Last week, there was a significant buzz on the internet surrounding the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent announcement that processed meats cause cancer. According to many of the sensationalist headlines, bacon is now as bad as smoking. Is there any truth to this? We decided to take a closer look at the studies and science behind this claim.

The fact that processed meat has a causal relationship with cancer is nothing new. There have been a significant number of studies that have reported a correlation between processed meat consumption and an increased risk of developing bowel (also known as colorectal) cancer. The recent hoopla is WHO’s official classification of processed meats in the same category as smoking as a carcinogen that causes cancer. Does this mean it is as bad as smoking? No, it simply means that there is enough evidence to say there is a link between consumption of bacon and cancer. It should be important to note that alcohol and tobacco are also in this category.

Let’s Look at the Numbers

According the WHO study, consuming 50mg (roughly 2 slices) a day of bacon will cause your relative risk of colorectal cancer to increase by 18%. Seems scary right? Let’s investigate. In your lifetime, the absolute risk of developing colorectal cancer is 5%. The important words here are relative and absolute. Eating 50mg of bacon everyday will increase that 5% absolute risk by 18% (or about 1%) to 6%. Comparatively, smoking increases your relative risk of lung cancer by 2,500%. That’s a far cry above the 18% relative increase of bacon.

According to the most recent estimates by the Global Burden of Disease Project, an academic research organization, about 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are attributable to diets high in processed meat. Smoking, on the other hand, is responsible for roughly 1 million cancer deaths per year, and 600,000 cancer deaths can be attributed to alcohol consumption.

The Big Picture

All too often the media tries to demonize one particular food or nutrient, implying that it can be the sole decider of your nutritional health. The reality is that no one food will ruin your health, just as no one food will save it. Part of being healthy is enjoying a balanced and well-rounded diet. Not too much of the unhealthy stuff, not too little of the healthy stuff. So, if you enjoy a couple of slices of bacon on a Saturday morning, don’t sweat it. If you’re eating bacon every day, it would certainly be a good idea to cut back. But don’t forget about all the other foods that are important for your health as well – eating more fruits and veggies, increasing your fibre intake, and cutting back on simple sugars are all important in decreasing your risk of illness and disease, cancer included.
If you need help bringing balance to your diet, feel free to contact Definitions for some personalized advice!

References

  1. http://www.cancer.org/cancer/colonandrectumcancer/detailedguide/colorectal-cancer-key-statistics
  2. http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2015/10/26/processed-meat-and-cancer-what-you-need-to-know/
  3. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0020456