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What’s cooking with Bacon? Is the recipe…Cancer?

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The World Health Organization recently classified processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, and salami as cancer causers and put it in the same category as smoking and asbestos. Should we be concerned at the breakfast table or the ballpark?

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer is a reputable group of scientists who used standardized defensible methods in this assessment. Then I looked at the results and had two major takeaways that everyone needs to hear. The investigators found that the evidence is strong to support the carcinogenic nature of processed meats so they made it a Class 1 agent and put it in the same category as smoking and asbestos. In addition to the report I then looked for a molecular underpinning for the risk and basic science has found three things that cause the creation of nitrogenous compounds linked to colon cancer in the lab animal starting from the digestion of red meat itself, the chemicals used in processing the meat, and high temperature cooking. However, if you stop there and don’t appreciate the second take away, you do yourself a disservice.

It is not whether processed meats cause colon cancer but how much it increases the risk. Eating one hot dog or two bacon slices every day for years can raise your absolute risk of colon cancer from 4.5 to 5.3%. In comparison, smoking increases the risk of lung cancer from 1.3 to 17.2%. Looked at another way, 34,000 additional people will get colon cancer if they regularly eat processed meats but over 1,000,000 people will get cancer from smoking. So people saying that processed meats are as bad as smoking or asbestos in terms of cancer risk are intentionally or unintentionally obscuring the truth. Similarly anyone who thinks bacon, bologna, salami, and hot dogs are health foods are crazy and moderation is better than daily indulgence. These processed meats also increase the risk of heart disease as does smoking so again, absolute abstinence is not necessary but overindulgence isn’t prudent.

Michael White; Dept. of Pharmacy Practice, UConn School of Pharmacy