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Rumors, Myths, and Truths

Does the American Cancer Society Promote Meat?

A new documentary claims the American Cancer Society encourages eating processed turkey and canned meats. The documentary points to recipes and other resources that list ground turkey as an option. Ground turkey is not processed meat.

American Cancer Society guidelines have recommended a diet rich in plant foods ever since our first special report on diet and cancer prevention in 1984. Those guidelines recommend consumers limit their intake of processed and red meat. Processed meat is meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or the addition of chemical preservatives. It includes hot dogs, bacon, sausage, corned beef, and the like. Scientists are not sure what it is about that processing that is linked to an increased risk of cancer. But simply grinding meat, like chicken or turkey, does not make it “processed.”

The link between red and processed meat and cancer is an area we’ve worked in and studied for years. American Cancer Society investigators did foundational work identifying red and processed meat’s link to cancer. That work provided key evidence that contributed to the World Health Organization's determination of red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen (probably carcinogenic to humans) and processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans). Our guidelines point to evidence of a significant link between high red and processed meat consumption and an increased risk of colorectal cancer as the primary reason for the recommendation to limit those products.

As for other animal products, organizations that do comprehensive evidence reviews to make dietary recommendations currently do not recommend against poultry (like chicken and turkey, ground or fresh), fish, or dairy.

Our dietary guidelines recommend a diet rich in plant foods because evidence suggests eating vegetables and fruit may lower the risk for some types of cancers. The guidelines also note that vegetarian diets can be quite health-promoting. They tend to be low in saturated fat and high in fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals, and do not include eating red and processed meats. We know vegetarian diets may be helpful in lowering cancer risk, however, the data are not yet clear that they are more beneficial than a healthy diet that contains a small amount of animal products.

The bottom line is it's clear reducing red and processed meat consumption is beneficial. What is not so clear is whether totally eliminating them adds any additional benefit. And being that our guidelines are evidence-based, we have to stick to what we know. 

As always, we’ll continue to adjust our guidelines and recommendations based on the best scientific evidence available.

You can read here for more information about our dietary recommendations for reducing cancer risk.

Note: Others have gone into detail about the claims made in the documentary:

Vegan.com: A Vegan Dietitian Reviews “What the Health”

Vox: Debunking What the Health, the buzzy new documentary that wants you to be vegan

Diet Doctor: 'What the Health' Review: Health Claims Backed by No Solid Evidence 

Science-Based Medicine: What the Health: A Movie with an Agenda 

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