Red meat cancer warning a reminder of the virtue of moderation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 October, 2015, 1:48am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 October, 2015, 1:48am

There is nothing new about expert health advice to moderate consumption of processed and red meats and balance it with dietary fibre and vegetables. Yet, a new report published by the World Health Organisation, warning against eating processed meats in particular, has made headlines around the world and sparked continuing debate.

What sets it apart is that it links bacon, ham, sausages and other smoked, cured or salted products with colorectal cancer and - controversially - includes them in a group of products most likely to cause cancer, such as tobacco, alcohol and asbestos. And while the report noted that red meat was a source of important nutrients, it still labelled it "probably carcinogenic to humans" with links to colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers. So we have another reason, along with the danger of high cholesterol levels to heart health, to guard against excessive or unbalanced consumption of meat, red or processed, obesity and lack of exercise.

This is not the result of just another study boosted by circulation by the WHO. The report is an evaluation by 22 scientists from the UN's International Agency for Research on Cancer of more than 800 studies from several continents over 20 years, which looked at meat consumption and different cancers among people with diverse diets. It is therefore not to be taken lightly, and could even be a game-changer for many people in terms of influencing their dietary habits.

Predictably, it has aroused concerns among food industry representatives here and abroad, ranging from incredulity at the comparison of a sausage with a cigarette to a perception of inadequate emphasis on the role of certain additives. And in the case of Hong Kong, fondness for barbecued pork and Chinese salami has not stopped us from topping or nearly topping global life-expectancy tables.

That said, we would be advised to take the WHO warning on board - not too seriously, but seriously enough to remember the virtue of moderation in all things.