A Healthy Curiosity

A Healthy Curiosity: Is bacon really going to give you cancer?

November 10th 2015


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Processed meat hit the headlines last week as it was classed as a Group 1 carcinogen - but are bacon sandwiches really going to give you cancer? Peta Bee reports

It’s often said that the smell of bacon cooking can undo the resolve of even the most determined new meat avoiders. But the case for giving it up has been strengthened recently by a new report from the World Health Organisation in which it is listed alongside tobacco and alcohol as a potential killer.

In its new report, published last week, the global health experts from WHO classified processed meat, including sausages and bacon, as scary-sounding Group 1 carcinogens that it categorises as a ‘definite’ cause of cancer under the same umbrella as tobacco, alcohol and arsenic. Unprocessed red meat, although less harmful, is nonetheless termed a ‘probable’ cause of cancer in the same bracket as shift work.

According to scientists at WHO, just 50g of processed meat a day – that’s one sausage or less than two slices of bacon - increases the chance of developing bowel cancer by 18 per cent.

According to scientists at WHO, just 50g of processed meat a day – that’s one sausage or less than two slices of bacon - increases the chance of developing bowel cancer by 18 per cent. Previous studies have linked red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork, and processed meats to other cancers, including stomach and pancreatic. In 2009, the World Cancer Research Fund recommended that children be given no processed meat at all.

But what does it mean in practical terms and are we really saying goodbye to the occasional Full English and a weekend bacon sarnie?

What counts as processed meat?

Any meat that has been salted, cured or preserved is considered ‘processed’. So, that’s bacon, ready-made burgers, sausages, ham, salami and pepperoni. “The damaging meats that we need to avoid are the processed and poorer quality meats and meat products, generally those that are massed produced,” says nutritionist Amelia Freer.

What makes it so risky?

“Processed meats contain chemicals called nitrates, which are converted into nitrosamines, and have been linked in various studies to forms of cancer most notably colorectal,” says nutritionist Ian Marber. Nitrates are salts that help to give bacon a more appealing ‘pink’ colour and also destroy some of the bacteria present in the meat. Cooking seems to make matters worse. Exposing processed meat to high temperatures has been shown in some studies to produce chemicals, called HCAs and PAHs. These trigger changes to DNA that might further increase the risk of cancer.

Are organic sausages and bacon any better?

In general, the less a meat product has been processed, the better - and heading to an organic butcher that cures his own meat and makes his own sausages is much better than the mass-market versions on sale at the local supermarket. Nitrate-free sausages are available from some butchers and independent suppliers sell nitrate-free bacon that is cured in the traditional way with salt. Try Green Pasture Farms and Devon Rose who sell online as well as to local suppliers. There is also a burgeoning market for alternatives to processed red meat products, such as chicken sausages. “I’m definitely not against eating red meat, but I do have a few rules around it,” says Freer. “Don’t eat it every day, buy the best quality meat you can afford and always consume lots of vegetables alongside it.”

Should we cut out all red meat, just to be safe?

Red meat has nutritional value too. “It’s a significant source of protein in the diet, but it also provides iron, vitamins B12, B6 and C along with selenium and potassium,” Marber says. According to the NHS, up to 70 grams of red meat a day - the equivalent of a small steak or chop every couple of days - should cause no health problems. “Some, unprocessed red meat can fit well into a healthy diet,” Freer says. Freshly made burgers and mince don’t fall into the processed category, so you can easily make your own at home and you don’t even need any binding ingredients like egg or breadcrumbs. “Add in any spices or just a little garlic and keep a burger simple,” suggests Freer.

But it really is a no to bacon sarnies and hot dogs?

Not so fast. Even the experts at Cancer Research UK say that the occasional sausage or rasher of bacon is hardly going to kill you. Rather, they suggest that “eating large amounts of red and processed meat, over a long period of time, is probably not the best approach if you’re aiming to live a long and healthy life”. Moderation, it seems, remains the key.

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