Home Debunking The Myths Everything You Need to Know About Bacon, Red Meat, and Cancer

Everything You Need to Know About Bacon, Red Meat, and Cancer

by Erika Nicole Kendall
bacon; credit—flickr.com/cookbookman17

Against my better judgment… let’s talk bacon.

Well, more than bacon—bacon, salami, deli meats, prosciutto, sausage, turkey bacon, hot dogs, and other forms of processed meats:

A research division of the World Health Organization announced Monday that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer and that red meat probably does, too.

The report by the influential group stakes out one of the most aggressive stances against meat taken by a major health organization, and it is expected to face stiff criticism in the United States.

The WHO findings were drafted by a panel of 22 international experts who reviewed decades of research on the link between red meat, processed meats and cancer. The panel reviewed animal experiments, studies of human diet and health, and cell processes that could explain how red meat might cause cancer. [source]

Well, wait— that’s not quite what happened.

IARC’s working group of 22 scientists reviewed a large buffet of existing studies and “classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A),” and processed meat “as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).”

To explain, the organization slots everything into five possible categories. The highest tier, Group 1, is reserved for established carcinogens, including smoking, asbestos, alcohol, and now processed meat. The next two tiers, 2A (“probably carcinogenic”) and 2B (“possibly carcinogenic”), are for things whose relationship to cancer is less certain. Group 3 is for substances that can’t be classified, due to lack of data.

Here’s the thing: These classifications are based on strength of evidence not degree of risk.

Two risk factors could be slotted in the same category if one tripled the risk of cancer and the other increased it by a small fraction. They could also be classified similarly even if one causes many more types of cancers than the other, if it affects a greater swath of the population, and if it actually causes more cancers.

So these classifications are not meant to convey how dangerous something is, just how certain we are that something is dangerous. [source]

I know the bolded seems confusing, but look at it like this – we know that driving well above the speed limit is dangerous, but the likelihood that your speeding will result in a car crash is low, and the more you speed or the higher above the speed limit you go, the higher the chances are that you will crash. One talks about the level of danger involved in using or consuming something; the other talks about the risk involved with engaging in it. As it was put in Time Magazine’s “The War on Delicious” (ha ha ha ha), ‘we use fire every day knowing how dangerous it is; the likelihood that it’ll burn your house down is exceptionally low.’

Make sense?

Back to understanding the WHO’s ruling, since it is important to know:

But they’re presented with language that completely obfuscates that distinction.

Group 1 is billed as “carcinogenic to humans,” which means that we can be fairly sure that the things here have the potential to cause cancer. But the stark language, with no mention of risks or odds or any remotely conditional, invites people to assume that if they specifically partake of, say, smoking or processed meat, they will definitely get cancer.

Similarly, when Group 2A is described as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” it roughly translates to “there’s some evidence that these things could cause cancer, but we can’t be sure.” Again, the word “probably” conjures up the specter of individual risk, but the classification isn’t about individuals at all.

Group 2B, “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” may be the most confusing one of all. What does “possibly” even mean? Proving a negative is incredibly difficult, which is why Group 4—“probably not carcinogenic to humans”—contains just one substance of the hundreds that IARC has assessed.

So, in practice, 2B becomes a giant dumping ground for all the risk factors that IARC has considered, and could neither confirm nor fully discount as carcinogens. Which is to say: most things. It’s a bloated category, essentially one big epidemiological shruggie. But try telling someone unfamiliar with this that, say, power lines are “possibly carcinogenic” and see what they take away from that. [source]

This is important. They actually merely determined that a diet high in processed meats—the equivalent of six slices of bacon a day, or approximately 50g of processed meats (which includes turkey bacon, by the way)—is, in fact, carcinogenic;  for those of us who pay close attention to this kind of stuff, this wasn’t a particularly new discovery.

We knew that already.

Processed meat intake may be involved in the etiology of colorectal cancer, a major cause of death in affluent countries. The epidemiologic studies published to date conclude that the excess risk in the highest category of processed meat-eaters is comprised between 20% and 50% compared with non-eaters. In addition, the excess risk per gram of intake is clearly higher than that of fresh red meat. [source]

I mean…that’s from 2008. So, this entire story blowing up the way it did is kind of a non-issue. It makes no sense.

WHO released a document doing what they could to clarify what happened, since so many media outlets turned the story into clickbait:

After days of headlines proclaiming that bacon and hot dogs cause cancer following the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) classifying processed meat as a human carcinogen ― in the same category as tobacco and asbestos ― the WHO released a statement in clarification. It pointed out that the latest report from the International Agency of Cancer Research (IACR), issued last week, “does not ask people to stop eating processed meats”; rather, it indicated “that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.” [source]

Let’s talk about carcinogens. What is a carcinogen?

