The Bacon Debate: Just How Bad Are Processed Meats?

While it may be America’s favorite processed meat, bacon came under fire when the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a study that warned about the correlation of these meats and different forms of cancer.

So what, exactly, did the research say about American staples like hot dogs, bacon and sausage? The research took a look at studies around both processed meats and red meats.

Processed meats came out looking the worst. It warns that regularly eating foods like bacon or hot dogs increases your risk of colorectal cancer. As noted by NPR, the categorization processed meats received puts them in the same conversation for cancer risk as tobacco or asbestos. Eating just 1.8 ounces of bacon (or other processed meat) per day — that’s about half the size of a deck of cards — increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

As Yahoo! Health pointed out, some meats that qualify as “processed” are less obvious than bacon, beef jerky or canned meat. It includes all “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” So you can add pepperoni, bologna, and even chicken nuggets to foods that may be as dangerous as bacon or Spam.

Red meats, in general, aren’t quite as bad as processed meats (although many — bacon, hot dogs, etc. — qualify as both, obviously). As summarized by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, red meats include beef, goat, horse, lamb, mutton, pork, and veal. So red meats include everything from the heavily processed meats like bacon and beef jerky to meats generally considered healthier like veal, lamb, and steak. Red meats are categorized as “Group 2A” — “probably carcinogenic” to people, alongside the common weed-killer glyphosate. Processed meats, by comparison, are “Group 1” which is more concretely defined as “carcinogenic to people” — no “probably” about it.

But you may want to take these findings with a grain of salt.

The IARC is responsible for setting the cancer risk categorizations used by the WHO, and they note that just because processed meats are in the same category as tobacco, it doesn’t mean that it is equally as dangerous. And while bacon and other red meats are “probably carcinogenic” to humans, aloe vera is also listed as possibly carcinogenic.

Some questions were left unanswered, however, that may be especially relevant to millennial shoppers who haven’t given up on meat yet. Robert Reed is a farmer from Kansas City, and he doesn’t think the sudden scare about burgers and bacon shows the full picture. As the owner of Overlook Farms, Reed sells beef from cattle that are grass-fed and pasture-raised. The study fails to acknowledge any difference between more organic options and the less expensive, factory-raised, corn-fed meat that is more widely sold in stores.

“Naturally raised pork and beef? I don’t see a problem with it,” Mr. Reed told the Post-Gazette. Many people, in fact, aren’t as scared by the WHO’s findings as some might expect. The same article quotes the owner of a steak restaurant who says people already know this about these kinds of meat. That’s why so many places now offer fish as an alternative to steak or a bacon cheeseburger.

Doug Basinski of Pittsburgh may have the American attitude about sausage and bacon all summed up: “Maybe [it] could affect your health. But, you’ve got to have some fun in life, right?”

It may do you well to remember that health and food trends seem to change all the time. It was just about 12 years ago that the Atkins Diet made many people believe you could eat as much bacon, steak, and sausage as you like — just hold the bun. More recently, people have become very excited about the Paleo Diet, which certainly doesn’t exclude red meat. These studies may lead you to believe that all of those people are shedding pounds while increasing the odds that they’ll get cancer.

So, will bacon be able to recover from the bad press? The pork industry knows what it’s doing. When red meat was first identified as potentially harmful, pork branded their product “the other white meat.” People didn’t question the slogan, and sales remained largely unaffected.

[Image credit Joe Raedle / Getty Images]