THE FOODIE FILES: The Bad News About Bacon

By on November 17, 2015

After a major study links meat and cancer, how much meat should you eat?

AT LEFT: These processed meats are deemed definitely carcinogenic by WHO. AT RIGHT: Why my Dandelion Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing is still part of a healthy diet. Find the recipe at jacksonholefoodie.com. (Photo: Annie Fenn)

AT LEFT: These processed meats are deemed definitely carcinogenic by WHO. AT RIGHT: Why my Dandelion Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing is still part of a healthy diet. Find the recipe at jacksonholefoodie.com. (Photo: Annie Fenn)

Jackson, WY – Hey Carnivores, you may have heard the news that processed meat has been classified as a “definite” cause of cancer. And red meat is considered “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In fact, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, now lumps red meat and processed meat into the same cancer-causing category as asbestos and cigarettes.

Are bacon and hot dogs really as bad as cigarettes? I swore off hot dogs years ago, but I’m not ready to give up my bacon. So I checked out the actual IARC report — “Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat” — published in last week’s “Lancet Oncology” to see exactly what the heck it says.

The IARC defines red meat as “unprocessed mammalian meat muscle … beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat meat.” Processed meat is “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” The IARC analyzed all the available world data on meat and cancer, more than 800 studies in all, before declaring processed meat a carcinogen like tobacco, and red meat a probable one.

First, the bad news: Eating red meat and processed meat does increase the risk of cancer. This should surprise no one. There is a large body of evidence that cancer of the bowel, or colorectal cancer, is more common in people who eat the most red and processed meats. And there is evolving evidence for a link between meat and cancers of the pancreas, breast, prostate and stomach. For the last 30 years, doctors have been telling people to cut back on their intake of red meat and processed meat to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.

But there’s good news, too. Red meat and processed meat can still be part of a healthy diet. The actual risk of eating these foods is not very high and reducing your risk can be easily achieved — more on that later. First, it helps to know the baseline risk of colorectal cancer and what this means in real numbers.

Your lifetime risk of developing colon cancer is 5 percent if you do not eat any red or processed meat at all. If you do eat these foods, your risk goes up to 6 percent. The IARC’s report showed that those who ate the most processed meat had about an 18 percent higher risk of developing colorectal cancer compared with those who ate the least. An increased risk of 18 percent sounds like a big deal, but that is the magnitude of going from an absolute risk of 5 to 6 percent.

Although the “Lancet Oncology” paper yielded some great headlines (“Bacon, Hot Dogs as Bad as Cigarettes” and “Salami Suicide: Delicious but Dangerous” to name a few), it is misleading to compare the carcinogenicity of meat to tobacco. Smoking tobacco increases your chance of getting lung cancer by 2,500 percent. Eating red and processed meat increases your chance of getting colorectal cancer by 18 percent. But the IARC puts them all in the same category because it is not designed to assess degrees of risk. Its classifications are based on strength of evidence. The IARC is very sure that there is a meaningful statistical link between eating meat and cancer. The actual risk, thankfully for the carnivores amongst us, is very low.

What is it about meat that makes it carcinogenic? Researchers are still trying to figure this out, but it seems to be due to some substances that are part of the meat, and others that are transformed when it’s cooked. Red meat is red in part because of the heme in its fibers — the pigment contained in the blood’s oxygen-carrying hemoglobin. This heme breaks down when it’s cooked into N-nitroso compounds (NOC), substances that have been found to damage the cells that line the intestines. Other bowel cells have to up their rate of division to heal over the damage, a process that is known to start cells on the road to cancer.

In addition, processed meats contain chemicals that generate NOC compounds in the gut, such as nitrite preservatives, heterocyclic aromatic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In red meat, cooking can also produce suspected carcinogens. The IARC’s report notes that “high-temperature cooking by pan-frying, grilling or barbecuing generally produces the highest amounts of these chemicals.”

What if you can’t imagine giving up a perfectly seared steak on the grill, a great BLT sandwich, and the salumi platter at Bin22? All of these meals can be part of a healthy diet, but regularly eating large amounts of red and processed meat over a long period of time is probably not the best approach if you want to live a long, healthy life.

The trick is to eat a sensible amount of meat without overdoing it. Some experts are recommending eating no more than 70 grams of red meat a day (equivalent to a 3 ounce portion, the size of a deck of cards) and limiting intake of processed meat; but no one really knows the optimal amount for a healthy diet. When you do eat meat, keep portion sizes small. Don’t burn meat when grilling or pan-frying — those beautiful black grill marks contain the highest amount of carcinogens. And avoid those nasty processed meats — surely you’ve suspected those foot-long Slim Jims are bad for you, right?

Follow the Mediterranean diet: lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and whole grains, and smaller amounts of meat and dairy — all doused in liberal amounts of olive oil and washed down with red wine in the company of friends and family. Study after study has shown those habits are keys to a longer life, less heart disease and cancer, and a younger brain.

Colorectal cancer, by the way, is largely preventable with existing screening guidelines. Get a colonoscopy to screen for cancer starting at age 50, or earlier if you have a family history of the disease.

For more information about making meat part of a healthy diet, join me this Thursday, November 19, at 6 p.m. at Spark Jackson Hole, 145 East Broadway, for The Winter Harvest: A panel on hunting and eating locally throughout the winter. Part of the Yellowstone-Teton Clean Cities ongoing Sustainability Series, I’ll be on hand to talk about choosing local meats, along with Mark Gocke (Wyoming Game and Fish Department), Poa Jacobson Van Sickle (Daily Roots), and Ian MacGregor (Vegetable farmer/Vice-President of Slow Food in the Tetons.) PJH

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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