK pointed out that the IARC isn’t saying that eating red and processed meat as part of a balanced diet causes cancer: no single food causes cancer. Nor is it saying it’s as dangerous as smoking. The IARC itself has said that the risk from processed meat and red meat remains small.
A Working Group of 22 scientists from ten countries was unable to reach a consensus agreement. However, based on majority agreement, the Working Group classified:
• Consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A).
• Consumption of processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans” (Group 1).
Notice should however be paid to the following scientific facts:
• The IARC, which released the report, represents the opinion of a selected group of scientists, not consensus in the scientific community. Moreover, IARC conducts a hazard analysis, not a risk assessments. This distinction is important. It means they considered whether meat at some level, under some circumstance, could be a hazard.
• This evaluation does not introduce any new evidence. It is based on existing scientific literature.
• Cancer is a multi-complex problem that cannot be solved or blamed on one specific product or food group.
• None of the 22 scientists from the ten countries that participated in the study represented developing countries. This is a shortcoming in relation to South Africa as a developing country with an emerging economy.
• The food culture of people differs around the world. The majority of South Africans consume mostly chicken, then beef, followed by pork, lamb or mutton and processed meat (BFAP, 2015).
• On average South Africans eat notably less protein-source foods (11 to 18%) compared to recommended levels by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which state that 20% of total dietary energy should be from protein (Mchiza et al., 2015).
• Food energy of South Africans are mainly derived from carbohydrates such as maize meal and bread (between 57% and 69%) (Mchiza et al., 2015), which is significantly higher than the recommended 45%. This may be more linked to affordability than to choice.
• Animal protein, such as red meat, is a favourite food in our diets but the portions at a population level still remain smaller than that recommended by the South African Food-Based Dietary Guidelines. A surprisingly high intake of eggs and sardines were reported in a recent study in Gauteng investigating meat consumption (Vermeulen et al., 2015), and the total intake of red meat, white meat, fish and eggs remained less than the recommended intake of up to 90g per day. South Africans furthermore consume approximately 4.2 kg of processed meat per person per year, which equals to less than one third sausage per day at 12 g processed meat per day (Sampa, 2015).
• The national Food-Based Dietary Guidelines of the Department of Health recommends that South Africans “eat a variety of food” and that “fish, chicken, lean meat or eggs could be eaten daily”.
• Red meat plays an important role in a balanced diet, as it contains high biological-value protein and important micronutrients such as the B Vitamins, iron (both free iron and haem iron), and zinc. Some segments of the population, such as children, teen girls and women of childbearing age, may benefit from an additional serving of meat.
• There is no evidence that removing meat from your diet protects you from cancer. In fact, a major long-term study by the Oxford University, UK (Key et al., 2014), has shown no difference in colorectal cancer rates between meat eaters and vegetarians.
• South African red meat contains less fat than red meat in most first world countries, and the composition of red meat indicates a reduction in total fat content over time. For example, research results found that the average fat content of target grade beef decreased from 32% in 1949 to 18% in 1981, and again to 13% in 1991 (Naude, 1994), and currently 11.3% according to a study performed at