Alberta Cancer Foundation

The meat-sugar cancer theory

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A recent study from University of California researchers, published in a journal called the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that a sugar molecule called Neu5Gc (which can be found in meat like pork, lamb and beef) is linked to an increase in the number of cancerous tumours in mice. After the study was published, the “meat-sugar cancer theory” spread like wildfire, with some thinking it proved a link between red meat and certain cancers in humans.

It’s just one example of how research can take on a life of its own when simplified and shared. Cameron Wells, acting director of nutrition education at the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, says the study is actually “very specific and narrow in its scope.”

“It’s tricky, we certainly see a clear association made between diet and high meat consumption being linked to things like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. But with this research, it is a bit more novel because the relevance to humans is still unproven at this point, because it was done on mice,” she says. The research itself was sound, but the conclusions that many drew from it – that eating these meats can lead to cancer in humans – hadn’t been proven.

Wells says we should simply go off of a precautionary principle that we should avoid any meat in large quantities. “Stick to the plant-based proteins that we know to be safe and health-promoting, like beans, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds,” she says

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