Of the thousands of things the World Health Organization has studied for possible links to cancer, this week’s announcement that hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats increase the risk of colon cancer was especially hard to swallow for many.
It’s a finding that has many seeking a deeper understanding about what this means.
Is eating bacon as bad as smoking? Exactly how much processed meat is harmful? Are my children at risk?
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta hosted a Facebook chat Tuesday to answer viewers’ questions.
This is a summary of the most frequent questions, and Gupta’s responses.
Lots of meat-eaters have enjoyed long lives and never got cancer. Why should I change my eating habits?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: This is a discussion about risk across populations of people. There are smokers who live a long time as well. In just about everything we do in life – we are constantly (sometimes subconsciously) evaluating the risk and benefit. With regard to this new study: It really comes down to balancing your risk tolerance with your love of bacon.
What exactly is a processed meat?
Gupta: The World Health Organization (WHO) report defines processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.” Many processed meats may contain other red meats or meat by-products.
Everything causes cancer! Why take this seriously?
Gupta: It is true that we are exposed to all sorts of different carcinogens, even before we are born. What is interesting here is that based on 800 studies looking back 20 years, we can better quantify risk – as is the case with processed meats and colon cancer.
But if I eat only two or three slices of bacon a week the risk isn’t very high, right?
Gupta: Everything in moderation. This new report looked at daily consumers of processed meat – those who ate 50 grams or more every day for years and years.
How much processed meat can I give my kids before their risk for cancer increases?
Gupta: This new report looked at daily consumers of processed meat and concluded that each 50-gram portion of processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s the equivalent of two pieces of bacon, two slices of ham, or one piece of smoked sausage.
With an epidemic of obesity and sugary foods, isn’t processed meat the least of our nutritional concerns?
Gupta: There are far greater concerns when it comes to our nutrition. What the WHO is saying is that processed meats cause cancer and the risk goes up 18% if you eat it daily. But, context is important. If five people out of 100 get it now, then roughly six people out of 100 would get it if we all eat bacon. It pales in comparison to heart disease, which remains the biggest killer of men and women in the United States.
Is it the meat itself, the way it is processed, or something else that makes it carcinogenic?
Gupta: It is not entirely clear how the processed meat causes cancer, but likely has to do with a family of compounds known as N-nitroso, which can damage cells in the gut. The chemicals that create N-nitroso are higher in processed meats and red meat, as compared to other meats.
Which is worse, eating processed meats or going to the beach without sunblock?
Gupta: These aren’t exact comparisons, but worth discussing risk here. If you have five or more sunburns at any age, it roughly doubles your risk of melanoma.
If I can’t see myself stopping my meat consumption and eat it in moderation, what is my best bet?
Gupta: This new WHO report classifies processed meat as Group 1 – carcinogenic to humans – based on sufficient scientific evidence. Red meat is classified as Group 2A – probably carcinogenic to humans – based on limited scientific evidence. For now, you’re better off with red, unprocessed meats.
I eat “X” meat or meat product. What changes should I make?
Gupta (on turkey bacon, turkey bologna and turkey burger): I wouldn’t throw any of them away. Cholesterol aside, a turkey burger (that hasn’t been salted, cured, fermented or smoked) is probably your best choice of these three.
Gupta (on nitrate-free organic bacon and hot dogs): The fewer additives in the food you eat, the better. When it comes to your health, if you can afford it – it’s worth the extra cost to eat real food.