When the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that eating bacon, along with other processed meats, is now considered a cancer threat on par with smoking, the Internet erupted in a collective gasp. One of the all-time favorite breakfast foods (or dinner foods, or even snack foods, really), was suddenly a major no-no. But behind the startling news, there may be a (small) silver lining.
The carcinogenic threat from bacon arises in its preparation. Processed meats are cured and smoked, and during this process, carcinogenic chemicals start to form, and will later be ingested and spread to cells, says William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly 10-Day Grain Detox.
"Sausage, pepperoni, bacon, salami, and other processed meats often contain the color-fixing chemical sodium nitrite," Dr. Davis says. "Upon cooking, sodium nitrite reacts with amino acids in meat, yielding nitrosamines that have been linked to gastrointestinal cancers."
Because of that, Davis notes, the best meats are uncured and unprocessed, and therefore don't contain sodium nitrite.
But the threat of cancer has largely been overstated, he adds. The link between industrial animal farming and its affect on the planet has been a hotly debated topic (more on that below), however, the link between bacon and cancer deserves a second look, Dr. Davis says.
"The small increases in colorectal cancer seen in such observational epidemiological studies of about [17 percent] are meaningless--small differences that can easily be attributed to confounding factors that accompany the primary behavior (eating red meat)," Dr. Davis writes in his blog. "The people who consume the most red meats also tend to lead somewhat different lifestyles: less vegetables, less fiber, more booze, etc. The data also do not distinguish factory farm-sourced meats with different fatty acid composition, greater potential for intermittent antibiotic content, and other factors, but lump them all together."
Though the study's dramatic statement might seem like a cause for panic, the true link between cancer and bacon isn't as clear. There are many studies, however, suggesting that moderately reducing your meat intake can provide a major effect on your overall health.
"Even minor increases in consumption of red and processed meats have been found to elevate an individual's risk of developing colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer," says Robert Lawrence, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and a professor with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Consumers should not only limit their consumption of processed and red meats, but work toward at least a 15 percent reduction of all meat consumption."
Take the Meatless Monday campaign, for example. Cutting out meat just one day a week can have a powerful effect on your health. Mondays, the campaign notes, are the best day for going meatless because the first day of the week is largely considered the best time to start and keep up with a new routine. But cutting out the meat for that single day won't just help lower your chances of developing certain diseases; it'll also help the planet.
"Livestock production is the single largest driver of habitat loss, and both livestock and feedstock production are increasing in developing tropical countries where the majority of biological diversity resides," a 2015 study about biodiversity and meat production reveals. "Livestock production is also a leading cause of climate change, soil loss, water and nutrient pollution, and decreases of apex predators and wild herbivores, compounding pressures on ecosystems and biodiversity."
Animal agriculture has led to the release of more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector, notes Gene Baur in his book Living the Farm Sanctuary Life. In fact, a 2013 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization by the United Nations has reported that 14.5 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from livestock. Additionally, 40 percent of the earth's total freshwater usage goes to irrigating crops for livestock (humans, meanwhile, use roughly 13 percent), and the waste produced by farmed animals outnumbers the number of human waste tenfold, changing the pH levels in our water and adding pathogens and other toxic chemicals into the water supply, Baur says.
Ready to get smarter about your meat consumption? Cutting back 15 percent is part one. The next step is all about quality. Organic and antibiotic-free meats (which were fed non-GMO and pesticide-free feed) are a healthier choice in the meat aisle, and can translate back to your health.
Jayson Calton, PhD, and Mira Calton, CN, authors of The Micronutrient Miracle, detail their recommendations for the best types of pork to buy. Follow this strategy when choosing your favorite proteins:
Good--Humanely raised meat free of hormones and antibiotics. Choose organic when available.
Better--Choose certified grass-fed/grass-finished meat or pasture-raised pork.
Best--Choose organic, grass-fed/grass-finished meat or pasture-raised pork.
Steer Clear--Synthetic nitrates, dextrose, sugar, "flavoring" (as it is usually sugar and MSG), and the likely carcinogenic preservatives BHA/BHT.
Rich Food Picks--White Oak Pastures, Organic Prairie, Jones Creek Beef, Thousand Hills Cattle Company, Applegate (look for its organic line, as opposed to the naturals line), Atkins Ranch lamb, Pete's Paleo bacon, and Becker Lane Organic pork.