Getty: Bernard Weil

Getty: Bernard Weil

The World Health Organization (WHO) broke hearts at breakfast tables around the world last week when they released the results of study showing that processed meats— bacon, sausage, cold cuts — and, to a lesser degree, red meat caused cancer.

While earlier studies have shown a similar association, the WHO’s new research was the work of 22 highly-respected experts, from 10 countries, brought together by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). They concluded that processed meats were a Group1 carcinogen, most likely to cause cancers of the colon, pancreas, and possibly prostate. Red meat was one level down in risk and classified as a Group 2 carcinogen.

While many media outlets offered rational, balanced coverage of the story — a few, notably the Guardian, one of the United Kingdom’s major newspapers–reported that the IARC considered processed meat as dangerous as cigarettes.

A closer analysis suggests that most BLT lovers can exhale. The IARC’s study results are highly-credible, but there are many factors involved in just how dangerous processed meat consumption might be for any one person, and the cigarette/sausage comparison is an exaggeration.

What the study really means

The researchers looked across a range of studies and found that eating 100 g (about four ounces) of red meat a day increased the chance of developing bowel cancer by 17 percent and eating 50 g (about 4 slices of crispy bacon) of processed meat a day increased a person’s chances of those same cancers by 18 percent. IARC’s study is one of the largest to show a cause and effect link between processed meat and red meat consumption and cancer, but it’s not the first. To put it in perspective, in the IARC’s 18 percent group of daily processed meat eaters, approximately 66 out of 1,000 would get cancer.

How does meat cause cancer?

Scientists are still investigating all of the possible ways that red and processed meat increases cancer risk.  The curent thinking is that processed meats — any meat that’s been cured (in salt or brine), smoked, fermented, etc. and red meats – lamb, beef, or pork (the USDA classifies pork as a red meat) contribute to your cancer risk, in part, because chemicals in the meat cause changes the cells in the lining the bowel. The chemical haem, for example, the pigment that makes blood and meat red, becomes a chemical called n-nitriso


Processed meats are more of a problem because in addition to having natural levels of nitrate (this also becomes N-nitriso in your body), they are cured with the preservative sodium nitrate, which produces even higher levels of N-nitriso in the gut. Charing meat also increases nitrate levels and some researchers are looking into the possibility that meat has an unhealthy effect on the bacteria in the gut.

Why was eating meat compared to cigarette smoking?

The IARC categorized carcinogens according to whether they “definitely caused cancer,” (group 1 carcinogens), or probably caused cancer (group 2 carcinogens). In these groups, the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer was seen as just as strong as the link between processed meat and bowel cancer, but the risk from cigarettes was much higher, as the graphic shows:

Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK

 Should you take it seriously?

Absolutely, but unless you are a cancer survivor or have a high family risk of cancer, it is safe to savor your generous serving of Sunday morning bacon, or enjoy an occasional ham sandwich. If you just can’t resist red or processed meat on a daily basis, the Department of Health  suggests that you cut your daily red meat consumption to 70 g a day or less, but you may want to do more.

As black women, we are more likely to die of colon cancer than any other group in the United States, but many things may contribute to our risk. High consumption of fried foods, obesity may be part of the issue, but the most important factor could be our low rate of colonoscopy screening. Here are few recommendations for dramatically lowering your risk of colon cancer

Cutting Your Risk

Even if it’s safe to consume small amounts of red or processed meat, it’s even better to:

Switch up: Have chicken salad or tuna for lunch a couple of days a week, or a vegetable salad with walnuts, tofu, or other vegan proteins.

Go Nitrate free: Organic and nitrate-free bacon and cold cuts are not risk free, but they are a safer bet. Many brands are also have less fat and sodium.

Talk to mom: Find out about your family history. If one or more close relatives have had colon, bowel, or pancreatic cancer, you may want to cut processed and red meat out of diet, except for special occasions.

Get tested: Starting at age 50, every woman should get a colonoscopy every ten years, according to the American Cancer Society. Consider screening every five years if you are at high risk. Early detection greatly increases your risk of survival.

Try this delicious breakfast option: This quick, easy-to-make turkey sausage pattie recipe may make you forget about bacon altogether. Make a batch ahead of time and toss them in the freezer. They cook in minutes.