PERHAPS NO TWO words together are more likely to set the internet aflame than BACON and CANCER. So when the World Health Organization classified processed meat as a group 1 carcinogen, the same category as tobacco.
Hold on. Let me stop right here. Eating bacon is not as bad as smoking when it comes to cancer. Just no.
The way WHO classifies cancer-causing substances, on the other hand? Maybe a little dangerous to your mental health. Because it is really confusing.
Here’s the deal:
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer weighs the strength of the scientific evidence that some food, drink, pesticide, smokable plant, whatever is a carcinogen. What it does not do is consider how much that substance actually increases your risk for actually getting cancer—even if it differs by magnitudes of 100.
The scientific evidence linking both processed meat and tobacco to certain types of cancer is strong. In that sense, both are carcinogens. But smoking increases your relative risk of lung cancer by 2,500 percent; eating two slices of bacon a day increases your relative risk for colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Given the frequency of colorectal cancer, that means your risk of getting colorectal cancer over your life goes from about 5 percent to 6 percent and, well, YBMMV. (Your bacon mileage may vary.) “If this is the level of risk you’re running your life on, then you don’t really have much to worry about,” says Alfred Neugut, an oncologist and cancer epidemiologist at Columbia.
The link, though tiny, may start with an iron-based chemical called heme, found in red meat. Heme breaks down into carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds in the digestive tract. Partially on this basis, the IARC also classified unprocessed red a “probable carcinogen.” But processed meat takes it a step further: The nitrates and nitrites and msg used to cure meat—which is to say, preserve it—also turn into N-nitroso compounds. Grilling, frying, or otherwise cooking the meat at high-temperatures may create yet other cancer-causing compounds.
So it makes sense that cutting down on bacon, hot dogs, salami, and ham reduce cancer risk a little. But it’s hardly the big deal that quitting tobacco would be. Connecting the two, as The Guardian does in its headline, “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes—WHO,” misrepresents the IARC’s conclusions. The health and nutrition industry has recognized the risks for some time when it comes to processed meats. For that reason, when you pass through the bacon section of Whole Foods, you will find an endless segment of $10.00 bacon choices. Nearly all of those selections are nitrate and msg free options that are “less preserved” and “less carcinogenic” to your health.
We as consumers control this market. As we shop the healthier options, or produce our own and share with neighbors, eventually the message will hit the stores that people want it. We all know that items that fly off the shelves keep their space there. Those that spoil and go bad and can’t seem to move get removed and discontinued. That’s how the marketplace works. So let’s help it move in the right direction by helping ourselves to some healthy foods!