Unless you’re a hermit and have not yet heard, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) met last week and released an article on the Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat, or as most of Facebook puts it the “bacon gives you cancer” article. The title of the article is not only a mouthful to say, it’s also fairly intimidating and I’m guessing most people haven’t bothered to give it a thorough look. If you click on the link above, you’ll be redirected to The Lancet Oncology, where you can sign up for free to read the full text of the article.
Before I begin my usual senseless banter about how I think bacon is the solution and not the problem, let me first get two things out of the way: first and foremost, cancer is never a laughing matter, whether it’s in the form of a small mole on your arm or full-blown leukemia. Cancer is not an easy battle to fight, so for those of you that have had to deal with it yourself, or have a friend or family member go through it, my heart goes out to you.
Second, I’m by no means an authority on the subject I’m writing about here. Unlike with food, where anybody that’s able to add water to ramen noodles can call themselves a chef, I’m definitely not a scientist, considering I’m barely even a lawyer at this point. For what it’s worth I have a BA to my name and I can try to make sense of the scientific mumbo-jumbo that the IARC has released so far. So without further ado, let’s get right into it.
Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat – A lay interpretation
Sometimes I make the mistake of reading a scientific paper only to remember that I’m no good at reading scientific papers. It’s like scientists try to confuse you on purpose by using words that they know you don’t understand, combine them with numbers and figures, and give their works fancy titles as a way to compensate for their lack of writing prowess. If my guess is right, once you can decipher what the original author, aka the “researcher”, meant to write in plain English, then you, too, are worthy of being called a scientist. Then you can take that same approach to writing articles to encourage other people to try to understand your research, thus going full circle.
The reason I chose to comment on this topic is simple: I love bacon and I love red meat. Being told that it’s not healthy simply doesn’t sit well with me, and I wanted to find out what all the news articles (and by extension IARC) meant when they made broad stroked statements about the cancerous effects of eating red meat.
In true scientific fashion, the article first explains what it means when it uses the terms red and processed meat. It defines red meat as: “unprocessed mammalian muscle meat—for example, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, or goat meat—including minced or frozen meat” while it defines processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.” To put that in perspective, red meat can include things like steak, roasts, meat-balls and burger patties, while processed meats can include bacon, breakfast meats (prosciutto among the more prominent ones), jerkies and hot dogs, just to name a few. Why does bacon make the list? Well I’ll tell you more about that in a second.
While the majority of the article goes through a review of trials and their respective results, the overall findings are that “there is sufficient evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of processed meat” meaning there’s enough evidence to conclude that consumption of processed meats can lead to cancer. As for red meat, the Working Group concluded “…that there is limited evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat” implying that there still uncertainty surrounding the correlation between consumption of red meat and the development of certain kinds of cancer – although one can loosely connect the two.
That’s a good thing, right? Well almost. On the one hand it’s good to know that having your steaks and eating them, too, is not going to conclusively give you cancer (the IARC does warn, however, that “meat smoked or cooked over a heated surface or open flame contains [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons]. These chemicals cause DNA damage, but little direct evidence exists that this occurs following meat consumption”).
On the other hand, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that eating processed meat is bad for you – although I don’t think anyone realized that eating hot dogs and bacon is the kind of bad that will give you cancer. At the same time, if you realized how these “processed meat” products are made, maybe it’s not that hard to imagine them leading to cancer; I mean look at the following 5 minute YouTube video showing step-by-step how hot-dogs are made at the factory:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of hot-dogs and I knew very well what went into these delicious, phallus shaped treats. Yet seeing the brownish-pink sludge ooze out of an industrial tube that will press the meat slurry into the shape of a hot-dog really turned me off, especially after reading the above article. There’s unnatural, and then there’s this wicket 2-girls-1-cup style production process that ends up as a finished, ready to eat hot-dog. I for one threw my week-old hot-dogs out after seeing this clip.
But what about bacon, how did it make the IARC’s shit-list? Bacon is a whole other ballpark, because it’s not quite processed meat, but it still falls into the category of salted, fermented, or smoked meat. All of the above sound delicious, until you watch the following 5-minute YouTube video on how bacon is made.
I don’t see anything wrong with having pork belly, cutting its skin off, and tenderizing it. Honestly, if it’s pork and it looks like bacon, then for all intents and purposes it is bacon. It’s the liquid smoke baths and the other processes that really turn me off (and if you finished watching the above video, also the commercial grade microwaving of the bacon), despite adding tremendous flavour to the finished product. Taking that into consideration, it’s not hard to imagine that bacon could be far worse than what you had initially anticipated it to be. Cancer-causing, though – debatable.
This leads to another important point: gluttony. It doesn’t have to be either red or processed meat in order to give you cancer – if you ingest enough of anything you’re bound to end up either severely ill or even dead. Don’t believe me? Try drinking too much water (without drowning yourself in a pool) and you’ll see what I mean.
Seeing the outrage over their findings, the World Health Organization issued a separate statement clarifying that the IARC review “does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of … cancer.” So balancing your meat consumption, along with having a balanced diet are two super important factors in avoiding diet-related diseases – or so common sense would tell you.
On a scale of one to Dianetics, one being easy to understand and Dianetics being both confusing and idiotic, I’d say this article ranks closer to the former than anything else. It’s interesting to learn the effects that processed, everyday-foods have on our health. It’s equally interesting that this article has brought the conversation about healthy meat-eating to the forefront in the news.
Although I for one will not stop eating red meat or even bacon any time soon, I have enough incentive to “take it easy” on eating processed meats and try to make alternative protein sources more of a priority in my daily diet. This may even include eating more salads, which I’m reluctantly warming up to. More than anything, I believe this article has confirmed or at the very least reassured us that having lots of meat might not be such a sound policy, something that we have never had spelled out for us in black and white before. Maybe this controversial article will further our discussion and research on the topic, and educate us to live healthier and more balanced lives.