A new report from two major research groups just linked processed meat – including everyone’s favourite, bacon – to cancer. If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
Just last October, the World Health Organisation published a paper concluding that eating processed meats was linked with a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, a specific type of the disease that begins in the colon or rectum.
This new report looks even worse for America’s favourite breakfast meat.
In it, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) find links between eating processed meat and developing cancer of the lower stomach.
The links are creepily similar to those found in the previous WHO report on colorectal cancer and processed meat.
In fact, the researchers found the exact same risk factor – down to the gram and percentage – for eating processed meat and developing lower stomach cancer as the WHO had found for eating processed meat and developing colorectal cancer.
Here’s a quote from the new AICR and WCRF report on stomach cancer:
For every 1.8 ounces (50 grams) of processed meat eaten per day, every day – the equivalent of one hot dog – the risk of cancers of the lower stomach … increases by 18 percent.
And here’s the older WHO report and press release on colorectal cancer:
The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
According to American Institute for Cancer Research Vice President of Research Dr. Susan Higginbotham, that’s purely coincidental, as both reports used different publications and did different analyses. And we need to keep in mind that, at the end of the day, these estimates are just ballpark figures. They don’t tell us precisely what is causing disease or how it happens in the body.
“Cancer is complicated. It’s kind of showing theres an increase in risk and we have ideas about why it might be happening but we’re not sure. And the fact that it's happening in more than one cancer is definitely interesting,” Higginbotham told Business Insider.
In other words, this is bad news for bacon.
Still, Higginbotham warns, you shouldn’t go banning the ingredient just yet. While these numbers are certainly scary, the situation is probably nowhere near as bad as you think. It doesn’t mean, for example, that for every piece of bacon you consume, you’re drastically jacking up your chances of getting colorectal or lower stomach cancer.
Okay, so how bad is it really?
Let’s try comparing theoretical you with two of your theoretical friends – Susie and Fred.
Susie is practically vegetarian. She’s completely sworn off hot dogs and smoked ham, but she maybe indulges in a few pieces of bacon every month. You, on the other hand, make a mean Saturday-afternoon BLT and have been known to occasionally indulge in a hot dog at a baseball game. Then there’s Fred. Fred fries up a few pieces of bacon for breakfast every day, eats a pastrami sandwich for lunch a few times a week, and typically has ham for dinner.
Genetics and environmental factors aside, you and Susie both are at pretty low risk of developing colorectal or lower stomach cancer as a strict result of your eating habits, at least according to these two reports. Neither of you is indulging in the equivalent of a hot dog or a serving of pastrami each day. (Reminder: One daily hot dog or its equivalent was the amount of processed meat the study found to be linked with an 18 percent increased risk of the two cancers.)
For Fred, it’s a different story. He’s eating plenty more than the equivalent of a single hot dog each day, and, based on this research, is more likely to develop one of these two cancer types over his lifetime than you or Susie.
Is eating bacon as bad for you as smoking?
Lest you begin having flashbacks to the terrifying headlines of last year which compared noshing on a few strips of delicious bacon with smoking cigarettes, the two are not equally unhealthy.
International research group Global Burden of Disease Project estimates that roughly 34,000 cancer deaths per year across the globe can be attributed to diets high in processed meats like bacon.
On the other hand, close to 29 times that amount – 1 million people – die of cancer every year from smoking tobacco. Another 600,000 people die each year as a result of alcohol consumption, and about 200,000 die each year as a result to air pollution, according to the Global Burden of Disease Project.
So keep that in mind before opting to ban processed meat from your diet altogether. Instead, just cut back a bit.
“I think that this just adds more support to the advice we’ve already given to avoid processed meat,” said Higginbotham. “It doesn’t change our advice because we already saw this for colon cancer, but it strengthens it. It’s just another way to look at things.”