WHO to study meat for carcinogens

Canadians eat an average of 100 grams of meat per day

OTTAWA — The World Health Organization plans to evaluate red meat and processed meat as human carcinogens later this year.

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer will form an expert panel that will meet in France in October to classify red and processed meat into one of four groups.

Possible outcomes include rating meat as a possible or probable carcinogen.

Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, which promotes scientific education and critical thinking, said it is possible to vilify all food, including wheat, milk, soy, sugar, beef, artificial sweeteners or vegetable oil.

“The bottom line is you just can’t eat at all,” he said. “There is worry about absolutely everything that is out there.”

Schwarcz told the Canadian Meat Council’s annual meeting in Ottawa May 7-8 that too many people know nothing about science and do not question material found on websites about food.

Mary Binnie of the Canadian Pork Council works to dispel the myth that Canadians eat too much meat. Average intakes show Canadians receive 17 percent of their energy from protein. Dietary recommendations for protein consumption are 10 to 35 percent of daily energy requirements.

“Our meat consumption is pretty much in line with the other countries,” she said.

“We always think the Mediterranean diet is olive oil and vegetables, but their meat consumption is very comparable to what it is in Canada.”

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Canadians eat an average of 100 grams of meat per day, while Spain is 127 grams, Italy 91 grams and Greece 55 grams. Meat also figured prominently in Health Canada’s revised recommendations for baby food. Breast milk is recommended for the first six months of life, but the department says the first introduced foods should be meat, meat alternatives such as eggs, tofu and legumes and iron fortified cereal on a daily basis. This provides adequate iron for growth and proper brain development.

Meat comes under fire because of its fat content and possible effects on blood serum cholesterol levels or possible links to cancer.

Binnie said fresh red meat contributes eight percent of the total fat in the average Canadian diet.

More fat is consumed in fast foods and baked goods.

Schwarcz said science is a self-correcting discipline so medical advice has changed on recommendations such as fat or cholesterol in the diet.

Eggs are a good example.

“Eggs have had a checkered history because the yolk is quite rich in cholesterol, which has been painted as a dietary villain, which is not corresponding to the facts,” he said.

“We know that our blood cholesterol hardly budges in response to cholesterol that is pre-formed in a food. Our blood cholesterol is a re-flection of the amount of the type of fat that we eat and sugar that we eat.”

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Binnie estimated that 22 percent of the calories in Canadian diets come from fats, oils, condiments, chips, pop, candy and pastries.

Weaning people away from junk food is a challenge when many are confused about what is nutritious.

“We have Canadians who are under-nourished and they are overfed. They are eating too much of the wrong thing,” she said.

Health Canada’s food guide provides a balanced diet of grain, dairy products, meat and alternatives as well as vegetables and fruit.

“For teens, 25 percent of their calories are not part of the Canada Food Guide,” she said.

People in developed countries should be more concerned about controlling portion size and learning how to prepare food, she added.

Health Canada has found that many adolescents and young adults start to make better dietary choices when families eat together and get involved in food preparation.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture is promoting a program to work with children to prepare basic meals.

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The goal is to make sure Canadian children know how to make six meals from scratch by the time they’re 16.