The Molecule In Red Meat Linked To Cancer Will Suck The Joy From Your Salami Sandwich

Salami. Steak. Sausages. Beef. All put on this earth to satisfy your tastebuds, amiright? (Not if you're vegetarian, obviously. I speak only for myself here.) Yeah, you probably already knew red meat is bad for your heart, bad for the planet, and might even increase your risk of certain kinds of cancers — but the identification of the specific molecule in red meat linked to cancer is pretty chilling, even if you're as committed to burgers as I am.

According to a study released Monday by the University of San Diego, it all comes down to a single molecule — the catchily-named Neu5Gc. This is a sugar molecule that occurs in animals but not in humans, and when you eat your medium-rare steak, your body identifies Neu5Gc as a foreign object. So, because your immune system is smart about these things, it zones in on it and attacks it. This, according to the study, raises your risk of cancer.

Now, science already knew there appeared to be a link, however tenuous, between red meat and a raised cancer risk — but it was thought this was because grilling encouraged carcinogenic chemicals. The San Diego research suggests that this is not, in fact, correct, meaning that grilling your pork sausages super-slowly (OK, I've tried it) probably won't do a thing to give your red meat health benefits.

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I have more bad news. Remember when we talked about how Neu5Gc occurs in animals, but not in humans? Well, think of all the non-vegan products you eat that aren't exactly animal, but comes from them — your milk, your cheese, your eggs. (I'm getting emotional thinking about the bad news I have to break, about cheese in particular.) Well, Neu5Gc is in those, too, albeit less so. So, theoretically, the chemical that your body apparently rejects as a foreign object is in, uh, everything.

This is not to say that you need to give up cheese right away. Do not panic. From the study:

Taken together, our data provide an unusual mechanistic explanation for the epidemiological association between red meat consumption and carcinoma risk. This mechanism might also contribute to other chronic inflammatory processes epidemiologically associated with red meat consumption.

This specific study speaks only to Neu5Gc in red meat, in short, not Neu5Gc in every other kind of animal-based food you eat on a daily basis. (Fish, by the by, also contain Neu5Gc — but they store it in their eggs rather than their bodies, meaning they're still as safe and healthy as ever.) So, the bad news: We now know exactly why red meat might suck for your body. Good news: It's not entirely clear that that same demon chemical is in every other food you hold dear.

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Not all is lost, however. Firstly, this is not to say that red meat causes cancer, just that this specific molecule raises your cancer risk. As U-T San Diego explains, red meat is like "gasoline on the fire" — contributes to your chances of having cancer, but doesn't cause the cancer, according to lead scientist Dr. Ajit Varki.

Secondly, as Varki reassuringly explained to U-T San Diego reporter Bradley J. Fikes, the research doesn't imply you have to give up red meat right away. If you're under 40, the nutritional benefits of red meat — iron, for example — may outweigh the risk, if you eat it in moderation. Eating small amounts of lean red meat (you can find out how to get lean cuts from your meat here) is far better for you than eating a ton of fatty red meat, for example.

One more caveat: The study was based partially on rodents, whose cells had been engineered to behave like human cells, but regardless, lab rodents' systems still don't always behave entirely like humans'.

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I miss you already, hot dog.

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