It’s literally “a substance that is capable of causing cancer.” That’s it. And, while this definition usually evokes sentiments of “chemicals” and “toxins,” the reality of it all is that there are a lot of naturally-occurring, unadulterated “whole” foods which contain carcinogenic compounds. Coffee has more than a few carcinogens. Virtually every form of rice and rice-based product—think rice cereal for infant food—contains arsenic, a carcinogen. It happens. It’s a thing.

When it comes to processed meats, however, it’s sort of a different story.

With cured meats like bacon and salami, they use something called “nitrates” to aid in the curing process. According to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives, nitrites are used “as a color fixative in the multibillion-dollar-a-year cured-meat business. Sodium nitrite has the peculiar ability to react chemically with the myoglobin molecule and impart red-bloodedness to processed meats, to convey tanginess to the palate, and to resist the growth of Clostridium botilinium”—in other words, botulism—”spores.” Nitrates function in the same way, because once we consume nitrates….they turn into nitrites inside of our digestive systems. (So, take note – when you see “no nitrates” on the front, but “nitrites” in the ingredients list, that might be a shady situation.)

Both nitrites and nitrates, upon mingling with saliva and other kinds of food substances, create something called “nitrosamines,” which are described by Consumer’s Dictionary as “powerful cancer-causing additives.” In the past, when tested in laboratory mice, it was shown that small amounts of nitrosamines induced cancer in a single dose; it’s worth noting that this “small amount” is still far more than you’d get in consuming less than three strips of bacon a day, every day.

The interesting thing about this nitrosamine business? The nitrites and nitrates that help create it? Naturally occurring in spinach, beets, lettuce, collard and turnip greens, and celery—specifically the juice… juice which is dried and then used in its powdered form as a part of the curing process.

See what I mean about naturally occurring?

One of the earliest phrases I remember hearing on my healthy living journey, was that “In nature, the poison is always paired with the antidote.” In the fruits where sugar is often the most present, you also find the most fiber. Where you find sodium, you also find potassium. And, where you naturally find carcinogens, also known as “free radicals” you are also likely to find antioxidants—defined as “molecules which can safely interact with free radicals and terminate the chain reaction before vital molecules are damaged”— that “eradicate” them.

Epidemiologic observations show lower cancer rates in people whose diets are rich in fruits and vegetables. This has lead to the theory that these diets contain substances, possibly antioxidants, which protect against the development of cancer. There is currently intense scientific investigation into this topic. Thus far, none of the large, well designed studies have shown that dietary supplementation with extra antioxidants reduces the risk of developing cancer. In fact one study demonstrated an increased risk of lung cancer in male smokers who took antioxidants vs. male smoker who did not supplement. Whether this effect was from the antioxidants is unknown but it does raise the issue that antioxidants may be harmful under certain conditions.

Antioxidants are also thought to have a role in slowing the aging process and preventing heart disease and strokes, but the data is still inconclusive. Therefore from a public health perspective it is premature to make recommendations regarding antioxidant supplements and disease prevention. New data from ongoing studies will be available in the next few years and will shed more light on this constantly evolving area. Perhaps the best advice, which comes from several authorities in cancer prevention, is to eat 5 servings of fruit or vegetables per day. [source]

Considering how we know that food manufacturers will take what they want from an item (like, say, the juice from celery) and use it for what they need (like, say, drying it and using the powder for curing) and selling the rest to someone else so they can use that for what they need… how do we not know that the nitrites in celery juice weren’t separated from the antioxidants that would’ve helped to limit or even eliminate the problem?

(It’s worth pointing out, here, that this is why people think they can “cure cancer” with fruits and vegetables—the antioxidants in them are supposed to repair cell damage, which is a core component of cancer, before it’s too late. The problem with this is, by the time to cell damage is to the point of being called “cancer,” chances are high there’s no way that merely antioxidants—or antioxidant-delivering concoctions—can reverse that damage.)

What does all this boil down to, here?

It’s simple: 1) In nature, the poison is always packaged with the antidote, and this is the best reason why you should get as much fresh, whole produce in your diet as possible. Food manufacturing splits the pulp from the juice, the flesh from the skin, the hull from the grain, and with good reason—well, good for them. If we’re missing out on valuable fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants from this process, it does us no good at all.

2) Cell damage with regards to cancer can come from ongoing exposure to anything and everything—cigarettes, sun exposure, and so on. A steady stream of vitamins and minerals—in other words, fresh fruits and vegetables, lean quality protein—can help impact your cancer risk.

