Bacon, the candy of the meat world, and other processed meats (i.e. ham, hotdog, sausage, salami, chorizo, deli meats, corned beef, jerky, canned meat) were recently categorized as Group 1 Carcinogens (carcinogenic to humans) by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), because of a causal link with bowel cancer. Other Group 1 Carcinogens include arsenic, tobacco, sunlight, alcohol, asbestos, and leather and wood dust. Red meat is listed as a Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans), along with grilled food and the profession of a hairdresser. The entire list of carcinogens can be found here.
The WHO defines “processed” as meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood (I don’t know about you, but these are common methods I use to prepare food at my home…). Additionally, the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) has an excellent article on Processed Meats: Convenience, Nutrition, Taste.
Processed meats are important. The ingredients and processes used to make hotdogs and bacon and sausage are about more than creating tasty treats to eat at tailgates. Processed meats help us to use meat more efficiently, waste less food and feed more people.
Processed meats allow us to use the whole animal. There are lots of cuts on the animal that wouldn’t taste very good if we just tried to cook them like fresh meat. They may be too tough, too small, or too fatty. Meat processors grind them up and mix them all together to make sausages and hotdogs.
Processed meats allow us to store meat for longer times. Ingredients like salt, sugar, and nitrites help fend off bacteria that cause it to go bad. They also keep it from becoming rancid. Think about how long hotdogs and ham last in the fridge in comparison to fresh steaks and burgers.
Processed meats are a good source of inexpensive protein. Foods like hotdogs and sausages are inexpensive, but they provide protein. People need that protein, especially kids. Protein helps you feel fuller, longer after a meal. It also helps build and repair muscles as kids grow. Research has shown that kids fed protein perform better in school. In some poor families, processed meats are the only way they can afford to feed their kids protein.
Processed meats help prevent food-borne illness. Ingredients like salt and lactates help keep dangerous bacteria, like Listeria, from growing, and nitrites are added to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that causes Botulism.
It is important to note in an interview with MeatingPlace.com, IARC indicates:
Processed meat has been classified in the same category as causes of cancer such as tobacco smoking and asbestos (IARC Group 1, carcinogenic to humans), but this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous. The IARC classifications describe the strength of the scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.
Meat consists of multiple components, such as heme iron. Meat can also contain chemicals that form during meat processing or cooking. For instance, carcinogenic chemicals that form during meat processing include N-nitroso compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Cooking of red meat or processed meat also produces heterocyclic aromatic amines as well as other chemicals including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are also found in other foods and in air pollution. Some of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens, but despite this knowledge it is not yet fully understood how cancer risk is increased by red meat or processed meat.
The IARC experts indicated that each 50 gram (1.8 ounce) serving (about 1 hotdog or 3 strips of bacon) of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. The Guardian reported:
Dr Elizabeth Lund – an independent consultant in nutritional and gastrointestinal health, and a former research leader at the Institute of Food Research, who acknowledges she did some work for the meat industry in 2010 – said red meat was linked to about three extra cases of bowel cancer per 100,000 adults in developed countries. “A much bigger risk factor is obesity and lack of exercise,” she said. “Overall, I feel that eating meat once a day combined with plenty of fruit, vegetables and cereal fiber, plus exercise and weight control, will allow for a low risk of colorectal cancer and a more balanced diet.”
Dr. Betsy Booren, NAMI (North American Meat Institute) said, “Followers of the Mediterranean diet eat double the recommended amount of processed meats. People in countries where the Mediterranean diet is followed, like Spain, Italy and France, have some of the longest lifespans in the world and excellent health.”
Dr. Jude Capper with Bovidiva says it is nearly impossible to assess the impact of meat consumption in isolation, in her post Bringing home the bacon – I’m a cancer survivor with meat on the menu:
Let’s examine the real risk. The average person’s risk of developing colorectal cancer is approximately 5%. If the WHO data suggesting an 18% increase in risk is correct, a daily 50 g serving of processed meat increases that risk to 5.9 % (an increase slightly less than 1 people per 100), of which between 0.65 – 5.4 people will survive for 5 years or more (depending on cancer stage at diagnosis). Despite the increase in meat consumption over the past century (and therefore assumed increase in processed meat consumption due to changes in dining habits and food availability), the death rate from colorectal cancer has dropped over the past 20 years. Moreover, in media articles discussing the WHO announcement, there is no mention of mitigating factors such as fruit and vegetable consumption. What happens if I eat 50 g of bacon within a huge salad with a side of oat bread, a meal high in dietary fiber, which is cited as having a protective effect against colorectal cancer? Or if I eat bacon after running five miles, given the role of exercise in preventing cancer? As with so many other health risks, it’s almost impossible to assess the impact of meat consumption in isolation.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President, Phillip Ellis, had this to say about the claims:
Let me be clear, this group did not conduct new research during their meeting, they simply reviewed existing evidence, including six studies submitted by the beef checkoff. That evidence had already been reviewed and weighed by the medical and scientific community. The science reviewed by IARC simply does not support their decision.
We know that there isn’t clear evidence to support IARC’s decision because the beef checkoff has commissioned independent studies on the topic for a decade. In fact, countless studies have been conducted by cancer and medical experts and they have all determined the same thing: No one food can cause or cure cancer. But that hasn’t prevented IARC from deciding otherwise. This conclusion isn’t mine alone and you can evaluate the information for yourself. We’ve posted the studies reviewed by IARC and other information about the committee’s findings on the website: factsaboutbeef.com. At NCBA, our team of experts has also been working with our state partners and other industry organizations to ensure consumers understand what the science really shows.
Since IARC began meeting in 1979, these experts have reviewed more than 900 compounds, products and factors for possible correlation with cancer. To date, only one product (caprolactam, which is a chemical primarily used to create synthetic fibers like nylon) has been granted a rating of 4, which indicates it is “probably not carcinogenic to humans.” Most other factors or products that have been examined by the body, including glyphosate, aloe vera, nightshift work and sunlight have fallen into three categories: 2B “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” 2A “probably carcinogenic to humans,” or 1 “carcinogenic to humans.”
Overwhelmingly, the reaction by most people has been “oh well”, no one is quite ready to give up bacon yet. The NAMI gathered some feedback and quotes from people around the world on the announcement. To read those comments go here.
Charred (blackened or burnt) meat can contribute to carcinogenic effects. Facts About Beef recommends that when cooking meat it is very important to monitor heat level and doneness temperatures of meat, poultry, and fish. Additionally, making lean beef part of your diet can provide the nutritious health benefits and healthy fat, which can help reduce the risk of cancer! Read more at Facts About Beef.
I would venture to guess there are very few people on this planet that do not know someone affected by cancer. It is a serious and complicated disease – no one really knows what causes it or how to prevent it. As the commercials indicate, one bite of kale or one sit up are not enough to keep us healthy and disease free forever. Everything, literally everything, could potentially give us cancer — stress, lack of sleep, age, our gender, genetics, smoking, our weight, activity level, career, family, lifestyle hormones, phones, alcohol, food, etc. It is virtually impossible to identify one food that can cause or prevent cancer, thus making discussions on red meat being a possible carcinogen a challenge for experts to reach consensus.
To date, scientists and health professionals agree that maintaining a healthy diet, an active lifestyle, and being a non-smoker can reduce the risk of cancer. While processed meats have been added to the list of carcinogenic items, the science is divided on these claims. Until we know why or how cancer and processed meats are linked, moderation seems like a very reasonable suggestion.
Dr. Lindsay can also be found on: