The World Health Organization declared Monday that eating processed meats raises the risk of colon and stomach cancer, and that eating red meat is probably harmful as well.
That means there’s more to your Spam than just various animal parts.
Processed means any meat that has been altered to create a product, for preservation, or improve the flavor, such as hot dogs, smoked meats, sausage, or jerky.
The WHO suggests that eating a 50-gram portion of processed meat daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent over a lifetime.
“That’s like if people eat two pieces of bacon every day,” said Carrie Brennan, a naturopathic physician that serves clients mostly on the Eastside of the island. “Basically, the bottom line is that to cure meats, they add nitrates or nitrites and those go through a process in your body that turns them into something else that damages your DNA.”
It took a group of about 22 scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer to study over 800 studies from around the world about meat and cancer. Those studies looked at more than a dozen different types of cancer in several populations with different diets over the span of 20 years.
“I think the information from the study is good, because it gets people thinking about what kinds of foods they are eating,” Brennan said.
Angel Marshall, from Lihue, who was shopping at the Lihue Safeway on Monday, said he grew up eating Spam and Vienna Sausages, and he’ll keep eating it in spite of the WHO’s announcement.
“I eat a lot of rice to balance it out and I work construction, and hunt and fish, so I work it off really fast,” Marshall said. “I wouldn’t recommend someone who just sits on their ass all day in front of the TV to eat a ton of Spam. They’d get all kinds of diseases, for sure.”
Marshall said everyone he knows grew up on processed meats, the most popular being Spam and Vienna Sausages, and that it’s part of the island culture. He said he also knows that the island has a high rate of cancer and diabetes.
“But when [death] comes, it comes and it’ll catch you with your pants up, or with your pants down,” Marshall said. “I’m going to enjoy my food and my life until my time comes.”
Brennen said she’s not against eating meat, she advocates whole, quality food that is organic and free of added chemicals.
“It’s about quality and moderation.” Brennen said. “I think grass fed beef has major health benefits if you don’t eat the charred part where it’s been barbecued, that’s when it becomes carcinogenic.”
Rachel Carlson, Paleo Educator with Paleovation, a company that provides a guided 30-day paleo diet challenge on the island, said that she is all about quality as well.
The paleo diet, often called the caveman diet, focuses on non-processed meats, fruits, veggies and some nuts.
“We want animals that have been raised in a pasture, or things like wild cod. When you a have meat from those animals it’s healthy,“ Carlson said. “I’m more concerned about the quality of the meat that we’re getting from factory farms and those additional chemicals.”
Mary Alexander, a working mom who was shopping for groceries on Monday, said she’s concerned about those chemicals as well.
“I feel guilty because sometimes I do buy meats that I know aren’t very good for us,” Alexander said. “It takes extra brain cells and having a plan so you can get the ingredients for a full meal at the store.”
Alexander’s daughter, Athena, said she loves processed meats because they taste good, but her mom only lets her have them once in a while.
“I like beef sticks,” Athena said, “but I only have them like once or twice a year, even though I want to have them more.”
Jondy Malone, manager at Living Foods in Koloa, said the grocery store offers both regular processed meats and those with lower nitrates and he doesn’t see the WHO announcement affecting the store too much.
“It would be nice if more people would buy those nitrate-free foods, but we have so many people who are buying what they know,” Malone said. “People speak through their wallets, though, and it’d be nice if more people started buying healthier foods.”
Carla Silva, whose family owns Medeiros Farms in Kalaheo, said they don’t even consider selling processed meats in their butcher shop, but the announcement that red meat is harmful could hurt business.
“It would definitely affect us,” Silva said, “but we just sell our own grass-fed meat.”
Written for The Garden Island Newspaper, published Oct 27, 2015. Photo taken for The Garden Island Newspaper, October 2015.