The bacon industry has been living high on the hog, but a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) may just dampen enthusiasm for the salty slices.
WHO researchers concluded, based on a large meta-analysis of previously published research, that processed meats such as bacon cause cancer.
A person who eats 1.8 ounces of processed meat — smoked, salted, fermented, or otherwise — per day raises their risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, the study said.
But bacon won’t face the heat alone. Hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, and canned meat are all considered processed meats.
Diets high in processed meats lead to nearly 35,000 cancer deaths per year, according to estimates by the Global Burden of Disease project, cited by WHO.
The WHO’s recommendations on unprocessed red meat — including beef, pork, goat, lamb, and horse — were milder. With only limited evidence, WHO concluded that red meats are “likely carcinogens.”
In plain English, that means they probably cause cancer. Barbecuing and pan-frying meat may increase the risks, but more research is needed, WHO researchers said.
The research linked red meat most closely to colorectal cancer. There is also data suggesting a connection between red meat and pancreatic, prostate, and stomach cancers.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer started looking into meat last year after it was flagged as a high priority question about cancer risk.
While the cancer risk from eating meat is relatively small — compared to that from smoking, for example — the WHO says it is significant for global public health “because many people worldwide eat meat and meat consumption is increasing in low- and middle-income countries.”
If further research proves that red meat isn’t just associated with a bump in the risk of cancer, but actually causes it, that would make red meat responsible for 50,000 cancer deaths per year.
Red Meat Already Targeted
Many nutritional guidelines already advise limiting red meat consumption. Until now, these recommendations were generally focused on reducing the risk of other diseases, including heart disease.
The American Cancer Society discouraged red meat and processed meats in its 2012 guidelines.
But don’t swear off the beef just yet, says The National Cattleman’s Beef Association.
“There are a constellation of factors that are associated with the probability of getting cancer, which include age, genetics, socioeconomic characteristics, obesity, lack of physical activity, where you grew up, alcohol consumption, smoking, and even your profession,” said Dominik Alexander, Ph.D., M.S.P.H., an epidemiologist who has worked with the Beef Association. “Because red meat is consumed in the context of hundreds of other foods and is correlated with other behavioral factors, it is not valid to conclude red meat is an independent cause of cancer.”