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Bacon Linked to Cancer? Say It Isn't So!

Photograph by Twenty20

Bacon lovers and steak fans are panicking over the latest announcement by the World Health Organization. Processed meats were recently classified as carcinogenic to humans, while red meats were classified as "probably carcinogenic" to humans.

1) What in the world does that mean? and 2) Do I have to throw away my Costco-size bag of bacon strips now?

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The International Agency for Research on Cancer, WHO's cancer agency, made the significant announcement after evidence has been building for decades linking certain meats to more than 16 types of cancer (more specifically colorectal cancer—the second-most lethal form of cancer in the U.S. with nearly 50,000 deaths per year—and to some degrees, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer). The evidence was drawn from 800 studies in many countries and populations with diverse diets.

Processed meat, which refers to meat that has been transformed through processes like salting, curing, fermentation and smoking—for example, hot dogs, ham, sausages and corned beef—was classified in Group 1. Red meat—which includes all types of meat with a dark red color before it's cooked, like beef, pork, veal and lamb—was classified in Group 2A.

The classification scheme is pretty confusing. Of the five possible tiers, Group 1 is for established carcinogens like arsenic and asbestos. Groups 2A and 2B are for less certain substances based on more limited evidence. And Group 3 includes what can't be classified because of the lack of data. So really the classifications tell us how certain we are that something is dangerous—not exactly how dangerous it is.

And being in Group 1 classification seems pretty freaking certain. There is growing evidence that bowel cancer is more common with people who eat the most processed and red meat; those who ate processed meat had around 17 percent higher risk of developing bowel cancer compared to those who ate the least. That's about 66 of 1000 high meat-eaters versus 56 of 1000 low meat-eaters.

So this brings me to my second question: Do I need to skip the bacon?

"These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat," says Dr. Christopher Wild, Director of IARC. "At the same time, red meat has nutritional value. Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations."

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So having a hot dog or a piece of steak isn't necessarily bad for you, but maybe choose the chicken or fish more often than not. It's all about moderation (and really, common sense).

Really, I shouldn't eat the whole Costco-size bag of bacon all in a week, but keeping it down to a couple of slices every once in a while isn't going to be a huge mis-steak.

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