Balancing risks and benefits

The World Health Organisation's classification of red meat and processed meat as carcinogenic may have come as a shock to many.

Does it mean the end to some of our favourite food combinations like bangers and mash, steak and chips, bacon and eggs, the stock-standard ham sandwiches for kids' lunchboxes, or the ubiquitous Kiwi barbecue?

The answer is yes, no and somewhere in between if the different responses from health experts, producers and consumers are anything to go by.

Health advice has long been to limit meat intake.

(The Cancer Society recommends people eat less than 500g of red meat a week, and little, if any, processed meat.)

But the consumption of meat and processed meat remains high in many Western countries.

Bowel cancer links have also been made previously.

(In New Zealand bowel cancer is the second-highest cause of cancer deaths.)

The WHO classifications are stark, however, and its authority will give pause for thought.

The classifications were the result of research by the organisation's International Agency for Research on Cancer and were based on more than 800 studies - some conducted over 20 years.

The agency classifies processed meat (transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes) as a group1 agent, meaning it is ''carcinogenic to humans'', saying there is ''sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer''.

It says the consumption of red meat (including beef, lamb and pork) is ''probably carcinogenic to humans'' and is associated mainly with colorectal cancer, but also pancreatic and prostate cancers.

The agency does, however, mention the nutritional value of red meat, and states the risk of an individual developing bowel cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains ''small'', but increases with consumption.

(Indeed, the agency concludes that ''each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%''.)

Experts have also been quick to note the group1 cancer-causing agents (processed meat joins arsenic, tobacco, sunlight and others) should not be compared, as they are not equally dangerous.

Farmers, manufacturers and exporters will be concerned with the classifications, however.

The potential ramifications for our meat industry (already under the pump) are significant.

And consumers can be forgiven for feeling somewhat jaded when it comes to ''bad food'' news and the ''balanced diet'' mantra.

The messages seem relentless, they can change (the ''two eggs a day'' promotion is a case in point), and the onus on the public to count calories and kilojoules, read the small print, and be schooled up on recommended daily intakes every time they shop is alienating.

Diets go in and out of fashion. Industries embrace our food fads and failures.

Many will no doubt empathise with the maxim: ''Everything in moderation, including moderation.''

We cannot and will not eliminate all ''risks'', and avoiding red or processed meats entirely is certainly no protection against cancer.

But the public health evidence around processed foods and drinks is increasingly difficult to ignore.

It appears we can have too much of a good (tasting) thing, and that comes at a significant cost - to individuals and the economy.

We are forgetting - and not heeding - the basics: the traditional food pyramid, the notion of what constitutes treat foods rather than the staples of a healthy diet.

We need to be more mindful: of what we eat, where and how we eat, how much we eat, and how we can incorporate more physical activity in our daily lives.

Balancing the benefits of red meat in our diets, with the evidence about quantity and the risks of processed meats, is just another part of the equation.

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