Very sad news for bacon lovers.
The World Health Organization announced Monday that cured and processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs and ham cause cancer, adding the foods to a top-tier list of carcinogenic substances that includes alcohol, cigarettes, asbestos, and arsenic.
Processed meats can be bundled with these threatening carcinogens because of their link with bowel cancer, according to a report from WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, though their inclusion doesn’t mean that bacon causes cancer at the same rate as, say, smoking.
“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” IARC epidemiologist Dr. Kurt Straif said in a statement.
The agency estimates that a 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increased the risk for bowel cancer by 18 percent. That’s about three slices of cooked bacon.
The report also links red meat to cancer. It classifies beef, lamb and pork as “probable” carcinogens in a second-tier list that also includes glyphosate, the active ingredient in many weedkillers.
The findings, which are based on more than 800 studies, are already receiving pushback from meat industry groups that argue meat is part of a balanced diet and that the cancer risk assessments needs to expand to include risk in the context of lifestyle and environment.
“We simply don’t think the evidence support any causal link between any red meat and any type of cancer,” said Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Such lifestyle and environmental risks have been studied extensively, however, and the IARC noted this broader context was included in the study:
In making this evaluation, the Working Group took into consideration all the relevant data, including the substantial epidemiological data showing a positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer and the strong mechanistic evidence. Consumption of red meat was also positively associated with pancreatic and with prostate cancer.
Both processed and red meats have been linked with cancer in the past. A 2013 study from researchers at the University of Zurich found that consuming processed meats increased the risk of dying from both heart disease and cancer. In 2012, a review published in British Journal of Cancer linked meats like bacon and sausage to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, a disease with particularly poor survival rates. It’s no secret that red meat is rife with bad cholesterol and fats that are tied to diabetes and heart disease.
Unfortunately, the average American consumes about 18 pounds of bacon each year. Our nation eats more red meat than most of the world, though consumption has begun to dip in the past couple of years. In 2014, chicken was more popular than beef for the first time in over 100 years, showing that the Food and Drug Administration’s recommendations for feeding on “leaner meats” may be making an impact on the national plate.