Processed meat linked to cancer: so, can we still eat bacon?

Unless you’ve been undertaking some kind of media block-out, you’ve probably by now seen the bad news: Processed meat – including bacon, ham and sausages – has been classified as a definite cause of cancer.

This is actually not new news, but Monday’s announcement, did come from an organisation with clout, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, which reviewed more than 800 studies before they came to this conclusion.

According the IARC, processed meat – which includes meat that’s undergone any form of curing, salting, smoking or preserving – is a “definite carcinogen” and falls into group 1, a group into which tobacco and alcohol also fall. Red meat, which includes lamb, beef and pork, has been classified in group 2A – a “probable” cause of cancer.

Contrary to how it may sound, this doesn’t mean that eating the occasional hot dog is as bad for you as taking up smoking. As Cancer Research UK clarifies, whereas 86% of lung cancers are caused by smoking, only 21% of bowel cancers are caused by processed and red meat. Or, as the New York Times puts it, your chance of developing colorectal cancer rises by a factor of about 1,1 or 1,2 for every serving of processed meat consumed per day. So chances are eating the occasional bacon butty won’t do you any harm.


So, can we still eat fancy bacon?

At this stage it’s not clear exactly how processed and red meats cause cancer, so it’s difficult to say whether eating free-range artisan bacon is any better than the supermarket variety. (It’s still better for the pigs while they’re alive, though!) The problem could lie in the meat itself and how it’s broken down in the gut, or it could lie in the chemicals such as nitrite preservatives used in processed meat. High-temperature cooking – or braaiing – is also implicated.


So how much bacon can we continue to eat?

The IARC study reportedly states that eating as little as 50 grams of processed meat per day – the equivalent of two slices of ham – can increase the risk of such cancer by 18%. That said, the risk is fairly low to begin with.

For now, if you’re eating processed meat daily, you can’t go wrong by cutting down on the amount you’re eating. Other recommendations for reducing your risk include a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fibre, as well as regular exercise.

So pretty much the advice we’ve been hearing all along, then.

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