The Internet sizzled and popped last week after the World Health Organization officially (or finally?) added bacon and other processed meats to its list of known carcinogens. Yes, the onslaught of greasy headlines has made me queasy, too, and I don’t hate bacon—even now that it shares the same cancer risk category as tobacco smoking, asbestos and plutonium.
That bacon isn’t a health food shouldn’t be a surprise, even to those who refer to it as “meat candy.” But the simple question remains: do we prepare for a life beyond bacon or continue frying the heck out of it?
First, an important clarification: bacon is not actually as dangerous as smoking cigarettes, it simply shares the same Group 1 classification of carcinogen, kind of like how cannabis shares its Schedule 1 classification with heroin. Smoking 15-24 cigarettes a day increases your risk of lung cancer by 2,500 percent, and one-four cigarettes a day increases your risk by 500 percent. Eating two slices of bacon a day increases your risk for colorectal cancer by 18 percent, according to WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
“We’ve known for years that the nitrogen in cured meats, which would be your bacon, your ham, your sausage, combines with amino acids to form something called nitrosamines. And this is just a spontaneous chemical reaction that occurs in the gut. And nitrosamines are, in fact, carcinogenic,” says Dr. Dawn Motyka of KUSP’s Ask Dr. Dawn radio show. “We know that if you put nitrosamines on a bunch of cells that you’ll see mutations in the cells that are adverse, in the cancer direction.”
IRAC drew its overdue conclusion from 800 epidemiological studies (across several continents and ethnic groups) that investigated the association between cancer and the consumption of both processed and red meat. (Red meat, by the way, received the lighter sentence of “possible carcinogen,” with an estimated 17 percent increase in colorectal cancer for individuals who consume 100 grams, about the size of a deck of cards, of red meat per day.)
Of course, the North American Meat Institute (yes, it’s a real organization) attacked the findings, stating, “They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.” But fighting the pro-meat battle seems to be growing more and more futile. The Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organization, attributes 34,000 cancer deaths worldwide to diets high in processed meats, and 50,000 deaths per year worldwide to diets high in red meat.
So, what about nitrate-free cured meats? Motyka says they won’t generate nitrosamines in the gut—but they can still produce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are also directly carcinogenic. “They are not present in the cured meat [before you cook it], they’re present after you grill it, or fry it,” says Motyka. “It takes high temperature to push that chemical reaction.” Which means crispy bacon is, unfortunately, definitely a culprit.
Additionally, Nathan S. Bryan, Ph.D, of the University of Texas Houston Biomedical Research Center says that many nitrite-free brands use celery salt, which is 50 percent nitrate, plus a starter culture of bacteria, which transforms it into nitrite—a method he says can result in twice the nitrite content of bacon cured directly with nitrite salt.
“Your body is capable of dealing with pro-cancerous events,” says Motyka. “We do it constantly, and it’s a matter of how much do you throw at it and what’s enough that you actually start to tip the odds.”
Genetics may play a role, too, and people carrying the Cytochrome P450 1B1 gene may produce more nitrosamines than others, adds Motyka. Either way, it may be time to reconsider your meat intake.
“In China, up until they destroyed their environment, they had lower cancer rates. They used meat as a condiment, as a flavoring. And they would eat maybe 100 grams of bacon in a big plate full of vegetables, onions and garlic—the bacon adds the flavor, but it’s really not a large component. And that’s really actually the safest way to consume bacon, is to pretend it’s Parmesan cheese,” says Motyka.
In the United States, using bacon to flavor and add fat to a pot of beans that will feed a large family just isn’t the same as eating it on a hamburger for lunch every day or frying it up daily for breakfast.
When it comes to red meat, the word is moderation. “I would always go with grass-fed organic meat for humane reasons, as well as health reasons,” says Motyka, “which makes it expensive enough that you’re careful enough about how you use it and how often you need it. And if you can only afford McDonald’s hamburgers, then my advice is scrape out all the stuff that they put on it, don’t eat the bun, and get the salad bar. And that’s a better diet than most primitive men had access to. It’s got good variety and it will keep you alive.”