Beauty & Wellness
A Long, But Eminently Readable Report On The Bacon Debacle
Since the recent announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO), many have found themselves, once again, reconsidering their relationship to meat — specifically, reconsidering the suddenly precarious potential of that crackly slice of bacon. The news seemed dire indeed: after conducting an exhaustive review of published findings over the last several decades, the WHO has found that “processed meats” belong to the motley crew of confirmed carcinogens (Group 1), and that ‘“red meat” belongs to the more ambiguous team of probable carcinogens (Group 2A). As the news media put it: eating meat gives you cancer.
That’s a serious charge, to us as consumers and to our local meat purveyors. Following the WHO’s pronouncement, The Meat Market in Great Barrington issued its own “argument for fair and accurate reporting.” We’re posting much of it here, because it spells out the findings in an articulate and particularly graspable way (and with a sense of humor you won’t find in the WHO’s report). Yes, the Meat Market has an admitted bias, so here’s the link to the WHO’s statement.
We thank Jeremy Stanton at The Meat Market and the report’s author, Roland Obedin-Schwartz, for permission to run this and use their photos.
Since we are a serious and loving creator and purveyor of fresh and processed meats, we are naturally biased on this subject, but we take the WHO’s findings seriously, and we are invested in the health and the happiness of our customers. We here are all eaters of responsibly raised meat, and we believe it is both nutritious and delicious. We discuss the health benefits and costs of meat consumption in our shop regularly, and consider your health, and the health of our community in all of our decisions in regards to the supply and development of our products
Should we really be worried? Let’s delve into this and find out what’s really going on.
We’ll start with what the WHO says, and what these statements mean. To belong to Group 1, you have to prove yourself as a carcinogen, which means that there must be enough evidence showing an increased risk of a person developing cancer at some point to be considered inarguable. Group 1 does not imply the severity of risk, but the collection of sufficient evidence suggesting that risk exists at all. Group 2A is more vague: things in this list probably cause cancer — again, this is not an assessment of risk, but collection of evidence: there is enough evidence to imply a correlation, but not enough to prove one.
Processing the science
Because the red meat argument is an addendum to the processed meats findings, and because the evidence is admittedly limited and the conclusions unclear, we will focus on the Group 1 offenders: processed meats. We have some questions, but we’ll bite: they definitely cause cancer. How much? How likely is it that I will get cancer if I eat processed meats?
According to one of the main studies in the WHO’s report, there is a 17 percent relative increase in the likelihood of developing colorectal cancer among people that eat the most processed meat compared to people that eat the least. The report puts the base likelihood among an average person in a western culture at 5 percent, regardless of meat consumption; if you eat a significant amount of “processed meats,” your likelihood increases to 5.85 percent.
This is not a significant increase, particularly in comparison to other lifestyle decisions, but the evidence is there. If you are predisposed to colorectal cancer, if you lead an unhealthy lifestyle that would generally make you more likely to develop colorectal cancer, and if you eat a significant amount of processed meat, you are at a greater likelihood of developing colorectal cancer than otherwise. In fact, meat consumption is significantly less detrimental to your health, and to the health of your colon, than lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking, being overweight, and leading a sedentary lifestyle. Meat consumption does contribute to an increased relative likelihood, but is not the major player. Okay, that’s it. That’s the rub.
Which meats are the “bad” guys?
Does this apply to all meats? Good question, unclear answer. The study focuses on two meat groups: “processed meats,” and “red meats” The latter, which fall into Group 2A, include beef, pork, and lamb (no chicken or fish). It seems as though there is no distinction between industrially raised meat and pasture-raised, grass fed and finished meat in this category, so it seems not to matter for the cancer discussion, though we will note that, outside of the colorectal cancer issue, numerous studies show the huge health benefits of grass-fed meat in the diet, and dangers of industrially-raised meat in the diet.
For the sake of this conversation, however, we will table this. “Processed meats” is more vague, since that would theoretically cover all meats that are in some way prepared for preservation, whether through salt, nitrates, heavy uses of artificial preservatives, smoking, even dehydration.
Meat processing, separate from this study, can be extremely harmful: the preservatives used to prepare meat products you find in supermarkets can be nasty. Some are cancerous, others cause allergies and asthma, blood sugar spikes, and potentially heart attacks and stroke. The type of processing does not seem to matter to this report, so we will be generous and assume that any form of processing lumps said meat into the “processed meats” category. We would like to note that the type of processing we use in our shop includes salt preservation, nitrates, smoking, and dehydration. We do not use modern preservatives that prevent food from behaving like food. Our sausages, which are apparently lumped under the “processed meats” category, are mostly served fresh, which would make them chemically identical to “red meats”’ but that is neither here nor there. We digress.
The Big C vs. Big B(eef)
Back to the report: what is causing this cancer? Lacking an obvious culprit, evidence points to one or a combination of these three compounds: Heme, which binds oxygen within blood cells and gives blood and meat its red color; nitrosamines, caused by nitrates breaking down and combining with animo acids in our bodies; and Heterocyclic Aromatic Amines (HAAs), which develop in foods when cooked in high heat (think: char). Since bacon has heme, nitrates, and is generally served fried, it is theoretically more likely to be cancerous than, say, kale, which is chock full of nitrates and will create HAAs if fried.*
Making peace with meat
So, what does that all mean for us meat eaters? Once you get past the fear-mongering, there is not very much to fear in this WHO release, though we do suggest you consider the following three considerations before deciding that an all-bacon diet is the way to go: 1, your family history of colorectal cancer; 2, your overall health and lifestyle—if you are a heavy smoker and drinker that leads a sedentary lifestyle your bacon consumption is the cherry on top of an already profound increase in all forms of cancer; 3, your predilection towards high heat cooking.
Rural Intelligence photo.
If you are passionate eater of smoked and burnt meats, be aware that this passion is probably more dangerous than your passion for needlepoint and chamomile tea. We are waiting for the WHO’s report on that, though.
A final note
This study has, for better and for worse, propagated further discussion into the pros and cons of meat eating. While the WHO, and the subsequent media blitz, have focused entirely on the slight but real negatives of meat consumption regarding cancer, there has been little discussion over the notable benefits of eating meat, particularly pasture-raised, grass-fed and finished meat. We’d like to spend more time talking about that, to be honest. We also believe that the big danger in meat consumption is environmental, and deserves more consideration than these findings which, while not completely insignificant, seem to miss the forest for the trees. Nevertheless, this report is worth noting, and its information is useful particularly if you fall into the categories listed above.
Photo: Kristine Kisky.
When it comes down to choosing what you eat for dinner, however, there are more important factors to consider: notably, where your meat comes from. That’s for another day, though.For now: don’t burn the bacon. Go for a walk. Enjoy your life.
*We here at the shop have nothing against kale, which, like bacon, is delicious when properly prepared, and like bacon, can theoretically kill you. We suggest combining kale and bacon, though please refrain from charring them in the skillet, as that would probably be ill-advised.