Processed Meat Is Bad For You, But It's No Tobacco

Just your friendly preserved-meats apologist here.
Carlos Gawronski via Getty Images

You couldn't be on the Internet this week without seeing headlines splashed across news sites and social media stating that eating processed meat causes cancer -- some outlets even going so far as to claim that eating bacon is as big of a health gamble as smoking cigarettes.

Let's call it all an oversimplification at best.

Your actual cancer risk is small

On Monday, the World Health Organization issued a press release classifying processed meat (think bacon, salami, hot dogs, deli meat) as "carcinogenic to humans," a category shared by smoking, solar radiation and alcoholic beverages, among other scary things. But your actual risk of developing colorectal cancer from processed meats is very low.

The scientific literature examined cumulative meat consumption, and concluded that the daily consumption of 50 grams of processed meat -- or, in normal-people terms, about three slices of cooked bacon -- increased one's risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

To be clear: Daily bacon does not raise the risk to 18 percent -- it raises the risk by 18 percent. According to the National Cancer Institute, an average American's lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is 4.5 percent. If you were to eat three slices of cooked bacon every single day, it would bump your lifetime risk from 4.5 to 5.3 percent. That's a difference of about one percent from daily bacon consumption.

Daily bacon consumption isn't too far off, for a lot of people: American eat an average of about 163 grams of meat per day, a number that includes processed meat, unprocessed red meat and poultry. But the U.S. has seen a sharp decline in red meat consumption since the 1970s, and a decline in meat consumption overall since the year 2000.

There is no comparison between meat and cigarettes

Your lifetime risk of developing lung cancer is about 7 percent, but men who smoke a pack of cigarettes each day are 23 times more likely to die of lung cancer than nonsmokers. And even light smokers are at high risk. Men who smoked between one and four cigarettes each day were three times more likely to die from the disease, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Circulation.

What's more, cigarette smoking accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths, killing more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide and illegal drugs combined, the American Cancer Society reports. Good luck finding numbers like that about bacon.

"When we see headlines that link a specific food or food group to cancer (like this) without considering the scientific perspective, it promotes fear and misinterpretation," Kim Larson, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told The Huffington Post. "It's important to put this into perspective."

But yes, processed meats are still bad for you

One the other hand, putting the WHO report into perspective isn't an excuse to go hog wild at the deli counter. We've long known that processed meats aren't particularly healthy. In addition to being high in sodium, they've been linked to a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, and experts recommend limiting them in your diet. So it's certainly worth re-evaluating how often you eat processed meats, and how much you eat when you do consume them.

"If you eat hot dogs every day or every other day, you should cut down," Larson said. "If you have a hot dog a couple times during the summer, that is fine." Such advice goes for prosciutto, smoked meats and countless other delicacies, too.

Scientists don't know exactly why processed meats cause cancer, but one theory suggests that nitrate, a preservative, can form carcinogenic compounds in the body when consumed. Another is that carcinogens form when meat is cooked at high temperatures, like roasting, grilling, frying and smoking.

Eating reasonable three-ounce portions and being thoughtful about preparation can go a long way toward reducing carcinogens in your diet. Larson recommends marinating meat, which may provide a barrier between the meat and the grill; choosing lean cuts, which lead to fewer flare ups; grilling less frequently; and using lower-temperature cooking methods such braising, stewing and poaching.

Diet in an important component of overall health, but it's still only one component of many. Cancer is a complex disease that's influenced by many different lifestyle factors, including weight, diet quality, quanitity and frequency of meat eaten, physical activity and other exposures, Larson said: "There is no one food that causes cancer."

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