Where’s the beef?
In the 1973 movie Sleeper, Woody Allen plays a health food store owner who is cryogenically frozen after a botched ulcer procedure and is awakened 200 years later, unwrapped like a TV dinner. He asks for “wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger’s milk” for his breakfast, which bemuses the two doctors overseeing his care.
“Oh, yes,” says one doctor, as he smokes a cigarette. “Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.”
“You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?” asks his colleague.
“Those were thought to be unhealthy, precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true,” he replies.
Meat lovers are surely hoping some conversation like that occurs in the not-too-distant future after the World Health Organization issued a warning that processed meats such as bologna, ham, sausages, bacon – even hot dogs, for crying out loud – cause colorectal cancer. And, for good measure, WHO says red meat is “probably” carcinogenic, too.
To make matters worse, doctors in San Francisco released a study that they say shows sugar is toxic as well. It prompted Telegram & Gazette columnist Dianne Williamson to observe that new research suggests all of the foods that make life worth living are probably carcinogenic.
It’s not like the findings are new; as the Woody Allen movie shows, there have been health concerns about such foods for decades. The American Cancer Society has been urging people to scale back on their intake of red and processed meat since 2002. But what is disconcerting in the new report is the lumping of processed meats in the same category with such carcinogens as radiation, asbestos, tobacco, and alcohol. The findings by WHO researchers placed processed meats into the organization’s Group 1 category with those other substances.
But experts point out the risk of cancer from scarfing down a dog at Fenway Park is much less than that of, say, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for years. Smoking causes an estimated 1 million annual deaths worldwide, while diets high in processed meats could contribute to 30,000 colorectal cancer deaths per year, based on the report estimates, though the number could be far less.
“I think it’s very important that we don’t terrorize people into thinking that they should not eat any red meat at all,” Dr. John Ioannidis, chairman of disease prevention at Stanford University, tells the New York Times. “It would be an exaggeration to say based on this that no one should eat red or processed meat.”
The WHO report is an amalgamation of hundreds of other cancer studies from around the world. The report focused on processed red meat and said additives such as salt, nitrates, and other preservatives were the main culprits. But those same chemicals are used in processed deli meats such as turkey and chicken, yet those were not mentioned in the report.
But there is concern that the WHO findings will impact government health and safety guidelines. While the WHO report offers no dietary structures involving the consumption of meat, the US Department of Agriculture is currently reviewing its nutritional recommendations to revamp the “food pyramid.” The agency is under heavy pressure from both sides but nutrition experts say this may give the USDA some shield to resist the push from the meat industry, whose trade association labeled the WHO report a “huge overreach.” Officials from the industry say the report overlooks the benefits such as iron, protein, and vitamins from a diet that includes meat.
“Maybe we can expand our horizons this year, start looking at a more varied diet,” Joan Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University, told the Boston Globe, suggesting increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. “This may be a good time to start thinking about incorporating fish, or go meatless for a day. . . . Mix this all up so we’re not eating a large percentage of processed meats.”
As Steve Koczela, president of the MassINC Polling Group, succinctly points out on Twitter, it will take more than the WHO report to rip the prosciutto and mozzarella out of hungry customers’ hands.
Nick Bova, whose family owns a bakery in the North End, tells the Globe he doubts this will change the lunchtime orders much at all. “If I put a sign up that said this causes cancer, people wouldn’t believe it,” he said. “I think they’d buy two sandwiches.”
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Springfield city officials send MGM Springfield’s casino design back to the company marked “incomplete” and accompanied by additional questions about its plans to make significant architectural changes to the planned gaming facility. (MassLive)
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Biotech is coming to the Berkshires. (Berkshire Eagle)
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The Boston school department and the city’s teachers union strike an agreement on severance packages for “sidelined” teachers who have been without classroom assignments. (Boston Globe)
Matthew Malone, the former Brockton schools superintendent who served as education secretary under former governor Deval Patrick, has been appointed interim superintendent of Saugus public schools. (The Enterprise)
A study finds there is no measurable bump in charitable giving when states cut back on public education spending and, in fact, those actions trigger bigger gaps between rich and poor as schools in affluent communities are more likely to be recipients of donations. (Chronicle of Philanthropy)
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Deb Fastino of Raise Up Massachusetts argues for paid family and medical leave in Massachusetts. (CommonWealth)
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Greater Boston featured a Durfee High School reunion of sorts, as Fall River ex-pats Ernest Moniz, the energy secretary; former NBA player Chris Herren, a recovering addict; and Margery Eagan, media maven, talked about their areas of expertise.