That Saturday morning side of back bacon or ballpark hotdog could be a deadly cancer-causing agent, the World Health Organization says.
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that cured meats would become a Group 1 carcinogen, which are products have been found to cause cancer. Putting bacon, hot dogs, and salami in the same category as cigarette smoking and asbestos inhalation has been met with a mixture of positive and negative responses.
The list of products includes bacon, cold cuts, jerky, smoked meat and sausages. The WHO defines processed meat as “any meat that is altered from it’s natural state to extend shelf life or change taste,” which would include smoking, curing or salting meat.
The WHO also classified red meats as a Group 2A “probable” carcinogen, which has driven many to re-evaluate their diet. The report, generated by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, stated that there was enough evidence to form a causal link between consumption of processed meats and bowel cancer. For Canadian Research Council Chair and Health Law Professor Tim Caulfield, this announcement was a long time coming.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Caulfield said. “There has been a lot of research on meat eating that has been signalling in that direction for a while. We’ve known for a long time that these types of meats aren’t the best choice from a health perspective.”
First and foremost, Caulfield said that he hopes people will take a message of moderation from the announcement. Though he acknowledged that changing a population’s behaviour is very hard, he said he hoped people would pay attention to the announcement.
“Hopefully people will think twice about eating a lot of this kind of food,” Caulfield said. “Long term, this helps to create a narrative of what is healthy eating, and lot of processed meat isn’t part of that. This announcement helps to make it a bit clearer.”
Despite WHO’s warning about processed meat, Caulfield said munching on a hotdog at Rexall Place or your backyard grill isn’t the same as eating asbestos. Group 1 carcinogens are grouped together because they are known to be cancer-causing, however their ability to cause cancer varies.
According to the Canadian Cancer society, one in 14 men and one in 16 women will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime. The WHO report states that eating 50 grams of processed meat daily means that risk can increase by 17 per cent, but that figure only refers to the four to six percent of people who get colorectal cancer to begin with. What this means is if approximately six people out of every hundred get colorectal cancer now, eating a few slices of bacon every day would up the figure to seven out of 100.
Though consumption of red and processed meats has declined in recent years, Caulfield pointed to the range of products available as indicative of our love affair with all things smoked and cured.
“We have a lot of processed meat available to us,” Caulfield said. “The WHO had quite a broad classification of this stuff. It’s really any kind of meat that is processed in any way.”
Caulfield said his main concern with the announcement is with the polarizing media coverage. With such a divide in the narrative around processed meat, the public could develop an attitude of ignoring warnings. For Caulfield, this would be an unfortunate byproduct of these warnings.
In terms of what he hopes the public will take away from the WHO’s announcement, Caulfield’s stance is straightforward.
“The take home message is moderation, and trying to eat a globally healthy diet.”