Bacon Is on the Hot Seat: Should You Eat It?

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

There are some things we know for a fact cause cancer. For years, scientists have been able to prove that unchecked smoking leads to increased risk for lung cancer — often increasing your risk by 15 to 30 times, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Too much exposure to UV radiation without proper sunscreen leads to an increased risk of skin cancers. And though plenty of people still wear by their tanning booths and cigarettes, another more widely beloved food has come into experts’ crosshairs: bacon.

Americans’ obsession with bacon isn’t new, but the outcry was intense when the World Health Organization released an analysis classifying processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In the report, the organization lumped bacon and its processed meat friends into the same classification as smoking tobacco and asbestos. It’s enough to make you feel uncomfortable about that package of Oscar Mayer thick cut, applewood smoked strips sitting in your refrigerator, isn’t it?

But is bacon really the Agent Orange of this generation? It’s hard to say. Before you toss that $6 package, the pack of hot dogs, and slices of lunchmeat, there’s a few things you should know about the report and what other people have to say about it. Processed meat isn’t going to win any health awards, and your doctor would probably prefer that you don’t eat too much of it. But it doesn’t mean it’s on the same level of tobacco, either. Here’s what you should know.

1. Cancer classifications aren’t one-size-fits-all

It’s not even “one size fits most”. The WHO has a branch dedicated to investigating potential cancer risks, called the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The IARC is the one who classifies potential carcinogens, and processed meat made the list this year because the agency was able to compile enough evidence to show that the food products causes colorectal cancer, and potentially other forms of the disease as well.

However, it does not mean that every carcinogen in that classification is equally potent or dangerous, according to the WHO. “The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk,” the organization clarified on its website. In other words, it will likely take a lot more bacon than cigarettes before you need to see an oncologist.

According to the report, eating 50 grams of processed meat per day — about two slices of ham — can increase the risk of colorectal (colon) cancer by 18%. However, the risks are small to begin with. According to The New York Times, diets high in processed meat could lead to about 30,000 deaths per year worldwide, though that number could also be far less. Lung cancer brought on by smoking tobacco, by contrast, kills about a million people across the globe per year.

2. Not everyone agrees with the report

In what should be a surprise to no one, people working in the meat industry were infuriated with the report’s findings.

“They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome,” Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs at the North American Meat Institute, told CNN. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association also claimed the scientists who issued the report were split on whether to include red meat as “probably carcinogenic” in the report.

Obviously, these agencies have a vested interest in making sure people still feel ok about consuming steaks, lamb chops, and yes, bacon. Their very livelihoods depend on it. But even doctors cautioned the cancer risk wasn’t enormous. According to The New York Times, several experts said the report might encourage people to “moderate” their intake of processed and red meats, but that the cancer risk was relatively small.

3. More clarification and research is necessary

Though red meat is listed as “probably carcinogenic,” the report was not able to establish a clear link to cancer. Many experts believe cooking red meat at high temperatures, such as grilling it, can lead to a higher cancer risk. However, the matter is still up for debate. In several instances, the WHO and the IARC avoid giving recommendations about how to cook meat, and how much red meat is acceptable to eat.

In addition, all carcinogens have degrees of harm they can cause. “Carcinogens do not cause cancer at all times, under all circumstances,” the American Cancer Society explains. “Some may only be carcinogenic if a person is exposed in a certain way (for example, swallowing it as opposed to touching it). Some may only cause cancer in people who have a certain genetic makeup. Some of these agents may lead to cancer after only a very small exposure, while others might require intense exposure over many years.”

Is the report enough to maybe reconsider a steady diet of processed meats, and perhaps switch out steak for poultry a few more times a month? Perhaps. But no matter the cancer-causing properties, we all knew bacon and other processed meats were bad for us to begin with. As with all things, moderation is key. If you are concerned about your increased risk, however, you’re always able to switch out that hamburger for chicken.

Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS

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