A special recipe of Apicius, who lived between 25 BC and 37 ad., was to cook it first in water, then in milk, in oil, and finally in seasoned sauce. From the beginning of times, meat is a kind of food that on the festive tables gives a good impression. Its properties were praised even by modern popular tradition (“Eat the meat, it will help you grow”, is one of recurring phrases in Italian families after WWII; everything until the advent of dietology, which analysed food in a scientific way.
Meat has begun to be questioned: in fact, proteins are essential, but they can be assumed from other kinds of food, and the “myth” of the steak has begun to waver. Now, it looks like the time has come for the final blow: canned meat, hot dogs and ham are some examples of processed aliments of animal origin, considered carcinogenic for our bodies by the World Health Organization (WHO). Red meat is “probably carcinogenic”: this category, explains WHO, “refers to all types of meat muscle coming from mammals, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, goat”.
Treated meat, explains WHO, includes the products that were transformed “through the processes of salting, polymerization fermentation, smoking, or subjected to other processes to increase its flavor or improve conservation”. Most of them contain pork or beef, but may also include other types of red meat, poultry, meat offal or derived products such as blood.
Therefore, treated or processed meat is indicated as the most dangerous for our health. WHO introduced it in the 1st group due to its carcinogenic risk. “For an individual – explains Kurt Straif, at the head of the IARC monographs Program – the risk of developing colorectal cancer due to consumption of treated meat remains small, but this risk increases along with the amount of meat being consumed”.
IARC experts have analysed more than 800 studies which have investigated the connection between over a dozen types of cancer and consumption of red or treated meat in various countries and populations with different diets. The results, stresses the director of IARC, Christopher Wild, “further support current recommendations of public health which invite us to limit our consumption of meat”. At the same time, he points out, “red meat has nutritional value”. The call to the authorities and to the regulatory agencies is therefore to “balance the risks and benefits of the consumption of red or processed meat” and “provide the best dietary recommendations possible”.
For Carmine Pinto, president of the Italian Association of Medical Oncology (IAMO), the decision of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of WHO to insert processed meat and red meat in the list of carcinogenic substances is an “invitation to return to the Mediterranean diet. IARC confirms data we already know – explains Pinto – namely that the presence of preservatives or products of combustion in these kinds of food is linked to certain types of cancer. As to red meat, it is a matter of how and of quantity, there is no such thing as a ‘threshold of exposure’ beyond which one falls ill for sure. The message we must give is that red meat should be eaten in due quantities, once or twice a week at most. The main message is instead an invitation to go back to the Mediterranean diet, which has demonstrated instead of being able to reduce the risk of cancer”.
According to an AIOM study, 9% of the Italians in 2010 ate red meat or sausages every day, 56% 3-4 times a week. For the health ministry colorectal cancer, where one is found the greater connection with processed meat consumption, is the most frequent type of cancer among Italian population, with almost 55,000 diagnosed cases estimated during 2013.
That said, and stressing how alarms launched by WHO should be taken into serious consideration, however, we cannot fail to note that cyclically are activated world mechanism of communication that affect a given sector, without changing radically the general mentality, but producing serious economic imbalances. This is what happened with mercury in fish, the avian flu, and the relative decrease of poultry consumption (hence white meat), the “mad cow” in relation to beef, dioxins in dairy products, etc. Alarms quotas, often linked to current local events which are managed – as communication – as if it were a pandemic. Health must be protected, undoubtedly. But beware of food terrorism: eating meat does not directly to death… unless you choke on it.