Rotes Fleisch ist krebserregend - oder etwa doch nicht?

Red meat is carcinogenic-or isn't it?

Imagine going to lunch with your work colleagues. As always, the young team assistant orders a mixed salad with crunchy vegetables. The bookkeeping colleague orders a Wiener Schnitzel with French fries, the intern spaghetti Bolognese. On a whim, order the 400g lumbar steak medium rare and avoid the side dish. While the waiter makes sure that there is no mistake when you order, you get puzzled looks from your colleagues.

Because excessive meat consumption has gone out of fashion. Not only do sausage and steak harm the environment, as recently a campaign by the Penny food company was supposed to show. Most people believe that those who eat excessively red meat will die in the past. It is mainly thanks to the World Health Organization (WHO) that this view is so persistent. Because this made headlines when she classified red, unprocessed meat as a second-degree carcinogen in 2015.

With the WHO's 2015 lead, our media landscape has also focused on meat criticism without hesitation. In the same year, the Süddeutsche Zeitung alone made it to more than 5 articles that deal with steak and lamb chops. All other German daily newspapers and media outlets with similarly disastrous reporting followed in lockstep.

But what are the facts about red meat in 2023? Is it really clear that red meat is carcinogenic? We have given you an overview of the subject of meat and cancer-with surprising results.

Why were meat and sausage classified as carcinogenic?

“Sausage and meat classified as carcinogenic” was the headline of the FAZ in October 2015. All major daily newspapers comment on the report of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a WHO body. What many have always suspected seems to have come true in 2015. Red meat is not only unhealthy, but most likely also carcinogenic.

The IARC researchers came to this conclusion after analyzing 800 studies that have sought possible links between eating red meat or processed meat and different cancers. A team of 22 scientists from 10 different countries found that the risk of colon cancer for every 100g of red meat consumed daily increases by 17% percent. When consuming meat products such as sausage or ham, on the other hand, 50g per day leads to an 18% increased risk of colon cancer. In the report itself, meat products are classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. A category in which tobacco smoking, arsenic and formaldehyde can also be found. Red meat, the report writes, is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. But what exactly is this classification based on?

If one examined the detailed report of the IARC from 2018, it can be seen that of the original 800 studies, only 14 were included in the final consideration. That is 1.75%. The 14 studies were exclusively correlation studies, 8 of which showed no association between red meat consumption and colon cancer. Of the remaining 6 studies, only one study showed a statistically significant, i.e. not due to chance.

Let's let that melt in our mouth again: Of the 800 studies mentioned in the 2015 report, only 14 were considered for result and recommendation. All 14 studies are non-experimental in nature and only one of the 14 studies found a significant correlation between meat consumption and colon cancer!

The Healthy User Bias

In this one study, the population of the “Seven-Day Adventists” was examined. This is a religious group from California that promotes a healthy lifestyle and refrained from consuming food of animal origin, alcohol and tobacco. So it remains more than questionable whether not eating meat reduces the risk of colon cancer in this population or whether other health-promoting behaviors influence the result. In epidemiology, one speaks of a “healthy user bias”, i.e. the fact that particularly health-conscious people, in addition to nutrition, also display other behaviors that have a positive effect on their state of health. Those who eat a health-conscious diet are also more inclined to do so

  • To follow current dietary recommendations
  • Not to smoke
  • Not to drink
  • To exercise regularly
  • Spend more money on health-promoting measures
  • More often to consult a doctor

The authors of the study also indicated that the connection between red meat and colon cancer was disproportionately evident in obese people. In other words, groups of people with other risk factors (such as diabetes or insulin resistance) that are known to lead to an increased risk of cancer.

Briefly imagine the opposite of a health-conscious person. Maybe you're thinking of a construction or shift worker with currywurst or shawarma on the menu every day.

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