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Why Bacon Is Up With Cigarettes When It Comes to Causing Cancer

By NoelGRSr

A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) placed processed meats, especially bacon, alongside cigarettes as a leading cause of cancer. Eating two bacon slices a day, it concluded, makes developing bowel cancer 18 percent more likely – enough for it to be ranked as a group 1 carcinogen. With some experts criticizing the findings, however, do bacon lovers have real reason to worry?

Image: Kjetil Ree/Flickr

Image: leigh wolf/Flickr

While the WHO’s findings generally concerned processed meats – namely ham and sausages, as well as bacon – it also concluded that red meats are “probably carcinogenic.” It did say, however, that evidence of a link between them and cancer is limited.


What the WHO did conclusively reveal, however, is that processed meats are as dangerous as smoking, drinking alcohol and asbestos when it comes to cancer-causing potential. They all sit alongside each other in group 1, with red meat having been placed in group 2A.

Image: jeffreyw/Flickr

What exactly constitutes a processed meat? Well, any meat product that’s been cured, salted, smoked or fermented – which means beef jerky, corned beef and hot dogs all count. Such methods either add to the product’s taste or allow it to keep for longer.

Image: Erik Junberger/Flickr

For something to be placed into group 1, the WHO needs to have discovered “sufficient evidence” of its cancer-causing properties. This had already been the case with asbestos, tobacco smoke and alcohol – but the things placed into group 1 don’t necessarily pose the same degree of risk.

Image: Michael Saechang/Flickr

Take mortality figures from the Global Burden of Disease Project, for example. It estimates that approximately 34,000 people around the world die from cancers linked to processed meat every year.

Image: Maëlick/Flickr

This is far smaller than the number of people killed by alcohol-related cancers. At the last count the number of annual fatalities totaled approximately 600,000.

Image: Kari Söderholm/Flickr

Cancers linked to smoking tobacco are deadlier still. Staggeringly, around one million smokers lose their lives to the disease every year.

Image: Tamaki Sono/Flickr

But while drinking and smoking are gradually falling out of favor, meat consumption is on the increase among people on low and middle incomes. This is according to the WHO, which has suggested that processed meat could therefore become a public health concern.

Image: U.S. Army RDECOM/Flickr

Its conclusions were based on over 800 human-centric cancer studies, approximately half of which presented findings on processed meat. A further 700 looked at evidence surrounding red meat.

Image: jeffreyw/Flickr

The WHO did stress, however, that meat has certain nutritional benefits – something that cancer charities have generally concurred with. Cancer Research UK, for example, has said the findings are a reason to reduce the amount of processed meat we eat rather than give it up altogether.

Image: cyclonebill/Flickr

Some scientists, however, have been critical of the WHO’s findings. Dr. Ian Johnson, of the U.K.-based Institute of Food Research, said that while there is a concrete link between processed meat and bowel cancer, the effect, he believes, “is relatively small.”

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“It is certainly very inappropriate to suggest that any adverse effect of bacon and sausages on the risk of bowel cancer is comparable to the dangers of tobacco smoke,” he commented. “[Smoke] is loaded with known chemical carcinogens and increases the risk of lung cancer in cigarette smokers by around 20 fold.”

Image: Larry & Teddy Page/Flickr

Food nutrition scientist Dr. Gunter Kuhnle, of the University of Reading, expressed concern over how the findings have been reported. “The WHO’s decision means that there is sufficient evidence that processed meat consumption causes cancer,” he explained. “It does not mean, as purported by many stories in the media, that eating bacon is as bad as smoking.”

Image: Didriks/Flickr

He added that, while smoking three daily cigarettes increases the chances of developing lung cancer by 600 percent, eating 50 grams of processed meat raises the chances of colorectal cancer by just 20 percent. The difference, then, is pretty big.

Image: Austin Keys/Flickr

So what exactly is it about bacon that increases the risk of cancer? Well, the danger doesn’t lie with the meat; rather, the curing salt used to preserve it. The nitrate it contains can encourage the development of nitrosamines – which, weirdly, are normally found in balloons – in the tracts of the intestines.

Image: Blausen Medical Communications, Inc.

“Many nitrosamines are carcinogenic compounds,” Dr. Kuhnle explained, “as they can react with DNA and eventually cause tumors to form. Moreover, nitrosamines induce a specific mutation pattern which is found in many colorectal tumors.”

Image: Kai Hendry/Flickr

What now, then, for bacon eaters? Well, the old adage about “everything in moderation” certainly rings true – with moderation, in this case, being no more than two slices per day.

Image: U.S. Army RDECOM

Things may get easier if the bacon industry acts on the WHO’s findings, either by looking into new products or updating its dietary advice. According to Dr. Kuhnle, though, the industry should brace itself for a “short-term impact” on sales.

Image: cyclonebill

The message for meat eaters, then, is simple. Limit the amount of processed meats you consume and your risk of developing bowel cancer won’t increase. Oh, and don’t panic over that one bacon sandwich you had this morning.

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