The World Health Organization’s announcement last week that bacon and processed meats cause cancer may well cause an untold number of premature deaths, and The Scrapbook has a sneaking suspicion that the political overseers at the WHO would be fine with that outcome.
Trying to avoid cancer is tricky: While stopping smoking clearly reduces cancer risks, changing a diet to reduce risk is more problematic. People have to eat, and if they eat less of one type of food, they invariably substitute some other food in its place. Usually, that other food isn’t salad—it’s often something else that’s not terribly salutary.
For years, the U.S. government has been trying to get people to eat less fatty meat, and it’s been an unmitigated disaster. In the early 1990s, the first Bush administration introduced regulations mandating food labels indicate the amount of saturated fat contained in each serving of food, expressed as a proportion of the daily recommended allowance.
The labeling amounted to a big nudge to get people to eat less saturated fat, and Americans duly complied: Consumption of beef, pork, and eggs diminished while chicken skyrocketed. But Americans did more than just substitute white meat for red: A lot of us ate more carbs to make up for the red meat we were virtuously eschewing.
Science now tells us that this was a grievous mistake: The unprecedented weight gain in the populace the last 25 years—along with the alarming increase in the incidence of diabetes—may in fact stem largely from this change in our diets.
In the last couple of years science has concluded what the practitioners of the Atkins and South Beach diets have told us for some time: We need to eat less bread and other carbohydrates if we want to stay in fighting shape. While science may have done a 180 on diet and weight gain, politicians haven’t caught up. Until recently the Obama administration pressed to extend the same broken labeling system to delis and cafeterias, belatedly backing off only when it became difficult to find anyone in their echo chamber of experts willing to say it was a good idea.
The World Health Organization does not have those political constraints. While it has no ability to issue regulations—at least not any that could jam lettuce down our throats—its edicts still matter, as there will undoubtedly be at least a few countries that will take the cue and impose the same sort of fatally flawed labeling system that persuaded us to eat less meat.
Given the disastrous consequences of our own labeling system, why would the WHO sound this alarm? A cynic might suggest an ulterior motive for this announcement was—wait for it—climate change: More people eating meat means more cows and pigs, leading to more methane and more crops grown and the vicious cycle that brings us all one day closer to armageddon. When the very survival of the planet is at stake, a higher incidence of obesity and diabetes is a small price to pay.