Meat is in the headlines again because of cancer woes. But… the news is confusing. It is a bit of a scare fest honestly. So here’s the nitty gritty so you can decide if you are going to have bacon and sausage for breakfast tomorrow.
In a Nutshell
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a group of the World Health Organization (WHO), has classified processed meats as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic.1
Cancer Research UK actually has a great article that is pretty straightforward. It also has some nice graphics that I will share here.
How much bacon for breakfast is going to give me cancer? Well, good question. The IARC only says if something will cause cancer or not. It does not decide how much of that something will give you cancer.
Let’s not panic
New flash: this news isn’t really news! It has been pretty well established for years that processed meats especially will cause cancer. We talked about it in my Environmental Toxicology class almost 10 years ago. The IARC has just lately looked at the research again and has changed the classifications.
In that same toxicology class, my professor frequently reminded us that we cannot go around in a panic worrying about everything that will cause cancer. Guess what else is on the Class 1 cancer list? Sunlight and air pollution.2 It is just not possible to avoid cancer causing agents all the time. Just as you would wear sunscreen and a hat to avoid cancer from the sun, you have to take steps to reduce your exposure from meat.
What steps to take
- Eat less meat! Well that is pretty easy to understand. Less meat equals less cancer risk. If you do eat meat, use is in things instead of eating a large chunk like a steak.
- Switch out your red meat for white. Chicken, turkey, and fish and other white meat were not included in the cancer classification.
- Avoid nitrates. One of the possible mechanisms for cancer in processed meat has to do with the sodium nitrates used in preservation.3 There have been a lot more products on the market lately that you can buy without nitrates such as lunch meat, hot dogs, and bacon. They may be labeled on the front as nitrate-free or you will have to take a look at the ingredient label and avoid nitrates or nitrites.
So go ahead and have some bacon for breakfast! Just don’t eat it every day. And you probably don’t need to eat it wrapped around vegetables, in doughnuts, candied (yuck!), sprinkled on chocolate covered pretzels (yeah, I did see that!) or any of those other bacon craze recipes.