A new World Health Organisation report has classified processed meat as a definite cause of cancer, and red meat as a probable cause. It’s definitely bad news for bacon lovers — but probably not as bad as your Facebook feed would have you believe.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report, published in The Lancet, confirms that processed meats like bacon and sausages cause bowel cancer, and that red meats (such as beef, pork, veal, and lamb) are probably carcinogenic.
As a result, processed meats — meats that have been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation — have been classified as a Group 1 carcinogen to humans, based on “sufficient evidence” that consuming processed meat causes bowel cancer.
Red meat — any meat that’s a dark red colour before it’s cooked — has been classified as a Group 2A probable carcinogen to humans, based on “limited evidence” that red meat causes cancer.
Here’s where the misinformation comes from. Tobacco smoking and asbestos are also classified as Group 1 carcinogens, leading a number of outlets to report that processed meats are as bad as smoking and asbestos. This isn’t the case. As this piece on Gizmodo and this piece at Cancer Research UK succinctly explain, these classifications relate to the level of confidence the IARC has in the existence of the link between the classified item and a particular type of cancer, not the prevalence of that link. In other words, the carcinogen classifications speak to certainty, not severity.
That’s important because, while today’s report confirms that scientists are now as confident processed meats cause cancer as they are that tobacco and asbestos do, it doesn’t mean that these things cause cancer to the same degree.
You only need to look at the numbers to see the disparity — smoking causes roughly a million deaths per year, whereas ‘only’ 34,000 deaths can be attributed to cancer caused by processed meat each year. (Diets high in red meat may be responsible for up to 50,000 deaths per year, but since red meat has not been definitively proven to be a direct cause of cancer, this number should be taken with a grain of salt.)
That’s not to say that today’s report shouldn’t concern you. In it, researchers say that your risk of bowel cancer increases by as much as 18 per cent with every 50 grams of processed meat you eat in a day, and increases by as much as 17 per cent with every 100 grams of red meat.
That should give anyone pause the next time they go to eat a hotdog, although it’s important to keep in mind that these numbers are relative, not absolute. You don’t have a flat 18 per cent chance of developing bowel cancer because you eat too much meat — if you fall within a demographic at relatively low risk of developing bowel cancer, we’re talking about 18 per cent of that relatively low number.
So, what does all this mean for you? Well, as is so often the case, it’s all about moderation. This report isn’t recommending that you cut processed and red meat out of your diet entirely, because meat has nutritional value. (Smoking, on the other hand, is always bad for you.) The report is simply advising you to limit your intake and avoid going overboard. As for what ‘overboard’ means for you, it’s best to consult your doctor.
The important thing is that you don’t miss out on all that delicious bacon because of a sensationalist news article.
Have today’s headlines convinced you to change your diet? Let us know in the comments below!