Processed Meat Is Bad For You, But It’s No Tobacco
You couldn’t be on the Internet this week without seeing headlines splashed across news sites and social media stating that eating processed meat causes cancer — some outlets even going so far as to claim that eating bacon is as big of a health gamble as smoking cigarettes.
Let’s call it all an oversimplification at best.
Your actual cancer risk is small
On Monday, the World Health Organization issued a press release classifying processed meat (think bacon, salami, hot dogs, deli meat) as “carcinogenic to humans,” a category shared by smoking, solar radiation and alcoholic beverages, among other scary things. But your actual risk of developing colorectal cancer from processed meats is very low.
The scientific literature examined cumulative meat consumption, and concluded that the daily consumption of 50 grams of processed meat — or, in normal-people terms, about three slices of cooked bacon — increased one’s risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
To be clear: Daily bacon does not raise the risk to 18 percent — it raises the risk by 18 percent. According to the National Cancer Institute, an average American’s lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is 4.5 percent. If you were to eat three slices of cooked bacon every single day, it would bump your lifetime risk from 4.5 to 5.3 percent. That’s a difference of about one percent from daily bacon consumption.
Daily bacon consumption isn’t too far off, for a lot of people: American eat an average of about 163 grams of meat per day, a number that includes processed meat, unprocessed red meat and poultry. But the U.S. has seen a sharp decline in red meat consumption since the 1970s, and a decline in meat consumption overall since the year 2000.