Bacon-Lovers Beware: WHO Links Cancer to Processed Meat

by Sokolove Law


The World Health Organization (WHO) reported Monday that eating processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, and beef jerky increases your risk of colon cancer, prompting some meat-lovers to reconsider that second helping of bacon at the breakfast table.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is the division of the WHO that researches cancer. Since 1971, the IARC has looked at more than 900 factors and divided them into 1 of 5 classification groups based on the risk that a particular factor would cause cancer. The IARC tapped 22 public health and cancer experts from 10 countries to evaluate processed and red meat as a factor. The IARC considered more than 800 studies conducted over the past 20 years in making their conclusions.

Like Cigarettes and Asbestos, Too Much Processed Meat Causes Cancer

Processed meat is any kind of meat that has been modified by such processes as salting, curing, or smoking. Following its investigation, the IARC concluded that there was “sufficient evidence” to classify processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans.”  Alcohol, arsenic, asbestos, and tobacco fall into the cancer-causing group as well, meaning that your ball-park frank may be a little more dangerous than you originally thought. In fact, IARC experts concluded that eating 50 grams of processed meat daily increases your chances of colorectal cancer by 18%.

Consuming Red Meat Also “Probably” Increases Your Cancer Risk

The study also looked at the link between red meat and cancer. Red meat refers to “muscle meat” like beef, veal, and pork. Red meat was found to “probably” cause cancer as well, but these findings were based on “limited evidence” according to the IARC.  The risk of getting cancer from consuming red meat primarily involved colon cancer specifically, but there was also an increased risk for pancreatic and prostate cancer with red meat consumption.

How Dangerous Is Processed or Red Meat?

The IARC was the first to point out that not all substances on their list had the same level of risk, even if they were in the same category. A claim otherwise would equate bacon or hot dogs to the likes of cigarettes and asbestos. “This does NOT mean that that they are all equally dangerous,” the IARC panel clarified in a statement referring to substances in the highest cancer-risk category. “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.” Given this, the age-old rule comes into play: Everything in moderation. It’s likely you probably don’t have to worry about eating an occasional beef jerky, whereas, you absolutely should worry about long-term exposure to asbestos.

What’s important about these IARC findings, however, is that they remind us that red and processed meat should be consumed in moderation due to the variety of health risks that are associated with its consumption, especially in abundance.

“These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat,” says Dr. Christopher Wild, the Director of IARC. “At the same time, red meat has nutritional value,” Dr. Wild continued, reminding the public that red meat need not be totally eliminated.

The Meat Industry Takes “Beef” with the IARC’s Findings

You won’t be shocked to learn that meat producers are taking issue with the IARC’s findings. The North American Meat Institute blasted the IARC’s conclusions claiming it “defies common sense.”  Hormel Foods™, the maker of Spam®, vowed to review the findings with its own scientists and nutritionists in keeping with their company’s commitment to ensure their products are healthy and safe.  James Coughlin, a nutritional toxicologist and a consultant for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) went as far to say that IRAC’s conclusions were based on “weak associations.” He further pointed out that 7 of the 22 members who voted on IARC’s research either disagreed of, or abstained from, voting on the conclusions.

Moderation is Key When It Comes to Red Meat

While it seems that snacking on processed meats is probably not something you want to do on a regular basis, it’s important to take these findings – as any scientific findings – with a grain of salt. Eating a steak dinner every now and then does not mean you will get cancer. The IARC’s findings serve to remind people that cancer is a health hazard that comes along with the excessive consumption of processed meats, and probably red meat as well. Knowing which substances can increase your chances of getting cancer simply allows you to make smarter and healthier choices when it comes to what you put in your body.

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