Sloane Mebane | Lifestyle Editor
On October 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified processed meat as a carcinogen, a cancer causing chemical agent. This was a shocking revelation for many Americans, especially as cable news networks exaggerated the report’s findings.
The World Health Organization has a specialized branch known as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). One of the roles of this branch of the WHO is determining the carcinogenicity of different products based on data from several epidemiological studies. Epidemiology is the study of the factors, distributions and methods of controlling different types of diseases.
In the case of determining the carcinogenicity of processed meat, 22 experts from 10 different countries were recruited in order to review over 800 epidemiological studies. According to Forbes, 12 out of 18 of the long-term observation studies found a correlation between processed meat consumption and colon cancer. This places processed meat squarely in the “Group 1” category in IARC, thus labeling it “carcinogenic to humans.” This category also includes the infamous carcinogen tobacco which the majority of Americans know increases an individual’s risk of lung cancer.
The fact that products like bacon and hot dogs are categorized in the same field as cigarettes is a fear-inducing thought and has therefore led many newspapers to draw overzealous conclusions from the WHO report like: bacon is as dangerous as cigarettes. However, what is important to note is the exact significance and parameters that the WHO uses in order to classify consumer products. While “Group 1” is where all carcinogens are categorized, the level of their potency varies significantly.
According to Forbes, one of the misconceptions that has allowed for the misinterpretation of the conclusions drawn by the WHO is that absolute and relative risk mean the same thing. The absolute risk relates to the likelihood that someone will acquire a disease over a period of time.
The relative risk is a comparison of two groups that may both be at risk. In the case of the correlation between processed meat and colon cancer, there is an 18 percent increase in relative risk when 50 grams of processed meat is consumed daily. This equals to around two strips of bacon a day.
“So if you started with a hypothetical 5 percent risk of developing bowel cancer, consuming 50 grams of bacon every day would only raise your risk to almost 6 percent.”
Therefore, while there is a correlation between colon cancer and processed meat, the absolute risk of developing such a cancer after daily consumption of products like bacon and sausages is not a drastic difference.
Edward White, a senior business major from Spotsylvania, Virginia does not believe this kind of report is going to have any major effect on the amount of processed meat consumed in the United States. “Hearing the news won’t change most people’s perspective. Bacon is something that we are all used to having in the morning for breakfast. To quit it like cold turkey would be too hard.“
While eating bacon, ham and sausages will not drastically affect your chances of developing cancer, understanding how to eat such foods in moderation is essential for avoiding other illnesses like heart disease.
Candace Barnes, a senior biology major from Georgetown, Guyana believes that most foods can be consumed if done in moderation. “Bacon causing cancer is extreme and vague. I think excessive amounts of any type of red meat can cause cancer, especially colon cancer, but in moderate amounts, and with exercise and other healthy eating habits, I don’t see why it should.”
An important takeaway from this WHO report and others of its kinds is to do your own research and fully understand the conclusions being drawn from the data. While the news is a very useful resource, when dealing with health and life choices it is also important to take such reports with a grain of salt.
Therefore, as long as you consume bacon and other processed meats in moderation, your absolute risk of colon cancer should not drastically increase.