Don’t Ban the Bacon Yet!

Oh, the irony. Just as bacon has made its place in the foodie world - bacon chocolate bars, yum - along comes an announcement to burst your bubble. Monday’s announcement by the The International Agency for Cancer Research (IACR), a branch of The World Health Organization (WHO) lit up social media like a firework. If you read the headlines, you might even think that you will drop dead on the spot the next time you take a bite of bacon or break out the ham sandwich. I get so frustrated with the media and the way they sensationalize, and if you believe what you read, you might as well not eat anything except fruits and veggies.

Those of us in the food and nutrition biz, however, do not exactly call this a “lightbulb” moment. We have been spreading this message for many years, just not in such a dramatic way. So, before you cleanse the kitchen of all processed and red meats, process the facts:

The actual statement: Processed meats are cancer causing, and red meats probably are too.

What meats are processed meats? The IARC defines processed meats as “meats that have been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” This includes processed chicken, turkey and red meat products. Red meats include beef, veal, mutton, and pork.

What meats are we talking about? Any smoked meats, often found at the deli counter, including ham, salami and other Italian cold cuts, corned beef and even smoked turkey. Also on the list are bacon and sausage, including those made from turkey. A lot of people choose turkey deli meats, bacon and sausage thinking they are a healthier option. They are lower in fat than their red meat counterparts, but the cancer risk is the same.

Are they really as dangerous as smoking and asbestos exposure? Not all carcinogens in category 1 are created equal. The International Agency for Cancer Research (IACR), a branch of the WHO, classifies carcinogens on a 1-4 scale, 1 being “Carcinogenic – causes cancer” with 4 “Doesn’t cause cancer”. Yes, they are in the same category, but smoking cigarettes significantly raises your risk of cancer while processed meats present a much lower risk. Red meats, on the other hand, were classified as 2A “Probably causes cancer”.

What type of cancer? Colorectal cancer is associated with eating processed meat, but the researchers did see a link between eating red meats and risk of pancreatic and advanced prostate cancer.

Should I totally eliminate bacon and other processed meats, along with red meats from my diet? You don’t have to ban the bacon yet. Health professionals have been recommending moderation for years when it comes to tossing bacon in your salad, munching on a ham sandwich, or scarfing down a dog at the ballpark.

What does “moderation” mean? In this case, if you really don’t want to give up your faves, eat red meat no more than twice per week, processed less frequently, and strive for a more plant based diet. Sound familiar?

My position and message had changed very little since I became a Registered Dietitian but it is not sensational nor does it sell books or make bucks. Eat more fruits and veggies, fish, legumes and nuts, aka Mediterranean Diet, limit red meats, processed foods and those high in animal fats, choose lean proteins, but most importantly eat for pleasure – move for fun!

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  1. Amanda Swanton says:

    I really appreciate your rational, reasonable, and evidence-based take on the issue! I’ll definitely be sharing this on Facebook to put the “no bacon” chaos to rest 😉

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