In a recent stunning announcement, the World Health Organization listed red meat, especially processed meats like bacon and sausage, as carcinogens. Loud wailing and gnashing of teeth was heard from wurst-lovers in Frankfurt, Germany, barbecue aficionados in the Texas Hill Country and Jewish delis in New York.

To put things in perspective, the risk of colorectal cancer from eating red meat is very low. From a baseline lifetime risk of about 5 percent, those who consume red meats and processed meats might increase their risk about 1 percent to a still low 6 percent. In comparison, smoking cigarettes increases risk of cancer by about 2,500 percent. Now that’s a risk factor.

The WHO reviewed a large number of studies of meat intake and came to the surprising conclusion of increased cancer risk, primarily for colorectal cancer. However, in the November-December 2015 issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Dr. Dominik Alexander and colleagues reached a different conclusion.

In a meta-analysis of 27 independent prospective studies on the association of red meat and colorectal cancer, Dr. Alexander’s team concluded that any such associations were weak in magnitude with no clear dose-response patterns. So whether you ate a little or a lot of red meat, the association was at best weak and evidence weakened with time.

This research isn’t all baloney. Red and processed meats and their additives do have measurable effects on inflammation, oxidation and cellular function.

To make sense of these conflicting opinions requires understanding that nutritional research is extremely daunting in complexity. Dr. Alexander says, “Methodological challenges include accurately measuring food intake, dietary pattern differences across populations, food definitions, outcome classifications, bias and confounding, multicollinearity, biological mechanisms, genetic variation in metabolizing enzymes, and differences in analytical metrics and statistical testing parameters.”

Whew. No wonder nutrition research drives us nuts.

The authors note the inability to disentangle effects from other dietary and lifestyle factors making firm conclusions difficult. Eating a healthy Mediterranean diet with fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, nuts, healthy fats like olive oil, and the recommended serving of two red meats a week creates a different risk than eating fast food as a staple.
It may be too soon to throw the brats, brisket, barbecue, bacon and beef out with the bathwater. Of course, sensible portions, an appropriate mix of healthy foods including plant-based and whole foods rather than processed foods makes good nutrition sense. The broccoli family, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, curcumin, green tea, aspirin, anti-inflammatory medications have been shown to reduce colon cancer risk. An anti-inflammatory, high fiber diet, regular physical activity, avoiding smoking, restricting intake of high fructose drinks, maintaining a healthy microbiome, and managing stress are, in the long run, more important to overall health and cancer prevention than reductionistically targeting one food group as bad.

Following these recommendations on a regular basis will allow you to enjoy the occasional BLT or bacon-spinach-tomato-avocado sandwich with joy, free from worry and guilt. Finally, talk to your doctor about colonoscopy screening if you are over 50 or have colon cancer in your family.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.