Advertisement
  1. Health

Q&A: If bacon causes cancer, should we all become vegetarians?

A research division of the World Health Organization announced on Monday that bacon, sausage and other processed meats cause cancer, and that red meat probably does, too. The report by the influential group stakes out one of the most aggressive stances against meat yet taken by a major health organization, and it is expected to face stiff criticism in the United States. [iStockphoto.com]
Published Oct. 26, 2015

In an announcement that has alarmed bacon lovers and sent the beef industry into a furor, the World Health Organization's cancer research arm on Monday declared processed meat a carcinogen, like tobacco, and said red meat is probably one, too. Here's what experts have to say about what this new warning means for your diet:

What meats are they talking about exactly?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer's definitions of processed meat and red meat are very wide. Processed meats encompass any meats that have been "transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation." This would include sausages, corned beef, hot dogs, beef jerky, canned meat, meat-based preparations and sauces, turkey and chicken cold cuts, as well as bacon. Red meat refers to "all types of mammalian muscle meat," such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse - even goat.

What kind of cancers did the scientists look at?

For processed meat, the carcinogen label was given based on studies about colorectal cancer. They also found an association between processed meat and stomach cancer. For red meat, the data pointed to associations with colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.

RELATED: Hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer, health group declares

Why do they think these are dangerous to our health?

Scientists think that something bad happens to meat during the process of salting, curing or other treatment that causes the build up of carcinogenic chemicals such as N-nitroso-compounds (NOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in the food. In red meat, cooking can also produce suspected carcinogens — in this case heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) and PAH. The IARC's report, published in Lancet Oncology, notes that "high-temperature cooking by pan-frying, grilling or barbecuing generally produces the highest amounts of these chemicals."

What's the distinction between the classification that the IARC gave to processed meat versus red meat?

The group put processed meat products into its highest risk category meaning that they believe there's pretty strong evidence to back up this link. It's the same designation that has been given to really serious cancer-causing agents, such as air pollution and different types of radiation.

Red meat was put into the second highest category of being a "probable" carcinogen meaning that there's limited evidence of the link in humans but a lot of evidence in experimental animals.

Uh-oh. I eat a lot of meat. What do I do now?

The IARC's director, Christopher Wild, said that the group's findings support recommendations to "limit" intake of meat. But Wild also hedged a bit saying that red meat has "nutritional value." The American Cancer Society's Susan Gapsur recommends that people who do eat meat begin to cut back on the amount of red meat they consume and "really limit" their intake of processed meat. Gapsur, a vice president for epidemiology, said people should be moving toward a more plant-based diet and choose fruits, vegetables, and beans as alternatives to meat.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said her recommendation on processed meat and red meat the same: Eat less. But Nestle stops short of recommending everyone should become a vegetarian.

"Some people are interpreting it as don't eat meat at all. I don't know if that's reasonable," she said. "The evidence against processed meat is very strong, but it's very hard to consider giving up. A BLT is really a wonderful thing."

She said that a number of the studies that link meat to risk of cancers involve individuals who eat meat multiple times a week, if not at every meal, rather than occasional consumers of meat. These people may have other unhealthy habits like exercising less that elevate their risk of cancer. Nestle emphasized that "you don't need a special diet for cancer."

"The same healthy diet that is good for heart disease is also good for cancer: a largely-but not necessarily exclusively-plant-based diet," she said.

CHEESE, TOO? Study finds cheese is as addictive as drugs

That's helpful, but what I really need to know is the bottom line. What's a safe level of meat consumption? Is it okay for me to eat a hamburger with bacon twice a week? Once a week? Once a month?

While scientists have come up with those sorts of general recommendation for alcohol consumption (one drink a day), none exists for meat. A person's individual biology is complex and a safe level for one person may not be safe for another. It depends on what the rest of your diet looks like, how often you exercise, your genes and a whole slew of other factors.

U.S. dietary guidelines recommend that Americans eat diets rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, seafood, legumes and dairy and stay away from red meat but they don't offer any specific numbers. The World Cancer Research Fund International comes the closest — suggesting that people who eat red meat consume less than 500 grams (about 18 ounces) a week and very little if any processed meat.

But American Cancer Society's Gapsur emphasized in an interview that "we don't know if there is any perfectly safe level."

