A Measured Reconsideration of That WHO Processed Meats Study
No, bacon isn't as bad as cigarettes
As you’ve probably gleaned by now, much of the carnivorous world was rocked Monday by the World Health Organization’s announcement that processed meats like sausage, bacon, and most of the meats in your average deli counter cause cancer.
The Internet quickly went through several stages of mourning: Anger and resolve to never give up bacon or processed meats despite what those bigwigs at the WHO say, depression that this was the way things are now, resignation to a life of kale. But thankfully, some people have helpfully pointed out that the study doesn’t actually mean you have to give up red and processed meats forever, and that a lot of the online hysteria surrounding the study is just that.
First of all, just because bacon CAN cause cancer, doesn’t mean that it will. The WHO’s classification of processed meats as Group 1 carcinogens is based on the conclusive evidence that a substance causes cancer, not the likelihood that it will. Just because bacon is in the same group as cigarettes and alcohol doesn’t mean it’s as likely to give you cancer.
And as Buzzfeed points out, bacon’s likelihood of giving you cancer is relatively slim: Eating 50 grams of bacon every day raises your risk of developing cancer from about 5 percent to 6 percent. By way of comparison, smoking a little over a pack a day will raise that risk 2,400 percent.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that none of this information is new. The WHO looked at 800 previously published studies to arrive at its conclusion, and the only reason that its announcement is getting such attention is because, well, it’s the World Health Organization. Generally there are more eyes on its announcements than on those of smaller medical journals.
Long story short, we’ve known about this stuff for a while, and your doctor or significant other or favorite pundit or whatever health personality you’ve subscribed to has probably warned you about it already. Dariush Mozzafarian, dean of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, told NPR that there’s still no clear serving guidelines that can help meat aficionados limit their consumption, but his own general recommendations are as follows: “No more than one to two servings per month of processed meats, and no more than one to two servings per week of unprocessed meat.”
If that sounds too stringent and specific for you, you could always just follow the American Cancer Society’s recommendation, which is simply to “minimize” processed meat as a portion of your diet and choose fish, poultry and beans as an alternative. When you do eat red meat, shoot for leaner cuts and smaller portions, they recommend.