Just over two months after processed meats were deemed a possible carcinogen, quashing bacon-lover’s appetites worldwide, and red meat was marked as a likely cancer trigger, the U.S. government unveiled new eating recommendations glossing over these risks.
The new dietary guidelines released on Thursday recommend a healthy eating pattern that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy and a variety of proteins, while limiting saturated fats, added sugars and sodium. The recommendations also quantify what a moderate intake of alcohol is for adult men and women of drinking age.
But the guidelines only mention “processed meats” four times, and the term “red meat” doesn’t appear at all.
The near-omissions come after the World Health Organization in October classified processed meats as carcinogenic to people—the same grouping as tobacco and asbestos—and red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans.
A study from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found that a person who eats 50 grams of processed meat a day—the equivalent of two slices of Oscar Mayer beef bologna—increases their risk of colon and rectal cancer by 18 percent. The study also suggested—though does not prove—that the risk of colorectal cancer could increase by 17 percent for every 3.5-ounces of red meat eaten daily. For comparison’s sake, a Burger King Whopper packs a 4-ounce patty.
These hazards are absent in the U.S. guidelines. But they weren’t always.
When the scientific report that informs the guidelines was released in February, a healthy dietary pattern included the same good foods found in Thursday’s guidelines, but the report went further. It said a healthy dietary pattern is “lower in red and processed meats.”
The report also offered the following evidence:
- "Diets that are higher in red/processed meats, French fries/potatoes, and sources of sugars (i.e., sodas, sweets, and dessert foods) are associated with a greater colon/rectal cancer risk.
- “Patterns higher in red and/or processed meats were generally associated with greater age- related cognitive impairment.
- “Patterns emphasizing red and processed meats and refined sugar were generally associated with increased risk of depression.”
The scientific report concluded that “higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to lower intake.”
The guidelines released Thursday only state that lower intakes of processed meat, among other foods, are “characteristics of healthy eating patterns,” and went so far to assure the public that eating processed meats “can be accommodated.” Again, the term “red meat” was not included.
What happened? In March, 71 members of Congress, including the chair of the agriculture committee Mike Conaway (R-TX), the No. 2 recipient of political donations from the livestock industry, sent a letter to the secretaries of agriculture and health and human services expressing their issues with the scientific report, which included its treatment of red meat.
“The DGAC’s recommendation on lean red meat directly contradicts years of peer reviewed scientific research on the benefits of lean red meat as a high quality source of protein in a healthy diet,” the letter stated. “It is crucial for HHS and the USDA to recognize the need for flexibility in the American diet that reflects the diverse population of this country.”
During the public comment period, more than 30,000 comments were received, including those with issues on how red meat was treated in the report. At a hearing in October in front of the House agriculture committee, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack backed away from the report’s harsher stance on red meat.
“In terms of the issue of red meat, it is fairly clear that there is a recognition that lean meat is, and should be, part of a healthy diet,” he testified. No one mentioned processed meat.
In December, Congress mandated a peer review of the dietary guidelines by the National Academy of Medicine, a step never taken before, in the 2016 Omnibus Bill.
By this week, bacon, boloney and red meat were back on the kitchen table.