"The risk increases with the amount consumed," she said. "The best we can recommend is decreasing your consumption."

The IARC's report that came out this week says that if you eat 50 grams of processed meat (the equivalent of a few slices of bacon) every day - or a total of 350 grams a week - your risk of colon cancer goes up by 18 percent. That's a lot. But keep in mind that this is a relative increase in risk and for some cancers your risk of developing the disease is not very high to begin with depending on your age, gender and other factors.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Stephanie Vold, a medical assistant and intake specialist for OnMed, holds the door while Austin White, president and CEO of the company, talks with a nurse practitioner during a demonstration of their new telehealth system at Tampa General Hospital on Tuesday. The hospital is the first to deploy the OnMed station and plans to install them at other locations. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    The closet-size “office” with a life-size screen is another example of the changing face of medicine.
  2. Marijuana plants grow in a greenhouse environment in this room at the Curaleaf Homestead Cultivation Facility. This environment controls the amount of natural sunlight and artificial light the plants are exposed to, as well as the temperature. EMILY MICHOT  |  Miami Herald
    An Atlanta broker is listing one license for $40 million and the other for $55 million.
  3. A page from the Medicare Handbook focuses on Medicare Advantage plans, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. Medicare's open enrollment period for 2020 begins Oct. 15 and lasts through Dec. 7. PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS  |  AP
    New benefits are giving an extra boost to Medicare Advantage, the already popular alternative to traditional Medicare.
  4. The Tampa Bay Times' annual Medicare Guide explains how the program is set up, helps you compare options available in the Tampa Bay area, and points the way toward help, including free, one-on-one assistance. This illustration will grace the cover of LifeTimes on Oct. 23, when the guide will be published in print. RON BORRESEN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    As the open enrollment period begins, it’s time to review your coverage.
  5. The Medicare Handbook for 2020 is a good resource to have as the annual open enrollment period gets under way. The government usually mails beneficiaries a copy. Find a PDF version to print at medicare.gov/pub/medicare-you-handbook, or call 1-800-633-4227 (1-800-MEDICARE) to order a copy. THOMAS TOBIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The open enrollment period, which lasts into December, is a time for millions of beneficiaries to review, and possibly change, their coverage.
  6. Medicare's online Plan Finder has been redesigned and is available at medicare.gov/find-a-plan. THOMAS TOBIN  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The most-used tool on Medicare.gov will look different this year.
  7. Jim Tolbert, left, staffs a booth at a senior expo for Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, or SHINE, a state program that answers Medicare and other insurance questions. The program has scheduled a number of events around the Tampa Bay area during Medicare's open enrollment period, Oct. 15 to Dec. 7. Times (2015)
    About 500 volunteers statewide are at the ready. They work for Serving Health Insurance Needs of Elders, or SHINE, now in its 28th year.
  8. In this Sept. 6, 2019, photo, Donna Cryer holds up family photos that include her father Roland Henry, as she poses for a photo in Washington. When her father died, she tried to donate his organs, yet the local organ collection agency said no, without talking to the family or providing a reason. "It was devastating to be told there was nothing they considered worthy of donation. Nada. Not a kidney, not a liver, not tissue,” recalled Donna Cryer, president of the nonprofit Global Liver Institute and herself a recipient of a liver transplant. SUSAN WALSH  |  AP
    Under U.S. transplant rules, the country is divided into 58 zones, each assigned an “organ procurement organization” in charge of donation at death.
  9. Kreshae Humphrey, 26, bathes her daughter, Nevaeh Soto De Jesus, 3, inside of a baby bath tub in the middle of their living room. The parents bathe all three of their girls with bottled water because they believe the children were sickened by the tap water at the Southern Comfort mobile home park off U.S. 19 in Clearwater. The family is suing the park's owner over the issue, but the owner and the state say there are no problems with the drinking water there. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    The owner of Southern Comfort denies there are problems with the drinking water. But the park is still being shut down. All families must be out by Oct. 31.
  10. An arm of the Department of Health and Human Services is taking steps to establish a National Volunteer Care Corps that would recruit healthy retirees and young adults to help seniors live independently. The ranks of Americans age 85 and up are set to swell to 14.6 million in 2040, up from more than 6 million now. Times (2010)
    A federal agency is exploring a national volunteer program modeled after the Peace Corps to help care for the booming elderly population.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement