The New Smoking: Recent Findings on the Link Between Meat Consumption and Colon Cancer

In the mid-20th century, there was much debate over whether smoking caused lung cancer. Because of mass production techniques, smoking became cheaper and easier for the public, and advertising campaigns from tobacco campaigns made smoking a socially desirable behaviour to engage in. As a result, per capita cigarette consumption went from 54 per year in 1900 to 4,345 a year in 1963 according to the American Cancer Society. Lung cancer, a previously rare disease, rose in tandem with this spike in cigarette consumption. The idea that smoking could cause lung cancer was derided at first, but in the 1950s several major studies were released that confirmed the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.

Of course, the tobacco industry pushed back against these studies and spread misinformation to convince the public that smoking was a perfectly healthy habit. Ads continued to glamourize smoking and show the “benefits” of cigarettes. Many members of the public were hesitant to believe that smoking could be harmful, because everyone did it. How could it possibly be, they thought, that something so accepted in society is killing us?

Today, some people might shake their heads amusedly at these “silly” mid-20th century people. Foolish humans! How could they not see how smoking was giving them cancer and other health problems? It’s a good thing we’re a lot smarter today!

Yet although we have moved on from the smoking dispute, society in the modern age has its own “cigarette” debate. This current health argument centers on another common American habit: meat consumption.

The parallels between the cigarette and meat debates are clear. Factory farming has made meat cheap and easily available to Americans. The increased consumption of meat and animal products has been accompanied by a rise in all manner of chronic illnesses in the US. In order to bury the science on the detrimental health effects of meat consumption, the powerful animal product industries are not afraid to fund their own “studies” and spread misinformation. Finally, since people want to hear good things about their bad habits, Americans are very reluctant to accept that meat is unhealthy. Everyone eats it, so how could it possibly cause humans harm?

Last month, a study published in the journal Cancer Discovery has provided yet another link in the chain to prove that meat is a carcinogenic compound to be avoided.

Several prior studies have demonstrated an association between red meat consumption and colorectal cancer. Lower fiber consumption and higher consumption of meat are associated with a greater risk of colon cancer. Indeed, one study has shown the powerful effects of diet and colon health – a mere two weeks on a high-fiber plant-based diet dramatically reduced colon inflammation and cell proliferation (a precursor of cancer). Furthermore, the same group of scientists also discovered that a lack of animal product consumption is possibly even more important than an abundance of dietary fiber in preventing colorectal cancer.

These studies offered a sound basis for avoiding meat in order to reduce one’s risk for colorectal cancer, but the recent study in Cancer Discovery has gone further and established a biological mechanism through which red meat consumption causes colon cancer.

The population for the study was composed of 900 individuals with colorectal cancer that were selected from a larger group participating in a longitudinal health study. The researchers sequenced the DNA of the 900 participants, and found a common mutation in the patients who ate both unprocessed and processed red meat. The association between the DNA damage observed in the colon and colorectal cancer was not found for any other lifestyle factor; only red meat consumption was connected to this specific type of mutation.

Red meat has known chemicals that can cause this specific type of DNA damage, known as alkylation. Heme, one compound in red meat, can be broken down by the body to produce such toxins. In addition, the nitrates found in processed meat also cause alkylation. Based on this information and the DNA sequencing of the cancer patients, the researchers concluded that they identified a direct mechanism through which red meat causes colon cancer.

This study is important because it addresses the critique of those who still claim that the consumption of red meat is healthy. With the additional information about DNA alkylation discovered in this research, those who promote red meat consumption can no longer claim that there is no known mechanism through which this animal product causes colon cancer.

The findings from this study and others like it will eventually percolate through the medical community. Even though there is significant opposition towards declaring meat unhealthy even by some medical professionals and a powerful lobby that wants to convince the public to keep consuming animal products, the facts do not lie. Meat consumption, and animal product consumption more broadly, will eventually become the next smoking. Upon hearing about our present-day rampant meat consumption, future generations will say, “Silly 20th-century humans! How could they do something as foolish as that?”

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