3) Enjoy your bacon and other things, but – like with all things – be smart about it. Deciding to go all Epic Meal Time on your meals probably isn’t a good idea. Get good quality bacon – see a butcher, find a stand at a farmer’s market, or do what most of us will have to do: check the labels. Many brands have faux smoke flavoring added, fake flavors added instead of spices otherwise known to be a part of the curing process, and, yes, fake nitrites. Get bacon that has been properly cured and smoked, and use it wisely. It adds such great flavor to dishes, that you can use a few strips in an entire meal and step that flavor up tremendously.

The overarching point, here, is to be smart about how you eat: fresh produce over all. A plant-centered diet will do exactly that for you. Eat all the plants. Even your Meemaw’s green plant that’s so big it’s sprawling across the carpet, now, for all I care. Make the produce the main attraction. Make the extra stuff – the prosciutto, the hot dogs, the bacon, the ground beef, whatever – the side. Your body will gladly thank you for it.

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5 comments

Lorraine Devon Wilke November 6, 2015 - 1:53 PM

Excellent. I love the balanced perspective, particularly refreshing on the topic of food, where extremes on all sides seem to bounce those concerned from one point to another. Crazy making!

I particularly loved the line: “In nature, the poison is always paired with the antidote.” So true, and such a testament to the logic of eating whole foods, real foods, a mix of foods.

Our strange dependence on supplements, and our panic about this diet or that diet in our efforts to live long healthy lives, is best countered by the mantra of BALANCE, as you advise. Your concluding paragraph articulates my exact philosophy of healthful eating. Thank you!

Erica November 9, 2015 - 7:35 AM

I feel your interpretation of the report on processed and red meats is immature and not a responsible and/or sustainable way to think of consumption of danger foods (animal products in general) or sustainability practices for our planet. Do more research that isn’t about your palate. The agricultural industry is killing us and the planet rapidly. We do not need the flesh of any creature to survive. There’s a tipping point and we are fast approaching that point. It takes 250 gallons of water to make one hamburger! That would be of much better us to humans, don’t you think? Educate yourself more and be careful interpreting a scientific study when you aren’t qualified to do so. I’m glad your present and doing what you do, our community needs you but be more responsible with what you report. Our people are reading.

Erika Nicole Kendall November 9, 2015 - 10:48 AM

With the utmost of respect, I have to say I’m truly disappointed in this comment.

To begin your comment with such an insult – questioning my maturity – I would’ve expected you to have a more salient reading of the research at hand. I would’ve expected you to refute the actual points I made in the post above. At LEAST, I would’ve expected you to produce more information that shows me what I might’ve missed. I’m not attached to being “right” – I AM, however, devoted to being accurate… so I don’t mind being proven wrong every now and again.

That being said, imagine my shock when your comment was about sustainability – a valid concern, no doubt – instead of what *I* wrote about, which was the carcinogenic properties of processed meats being researched by the World Health Organization (WHO). This didn’t need to start with an insult at all – this could’ve been a valid contribution about how we should complicate our understanding of what we eat, why we eat it, and how it affects the world around us. Instead, your comment reads as disappointment that I wouldn’t allow this research to be used as a means of manipulating people into eating less of these items for inaccurate reasons.

Furthermore, it makes little to no sense to snark me and my “qualifications” when it isn’t MY reading of the research that’s on display here – it’s the WHO’s. As I already shared in the post above – did you see it up there? – the WHO, after seeing the way many media outlets misconstrued and misreported what their research actually meant, responded in a press release clearing it up for people. Are you questioning WHO’s qualifications, too?

I don’t disagree with much of what you said here – well, at least the parts that weren’t petty snarks about my personhood. You’re actually not even saying anything I haven’t discussed before in myriad forms. But, if the topic is whether or not it causes cancer, that’s where the discussion should center.

Oh, and as far as this:

“Do more research that isn’t about your palate.”

I’ve stated countless times on this blog, and plenty members of the #bgg2wlarmy can tell you… I don’t eat red meat, pork, or processed meats.

Angela (@MoveOverMS) November 9, 2015 - 6:00 PM

Erika, you never cease to amaze me with how you parse information that appears in the media, explore the science (if any) behind the headlines, and make the results accessible to those who do not take the same time and effort to read and understand the nuances behind the scientific studies (the actual studies, not the interpretations foisted upon us by a media clamoring for readership/viewers). Thank you for this!

Even given your own personal stance on bacon and processed meats, which we ALL know only too well (LOL!), you gave us the facts to make our own *informed* decisions regarding personal consumption. This is a testament to your commitment not only to health and wellness, but to the #bgg2wlarmy as a whole. Again, thank you for this!

Finally, the picture of #Sprout is too cute!! I squealed like a little piggy running away from becoming bacon when I saw him. Yay!!!

Erika Nicole Kendall November 9, 2015 - 6:23 PM

<3 <3 <3

Always a pleasure to see you around here, sis. :)

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