Bacon, cancer, and a dash of perspective

Across the globe, news agencies and social media were on fire when the World Health Organization released findings from their International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC regarding red meat and cancer risk.

Findings reported by IARC stated that for every 50g increase in processed red meat consumption, they expect your risk of cancer (particularly colon cancer) to increase by 18%. Fifty grams is roughly 2-3 strips of bacon or a hot dog a day. One hundred grams of red meat daily is also associated with a 17% increase in cancer risk – but the evidence isn’t as strongly connected.

Why is processed red meat particularly harmful? A few reasons. The high salt content. The smoking process. The nitrites used to preserve it – and the n-nitroso compounds that can result. And, haem iron…yes, the very one we have been told all our lives is the ‘best kind’ of iron. All of these components can damage the gut and increase risk of cancer.

However, this knowledge is far from new. As far back as 2007, the American Institute of Cancer Research warned against processed red meats and cancer risk. Their recommendation was to limit consumption of fresh red meat to less than 18 ounces a week and avoid processed red meats.

So why the frenzy about relatively old news? The IARC Monograph classified processed red meats as a Category 1 carcinogen alongside cigarettes and asbestos. What this means is that they all have the potential to cause cancer. It does not mean that they have the same impact on human health. Smoking is significantly more dangerous than eating meat. And for fresh red meat? It is classified as category 2A, as the evidence is less clear.

So what does this mean for the consumer? Some customers are going to avoid these meats…at least for now. Others will be looking for nitrite-free alternatives in the deli. Note that ‘natural’ products made with celery extracts still contain (‘naturally sourced’) nitrites.

Emphasizing healthier meat choices such as chicken, turkey and fish will help satisfy those looking for animal protein without the risk. Highlighting plant-based proteins such as beans, tofu and meat alternatives will support newly meat-averse customers in their choices.

It is also important to frame the risk in real terms. Know that projected risks are based on daily consumption. These meats can be consumed once a week in a healthy diet without too much harm. However, for those whom regularly consume processed red meats, alternatives would be advisable.

And while meat is not the new smoking, it could be too easy to dismiss this finding altogether. An 18% increased risk of cancer is meaningful. Particularly when you consider that colon cancer kills, on average, 25 Canadians everyday. As a dietitian, that risk matters, especially in the context of the average Canadian diet, which is not that healthy to begin with.