Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Hungry are the Damned: Will bacon give you cancer?

It has been a rough week for bacon. On October 26, 2015, in a move that proves they really don’t care what you think of them, the World Health Organization released a report that, once and for all, labelled processed meat as carcinogenic. That means that many western childhood staples like bologna, salami, and bacon are now known causes of cancer.


After review of more than 800 studies that examined the link between meat consumption and cancer risk, the WHO concluded that there is clear and convincing evidence that the more processed meat you eat, the greater your risk of developing colon cancer. Red meat in general (beef and pork) faired only slightly better with researchers concluding that it is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”


In bureaucracy-speak, processed meat is now labeled a Group 1 carcinogen and red meat a Group 2a carcinogen. Other Group 1 substances include tobacco, mustard gas, and asbestos. Other members of Group 2a include UV light and some chemicals commonly used by hairdressers. In short, you might be able to eat an organic, ethically raised steak without feeling too guilty, but if you fry up some bacon you are taking your life into your own hands.

The world responded predictably. Representatives from agricultural and meat-producing groups were quick to point out that wood dust is also a Group 1 carcinogen, and basically called the conclusions ridiculous and reckless. Environmental and animal welfare groups called the study a wake-up call for the world. Most people looked alarmed for a minute, then began rationalizing their favourite foods so they wouldn’t have to give them up. Some people even got indignant about it, with #freebacon taking over social media.


You really can’t blame people for being mistrusting, angry, or confused. It is hard to keep up with the news as it is without concluding that everything you love will lead to an early grave. A sober look at the numbers paints a slightly different picture…

While the WHO concludes that eating 50 grams of processed meat each day will increase your risk of colon cancer by roughly 18%, your overall risk of developing the disease is about 4.24% (42.4 cases per 100,000 men and women). Including the 18% jump, eating processed meat every day will bring your overall probability in at around 5%. The risk increases as you age. It is greater for men than for women. It is greater if your family has a history of colon cancer. But 5% is a nice round number to start from.

That number is low enough to turn off most people’s alarm bells. Estimates suggest that 34,000 cancer deaths each year could be attributable to processed meat consumption, compared to 600,000 at the hands of tobacco. Put another way, 21% of all colon cancer cases are caused by processed meats, while 86% of lung cancers are the result of smoking.

What it comes down to is what you consider an acceptable risk and what you are willing to lose. Life is a game of trade-offs and it is up to each of us to make our own choices. A 5% risk of colon cancer seems small, but if I handed you a die with 20 sides and told you that you would get cancer if you rolled a 1, then would you want to play the game? What if the game tasted good… like really, really delicious?



Earlier this year, I lost my dad because of complications brought on by colon cancer, so this issue hits a little closer to home for me than for most, but it at least bears consideration. Lifestyle changes are extremely tough to make, especially if you are trying to give up something you grew up with and with which you have a lot of great memories associated, like many people have with food. But, in the end, a long, healthy life of fun with family and friends won’t be made worse by opting for fruit or an extra slice of toast to put next to your eggs. The WHO has stated the facts; it’s up to each of us to take them or leave them.

1 comment:

Viviane Gregory said...

Some may say if we live long enough we will all die of cancer but we need to tell people that dying at 50 of colon cancer is way too young. Our bodies need less processed food. Ate a well balanced diet of lean protein and fresh fruit and vegetable 90% of the time. I small treat of sweets and things like bacon should be limited to 10% or less of your overall diet.