A study confirms the relationship between high prevalence of cancer and high consumption of meat and alcohol per capita

Image: Jose Ignacio Pompo. Unsplash
Image: Jose Ignacio Pompo. Unsplash

A work led by scientists from the CSIC and CREAF has analysed the correlation between diet and cancer in at least 50 countries from 1960 to 2017 and has crossed global databases from institutions such as the FAO, the WHO and the United Nations.

The study, directed by Josep Peñuelas and Jordi Sardans, scientists from CSIC and CREAF, was recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health and confirms on a large scale something that has already been observed in some local scientific studies: the consumption of meat and alcohol is related to a higher incidence of cancer, and that a higher intake of vegetables and fish could be a protective factor. This is a detailed statistical analysis that crosses data from global databases from institutions such as the FAO, WHO, UN, World Bank, OECD, US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Eurobarometer, and includes data from countries in Europe, Asia, America, Australia and Africa. For some models, data from up to 108 countries have been available.

Scientists have analysed data on cancer prevalence from 1998 to 2010 and cancer mortality from 1960 to 2010 in relation to per capita calorie, meat, fish, vegetable, alcohol, phosphorus and nitrogen consumption (the latter two from FAO food group concentrations).

Some studies have shown that the fertilisation of crops since 1961 at a global level has increased tenfold, so we can expect a potential impact on global health.

JOSEP PEÑUELAS, researcher from CSIC at CREAF

The inclusion of nitrogen (N) among the variables is explained by the fact that recent studies relate its increase with a greater risk of suffering from some diseases. It is known that plants excessively fertilized with nitrates can accumulate toxic nitrogen compounds.

On the other hand, phosphorus (P) is an element that is analysed for its role in the balance of the metabolism in relation to nitrogen. Other lifestyle-related variables that could distort the results, such as life expectancy, income, age or the development index of each country, have also been taken into account.

The results confirm that a high prevalence of malignant neoplasms between 1998 and 2010 is associated with high meat intake, especially in the case of colon, lung, breast and prostate tumours. Similarly, high mortality from all types of cancer between 1960 and 2010 is associated with high per capita meat consumption. The only exception to these trends is in the case of cervical cancer, which suggests, they explain, “that the environmental causes of this type of cancer may be different”.

Conversely, higher vegetable and fish intake is associated with lower cancer prevalence and also lower mortality.

Also in the case of alcohol, high per capita consumption is associated with a high incidence and mortality from malignant tumours, colon, lung and, to a lesser extent, cervical cancer.

In the case of poor countries, the correlation between high meat and alcohol consumption is not so directly related to a high prevalence of cancer and mortality. In this case, according to a model for which data from 108 countries were available, higher life expectancy is related, unlike in rich countries, and as expected, to higher food intake, regardless of whether the food is of animal, vegetable or aquatic origin.

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the University of Salzburg (Austria), the Austrian Institute for Economic Research (WIFO), the University of Antwerp (Belgium) and the Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (IPSL) in France have also been involved in the work.


Josep Peñuelas et al. Country-Level relationships of the human intake of N and P, animal and vegetable food, and alcoholic beverages with cancer and life expectancy. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph17197240

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