The Chemistry of Meat’s Bad Rap

Posted on November 4, 2015

labmeatTo many people’s groans of dissatisfaction, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified the consumption of processed meat as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).  Further, they classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A); read about it here.  The definitions of those categories can be found here, as can all the other compounds in those lists here.  “Is there anything we can eat?” were common complaints upon hearing the news.  People were so discouraged about the news last week that the twitter hashtags #FreeBacon and #JeSuisBacon were trending worldwide.  Understanding the chemistry of this news, can help with an approach such that maybe you can have your bacon and eat it too.

We recognize a lot of the compounds on the WHO’s list of carcinogens from the work we do at CARO testing samples.  Many carcinogens are hydrocarbons (compounds with hydrogen, carbon and/or oxygen; the composition of the majority of organic compounds) which have been concentrated for beneficial use in our lives.  Increasing exposure to carcinogens increases one’s risk of getting cancer.  Processed meats often include various chemicals in their production and as such, as an aggregate, exposure to these chemicals has been shown to increase the risk of colorectal cancer.  Specifically, for every 50 grams of processed meat one eats a day, there is an 18% increase in the chance of developing colorectal cancer.

Concentrated exposure to any chemical has the potential for risk.  Understanding that risk and taking steps to limit your exposure can have meaningful benefits to your long term wellbeing.  If you believe in putting on sunscreen (the sun’s rays are a Group 1 carcinogen), not smoking (smoking cigarettes is a Group 1 carcinogen), or limiting your exposure to PCBs, PAHs, benzene and vinyl chloride (all Group 1 carcinogens) you should also consider limiting your exposure to heavy consumption of processed meat products.

For red meat, the risk is similar but different for an interesting reason.  The way people eat red meat typically includes some form of charring (high temperature burning) of the meat i.e. by grilling, BBQ, fire pit, etc…  Any food that involves charring prior to consumption increases the exposure to compounds that are carcinogenic.  The most significant and common of those compounds created by charring hydrocarbons are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons known as PAHs.  We routinely test for these compounds in the environment at many potentially contaminated sites; they are ubiquitous and created whenever any hydrocarbon is burnt such as gas, diesel, coal, cigarettes, meat, etc…  It is well documented that you should limit your exposure to these compounds.

Knowing your exposure and taking steps to limit it can have meaningful long term benefits to your quality of life.  Just because the sun can cause cancer, does not mean you should simply stay indoors and never enjoy a bit of sunshine.  As a lab, CARO provides numbers to our clients to quantify one’s exposure and put it into perspective.  Our data helps understand exposure levels and is typically used to limit that exposure to humans, other animals and the environment in general.  A few tips that can help such that you can have your bacon and eat it too:

  • Avoid direct exposure of meat to open flames
  • Boil meat if and when you can for cooking
  • Flip or turn over meat very frequently when cooking it
  • Use a microwave oven to cook meat or use it to cook it mostly prior to exposing it to open flame
  • Removing any charred portions on the meat

With our extensive analytical testing capabilities we are here to help better understand the chemicals in your food, soil or other environmental samples.  Please contact us anytime to discuss your analytical needs.


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