There’s no point denying it: We all love a nice crispy rasher of bacon with our eggs in the morning, a juicy hot dog layered with cheese and onions, or a thick slab of deli ham on our artfully engineered sandwich.
For many, processed meats like these are as much a part of daily life as that morning coffee or mid-afternoon snack. Whereas once they were a rarity, they have now ingrained themselves into popular culture as “normal” and are therefore considered an acceptable occurrence on our plates or in our sandwiches.
However, in the wake of strong new evidence from the World Health Organization (WHO), people might need to drastically reconsider whether processed meats are really worth the risk.
This just in: processed meats are “carcinogenic to humans”
In October 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer gave perhaps the most definitive response yet seen in the scientific health community with regards to processed meats. In its report, the agency classified meats as “carcinogenic to humans,” subsequently placing them in the same league as longtime cancer culprits like cigarettes and asbestos.
This came in the wake of an extensive literature meta-analysis involving 22 experts and over 800 studies on the subject. The research examined the risk of eating processed meats in relation to 16 different types of cancer, finding that colorectal cancer had the strongest link to these foods. However, with the exception of renal cell carcinoma, all of the 16 cancers studied were closely associated with processed meat consumption.
So what are processed meats, exactly?
In a nutshell, processed meat is any meat that has been modified either to increase its shelf life or change its taste. Typical methods used in the creation of processed meats include curing, salting, smoking, canning or drying.
The processed meat family is constantly growing, with new “varieties” springing up all the time. However, some of the heavyweights include bacon, sausages, hot dogs, corned beef, salami, jerky, ham, and any other smoked or cured meats. You’re probably looking at this list with a sense of horror creeping in — chances are you eat at least one of these on a regular basis, and it’s more than likely that your tastebuds are truly grateful for the flavor hit that they provide.
Well, unfortunately for your tastebuds, eating these meats really isn’t worth the trouble it causes. What is it they say? A second on the lips, a lifetime on the… colon? Hmmm… that doesn’t sound quite right.
Why do processed meats cause cancer?
Research into processed meats has shown that through the techniques used to give these meats a longer shelf life, particularly through curing, levels of N-nitroso-compounds (NOCs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are considerably elevated. NOCs cause oxidative damage to intestinal tissues, which can result in a carcinogenic effect, while PAHs have been strongly associated with a range of carcinogenic agents throughout the body.
Furthermore, high-temperature cooking, including frying, grilling or barbecuing, can work to amplify the already seriously negative effects of these meats. It was found that processed meats cooked at a sustained high heat had significantly greater concentrations of NOCs, PAHs, and other adverse compounds.
The bottom line
While it’s certainly prudent to acknowledge the findings of the WHO and seriously cut back on your consumption of processed meats, it is also important to take it with a grain of salt (pun intended). As with everything, moderation is key, and if you limit your processed meat intake to, say, once a week, it’s unlikely that any serious negative effects will manifest themselves.
To put it in perspective, the WHO research team found that eating approximately 1.8 ounces of processed meat daily will increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is around 5 percent, therefore eating 1.8 ounces of processed meat on a daily basis would increase your lifetime risk to 5.9 percent. It’s important to note that you should not be eating processed meat on a daily basis even at the best of times, so if eaten only occasionally and in small quantities, this statistic becomes rather insignificant.
Furthemore, when sourced from healthy animals and processed with high-quality ingredients, certain processed meats can provide a range of benefits. For example, bacon sourced from pastured, organic, humanely raised pigs can provide an excellent source of healthy fats. The nitrates and nitrites found in bacon have actually been shown to play an important role in immunity and cardiovascular function.
The point is, there are always two sides to the story, so make sure you do your research before you rush down to the supermarket and try to burn down the deli meats section in a fit of rage.
Worried about all the processed meats you’ve been eating and want to repair the damage? Check out this article for a guide to building your own anticancer menu.
Liivi is an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and is training to become a doula. She inspires women to find peace and personal power by taking control of health and fertility naturally. Liivi‘s passion is ancestral nutrition and primal lifestyle design. She and her partner Will live between Toronto, Canada and Queenstown, New Zealand.