Your steak isn’t the same as a caveman’s

Alexandra Stettner

Recently the World Health Organization (WHO) told us that their studies indicate that our precious carnivorous diets are carcinogenic to humans.

This study raises a million and one questions, many of which the WHO can’t answer right now, but the main points to take away from the study are fairly clear. Processed meat — things like hot dogs, ham, sausages and beef jerky — are in what the organization calls “group one,” classified as definitely carcinogenic to humans. Other items classified in that group include smoking tobacco and asbestos. All other red meats are in “group 2A”, which means that they are “probably carcinogenic” to humans.


WHO makes it clear that even though processed meats are in the same category as asbestos and tobacco smoking, it does not necessarily mean those meats have the same level of risk as the other substances do. It is simply proven to have a risk. For many people, this clarification was lost – due to poor media coverage on the report, one article was entitled “the WHO’s war on red meat” – and another issue was raised during arguments for either side. The public being misinformed about what they are actually consuming.

This past Friday, an opinion article was published in the Los Angeles Times entitled “If bacon is so bad, I don’t want to live.” This article showed a grave misunderstanding of the difference between eating meat when humans “discovered fire” and how we consume meat presently. The problem is that this misunderstanding is seen in many discussions and debates over whether what we eat and how we eat it is bad or not.

A key difference to note on meat production today is that we have a wildly larger population and demand for meat than before. While here in the U.S. there has been a drop in consumption, the rest of the world has been increasing demand since 1950.

Simple economics (thanks, ECON 202), tells us that when demand increases, supply increases. What we don’t hear about is when supply increases, quality decreases. Shortcuts need to be taken, and whether it is done by giving the animals hormones or keeping them in incredibly tight area to maximize production in a limited amount of space, they usually are not for the better.

The fact is our food is not the food that our great ancestors ate. Instead of going out and hunting down the food and using every part of it responsibly, meat consumers are putting it in the hands of other people to supply it. And those people are in the business of making money. The WHO did not look into the processing procedure in particular, but it is important to note that things are very different from how they used to be.

Another issue is how we eat the meat as opposed to years ago. Processed meats obviously displayed the biggest problems in the report by the WHO, and this makes sense, as altering the condition of something to preserve for a long period of time is fairly unnatural. Those meats go through serious changes during processing, and while it is true we have been curing meat since ancient Greece, other processed meats have been changed to the point that they are not the same anymore.

No, I don’t think the WHO report should make you stop eating meat. Everything has a risk attached to it, and there is no way to live life completely carcinogen free with everything we interact with on a daily basis. In fact, the risk level is probably fairly low in the case of red meat if you eat in moderation. But do not confuse a family who has a history of smoking and eating red meat and their good health as a reason to ignore health and food safety advisories.

Collegian Columnist Alexandra Stettner can be reached at or on Twitter at @alexstetts.