The Fate of Bacon: Will Its Link to Cancer Cause Its Doom?

For some, the thought of having to eat breakfast on Saturdays without bacon is unbearable. However, this is the decision that mankind thought it would have to face when the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced in a press release that bacon and other processed meats would now be classified as a Group 1 carcinogen [1]. Does this mean the end to bacon-eating as the world knows it? Research suggests that there may still be hope for bacon-lovers.

A carcinogen is any substance that can cause cancer [2]. Through a meta-analysis, the IARC constructed a system to classify environmental factors and other substances on their carcinogenic potential. A substance in Group 1 is carcinogenic. Group 2A contains substances that are likely carcinogens. Group 2B contains possible carcinogens. Group 3 encompasses non-classifiable substances, while substances in Group 4 are likely not carcinogenic. Substances within Group 1 include bacon and other processed meats, in addition to ultraviolet (UV) rays, alcohol, tobacco, and asbestos [3]. Not only does this report recommend that we should no longer eat bacon, drink alcohol, or go outside, but also it suggests that these things are equally as bad as smoking and asbestos. How can this be true?

Well, in fact, that’s not quite the whole picture. The IARC’s classifications specify the carcinogenicity of a substance, but these classifications do not account for the degree of exposure needed for a substance to be considered carcinogenic [4].  This makes more sense when we compare tobacco and processed meat, both classified in Group 1.  This classification indicates that the IARC is confident that the evidence for processed meat as a cancer risk-factor is as strong as the evidence for tobacco as a risk-factor; however, the risk of getting cancer from tobacco is much higher than that from processed meat. In fact, tobacco use will increase the risk of lung cancer by 2,500%, whereas regular bacon consumption will increase the risk of colorectal cancer by only 18%. Additionally, compared to lung cancers, colorectal cancer is a lower-risk cancer. Colorectal cancers account for 3% of all cancers, whereas lung cancers accounts for 19% of all cancers. This suggests that the risk of developing cancer from processed meat consumption does not near the risk of that caused through tobacco use, despite a singular classification of these substances [5].

A carcinogen expert from King’s College London, Professor David Phillips provides an analogy to increase the understanding of why not only bacon, but also UV rays and alcohol, are categorized with tobacco and asbestos. This analogy proceeds as follows: A banana skin can cause an accident. It is unlikely, but it can happen. A car can also cause an accident, which can occur quite frequently. Both can cause accidents, but one with greater frequency and more harmful repercussions [6].

Ultimately, for all bacon lovers, it comes down to this: eating bacon doesn’t mean you will get cancer, but increased consumption will heighten your risk. So, maybe instead of eating six pieces of bacon come Saturday morning, eat two pieces every other Saturday. In this way, risks will be reduced and bacon will be enjoyed for years to come.

REFERENCES

  1. IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2015. http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf.
  2. Carcinogen. Merriam-Webster. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/carcinogen.
  3. Bacon Causes Cancer? Sort Of. Not Really. Ish. Zhang, Sarah; 2015. https://www.wired.com/2015/10/who-does-bacon-cause-cancer-sort-of-but-not-really/.
  4. Processed Meat and Cancer – What You Need to Know. Dunlop, Casey; 2015. http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2015/10/26/processed-meat-and-cancer-what-you-need-to-know.
  5. Processed Meat and Cancer – What You Need to Know. Dunlop, Casey; 2015. http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2015/10/26/processed-meat-and-cancer-what-you-need-to-know.
  6. Diesel Exhaust Fumes “Definitely” Cause Cancer – Should We be Worried? Phillips, David. Interviewed by Scowcroft, Henry; 2012. http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2012/06/14/diesel-fumes-definitely-cause-cancer-should-we-be-worried/.

This piece was featured in Volume II Issue II of JUST. Click here to read more of this issue.

2017-12-09T19:27:11+00:00 May 1st, 2017|