You may have heard the news circulating that a large body of evidence has instigated the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to categorize processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. This means, that with a great degree of certainty, processed meat actually causes cancer. This is not a neat correlation or association of two variables, but rather one clearly causing the other.

I shared this story in one of our recent blogs on October 26th, 2015 lending my acknowledgement of the finding but as the days have passed I’ve found myself stewing about some of the nuances of the report. The announcement by the IARC sure grabbed headlines with a simple message that processed meat causes cancer; a 1-2 punch if you will; but the critical thinker in me wasn’t satisfied with this neat and tidy gift, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

The decision by the IARC to add processed meat to Group 1 Carcinogens was not taken lightly. A review of nearly 800 studies spanning decades was carefully analyzed to draw such a serious conclusion. But what does this actually mean? Other Group 1 carcinogens include oral contraceptives, hormone replacement therapy, alcoholic beverages, air pollution, tobacco, wood dust, salted fish and even the sun. How many of those do you have in your life? What about the cancer-causing arsenic in your average drinking water? Do you work as a steelmaker? Does smoking 1 cigarette per day cause cancer at the same rate of 10 minutes of sun per day? Does a piece of bacon or bologna sandwich even put a dent into the carcinogens you’re already exposed to? At the very least, people need to understand the quantification of the actual risk that processed meat has on cancer; especially in relation to other known causes.

Specifically, studies seem to indicate that individuals who eat the most processed meat (among those studied) had a 17% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer versus those who ate the least; in other words a difference of about 9 additional cases of bowel cancer per 100,000 people among high processed meat eaters (if we take an average of 50 cases per 100,000 in Canada). I’ll let you decide whether that’s a risk you can or can’t live with. Personally, our family has drastically cut processed meat from our diets without any regrets. Bear in mind that the IARC has placed processed meats in Group 1, which means they are confident that they cause cancer; this says nothing about how much cancer they cause. It’s a matter of hazard identification, not risk assessment. Shad fly swarms can cause car accidents, and distracted driving can cause car accidents, but one is far more likely than the other.

Second, and this might even be a greater consideration for me; is what exactly is it about processed meat that causes cancer? We all know that tobacco causes cancer, but if we were to only eat tobacco instead of lighting it on fire and inhaling it would it be the same?  Arguably, it could be burning and inhaling of tobacco that is truly dangerous; not the tobacco itself.  Meat before it is processed is not a Group 1 Carcinogen, so unless the meat is changed in a definite way by via processing, or chemicals are added or removed during processing, it is not the meat that is causing cancer.

Currently, the data suggests that the production of n-nitroso compounds in the gut in response to the digestion of red meats in general can cause damage to intestinal cells and potentially lead to DNA damage that can result in mutated cells; the seeds of cancer. Nitrite preservatives found in many processed meats increase the production of n-nitroso compounds even further; enough to push processed meats past their unprocessed varieties into Group 1. There are several other theories being investigated, but it’s safe to say that if you’re doing your best to avoid the pitfalls of cancer in response to a diet that includes meat, you should perhaps stick to baking or slow-cooking poultry and fish and leave the BBQ, processed meat and red meat for more special occasions if necessary. Better yet, nobody has made a convincing case that vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains are going to kill you (with some exceptions) so eat more of those! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the health benefits of meat are few and easily substituted with supplements, so the argument that you absolutely NEED to eat meat just doesn’t fly in 2015. Sorry about your bacon.