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Save My Bacon: Processed Meat Risks Best Taken With a Grain of Salt

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 29, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Bacon, salami, and ham are all linked to an increased risk of cancer, according to the World Health Organization. Does that mean the end of awesome American sandwiches?

Unlikely. While the news about processed meats may temper our seemingly insatiable cultural appetite for bacon everything, we probably won't stop eating it. Nor should we necessarily. Popping salami is not quite like smoking cigarettes, says a Forbes analysis of the data.
Beyond the Headlines

What the WHO announced is not that bacon will cause cancer but that eating it increases the risk. Processed meat is listed as a Group 1 carcinogen, just like tobacco. But the carcinogens are not comparable.

"The alarming headlines imply that eating processed meat is just as bad as smoking. This is very, very wrong," writes Forbes science contributor JV Chamary. "The various carcinogens are not comparable -- being in Group 1 only means there's sufficient evidence to support the possibility that a substance causes cancer."

Chamary points out that the WHO provides little context for understanding the risks, just a vague warning. The press release announcing the processed meat findings notes, "For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed."

Processed meat is any meat that has been cured, salted, fermented, smoked, or otherwise processed. On this list are hot dogs, sausages, corned beef, canned beef, and beef jerky.

It should be noted that non-processed red meats, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, horse, and goat, fall into Group 2 carcinogens. These are "probably carcinogenic ... based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect."

What This Really Means for Meat Eaters

The WHO points out that red meat has nutritional value and it does not recommend the whole world become vegetarian. The WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer reached its conclusions by analyzing accumulated scientific studies.

"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." Dr. Wild hopes that the information will be useful to authorities formulating recommended intake guidelines.

As for what you should do until these recommendations are formulated. Enjoy meat in moderation. Forbes' Chamary -- a biologist and the son of a surgeon specializing in colorectal cancers -- says that you should cut down on processed meats if you indulge often. He writes, "But should you worry about bacon causing cancer? No."

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