The World Health Organization (WHO) released, in my opinion, one of the most jaw-dropping statements ever made this week.  Processed red meats, like bacon, cause cancer. They went on to say, all red meats probably cause cancer, but there wasn’t enough evidence to make the claim.  Like an abusive spouse punching you in the gut one moment, and hugging you the next, they went on to remind us, red meats do have health benefits.  Vegetarians, before you begin writing your victory speeches, let’s examine what all this actually means.

The WHO‘s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has a Monograph program that identifies and evaluates environmental causes of cancer.  They’ve reviewed more than 900 agents so far.

In 2014, the IARC began looking at studies evaluating red meat and their potential cancer causing affects. What they found was, the risk of cancer generally increased with the amount of red meat a person consumed.  For every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily (about 2 slices of bacon), your risk of colorectal cancer went up by 18%.  For every 100 gram portion of red meat eaten daily, you’d increase your risk by 17%.  Bacon wrapped steak anyone?

The WHO also stressed that red meats do have some health benefits.  As such, you shouldn’t give them up all together.   A 3 ounce serving will supply the average person with about 50% of their daily protein needs. Red meats are natural sources of iron and zinc.  They also provide a source for several B vitamins like B12, B6, niacin and riboflavin.

So what classifies as processed meat, and what about them cause cancer?

The WHO states “Processed red meats are meats transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation”.  Examples include; hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, and… bacon.

Cooking and processing meat forms chemicals that have been long known to cause cancer.  Chemicals like N-nitroso compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heterocyclic aromatic amines. These carcinogens are also the ones found in air pollution.  Putting them in your GI tract will then lead to your increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.  Unfortunately, their ability to cause cancer places processed red meats in the same category as plutonium and tobacco.

Does this mean eating hot dogs and sausage is as bad as taking a drag on your cigarette while assembling a nuclear device?  The answer is, thankfully, no.

The WHO has 5 classification levels that tell us the strength of the evidence any particular substance will cause cancer.  Class 1- The agent is carcinogenic to humans.  Class 2 is separated into 2A and 2B.  2A- probably carcinogenic, 2B- possibly carcinogenic.  Class 3- the agent is not classifiable.  Meaning there isn’t enough information to say one way or the other.  Class 4- probably doesn’t cause cancer.  Processed red meats landed in class 1, while red meats in general, landed in class 2A.

This system tells us the strength of the evidence that an agent will cause cancer, not the specific level of risk.  Just because processed red meats are in the same class as asbestos and tobacco, doesn’t mean they’re equally as dangerous.

According to Cancer Research UK, tobacco causes approximately 86% of lung cancers, while processed red meats cause about 21% of bowel cancers.  19% of all cancers are caused by tobacco while only 3% are caused by processed red meats.

Before we all start crying over our vegan salads, what do these percentages mean in real numbers?

According to the Global Burden of Disease Project, about 34,000 cancer deaths per year can be attributed to eating high amounts of processed red meats.  That compares to 1 million cancer deaths due to tobacco smoking, 600,000 due to alcohol consumption and more than 200,000 due to air pollution.

Most industry experts agree, if you limit processed red meat and keep overall red meat consumption down to about 500g a week, your risk of developing cancer is pretty low (a ten ounce steak is approximately 284g).  They also state, should you want to keep your risk of developing any type of cancer down to a minimum, maintain a healthy body weight, limit your consumption of alcohol, don’t use tobacco, and be physically active.

Cancer shouldn’t be the only reason you limit your red meat consumption.  Eating it in high amounts has long been known to increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

While bacon and other processed red meats do cause cancer, the adage ‘everything in moderation’ will keep your overall lifetime risk pretty low.  Unless of course you’re eating that bacon wrapped pork chop on the streets of Beijing, washing it down with copious amounts of booze, and afterwards, relaxing with a long drag on a cigarette.   In that case, you might as well shave your head now, because chemotherapy is right around the corner.

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