Bacon More Dangerous Than Smoking?
Written By: Kevin Cann
A recent study performed by the World Health Organization has condemned processed meats such as ham, bacon, and sausage as being just as cancer causing as smoking cigarettes (1). This led to my Facebook News Feed being inundated with articles accusing bacon of being more dangerous for your health than smoking cigarettes.
This is not the first time that the media has taken research and thrown a sexy title on it and threw it out onto the World Wide Web to generate a massive amount of clicks. On a more positive note, I believe that this time around there was a larger group of people that were not fooled by this BS.
For one, this research is utter garbage because it draws conclusions based upon assumptions. We all know what happens when you assume. This is nothing more than epidemiological research that shows a potential correlation without proving causation. A great example of understanding this idea can be seen when we look at car accidents.
We can gather data from all of the car accidents we see. We notice that a large amount of car accidents have tire marks found on the street. We than make a conclusion stating that the tire tracks on the road must be the cause of these accidents. Now we all know that the tire tracks could be caused from a number of things, one being excessive speed. Processed meats in this study are the tire tracks.
We all know that eating a massive amount of processed meats is not the healthiest of options. We also know from other research that people that eat a large amount of processed meats are also more likely to take part in other unhealthy lifestyle habits such as smoking, drinking, not exercising, and so on. Just like the tire tracks, is it the processed meats causing the cancer or one of the other behaviors, or a combination of all of them?
If we really wanted to see if eating processed meats were more cancerous than smoking cigarettes we would need 2 separate groups. One group eat processed meats and the other group takes up smoking. All other lifestyle variables need to be accounted for and the same for each group. This would even have problems because how much processed meat is equivalent to one cigarette? I would much prefer to be in the processed meat group.
It is not new information to state that smoking leads to lung cancer. According to the American Lung Association 80% of lung cancer deaths in women and 90% of lung cancer deaths in men are caused by smoking (2). According to the same source, lung cancer is the leading cancer killer in both men and women. In fact, lung cancer accounts for 27% of all cancer deaths and those 158,040 deaths attributed to lung cancer are more than colorectal, prostate, and breast cancer combined. Meat, red meat in particular, has been linked to increasing rates of colorectal cancer. Maybe there are just WAY more people that smoke than eat processed meats. I would be willing to bet that there are many more Americans that eat processed foods regularly than those that smoke. Those that do both are more likely to get lung cancer than they are colorectal cancer. So is eating processed meats really worse than smoking cigarettes?
Why we keep funding research studies like this one I just do not understand. This research was conducted by the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC). This agency has had quite a bit of issues. In 2003, the IARC did not release where they received funding and disputed votes.
Members of the IARC also include the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research as well as the College of Pharmacy (3). Many other members are members of Universities, which tend to be funded by pharmaceutical companies. However, this does not mean that there are definitely conflicts of interest.
However, it is hard to take the words of people that profit off of human disease for advice in how to prevent it. I am not saying that is the case with this processed meat study, but with the agency setup as a whole. Their ability to communicate the information is not up to par either.
The IARC breaks down potential carcinogenic foods and substances and puts them into 5 different groups. These groups are based off of how sure we are that something causes cancer, but not the degree of risk. In this case processed meats were placed in the same category as smoking cigarettes. This category is labeled as something that “definitely causes cancer.”
In my research of the categories I came across this great example of how the IARC categories work:
“As Professor Phillips explains, “IARC does ‘hazard identification’, not ‘risk assessment’.
“That sounds quite technical, but what it means is that IARC isn’t in the business of telling us how potent something is in causing cancer – only whether it does so or not”, he says.
To take an analogy, think of banana skins. They definitely can cause accidents, explains Phillips, but in practice this doesn’t happen very often (unless you work in a banana factory). And the sort of harm you can come to from slipping on a banana skin isn’t generally as severe as, say, being in a car accident.
But under a hazard identification system like IARC’s, ‘banana skins’ and ‘cars’ would come under the same category – they both definitely do cause accidents” (4).
Most of us know that eating too much processed meat is a bad thing. The majority of our meats should come from farm raised animals and not include any added chemicals. With that said having a few pieces of bacon, ham, or sausage once in a while with your meals is not likely to be hazardous to your health, especially if you exercise regularly, don’t smoke, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and get plenty of sleep.