My love of meat just hit a snag

Jill Dupleix
What's the point of getting out of a bed on Sunday morning without bacon?
What's the point of getting out of a bed on Sunday morning without bacon? Photo: Fiona Morris

Bacon! Sausages! Honestly, I look forward to the day when the World Health Organisation does a study that says kale and quinoa cause cancer (not really). Why is it always the good things? I've already given up cigarettes and foie gras. Is that not enough?

The weekend is going to look pretty damn tragic if I start banning processed meats. What are eggs without bacon? What's a barbecue without a snag? What's the point of getting out of a bed on Sunday morning? As for weekdays, there's not much fun in a ham-and-cheese sandwich without ham, or prosciutto and melon without prosciutto.

But then, we sort of knew this to be true, even as we ordered our avocado on toast with extra bacon on the side. We've been told before to keep the quantity of processed meats in our diet down, and to balance out our meat consumption with lots of fruit and vegetables. It's just that now, they're getting serious. WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer doesn't muck around, or do things for the headlines. If they have placed "processed meats" in the same "Carcinogenic" category as formaldehyde, ultra violet radiation, and asbestos, it can't be good.

By "processed meats", they mean specifically those that have undergone salting, curing, fermentation and smoking – you know, those ancient preservation methods that have kept civilisation alive for centuries. It's just that now, it's going all out of whack, as the processing of commercial quality meats is done with industrial-sized quantities of nitrates, chemicals that not only prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and preserve the meat, but keep it looking pink and fresh when otherwise it would be an unappetising brown. (Would we eat meat that was an unappetising brown? And if not, how come it doesn't stop us when it comes to chocolate?)

Like everything else, it's all about balance. I will continue to eat ham, sausage, bacon and the odd hot dog, just as I will continue to eat masses of vegetables, herbs, grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, nuts and fruits, and continue to drink coffee in the morning and red wine at night. I'll keep going to good butcher shops and fresh food markets for lamb chops and rib eye steak from ethically killed animals, and continue to seek out good delis and small-scale producers for ethically processed meats. I know that with meat, as with everything else, you get what you pay for. If it's cheap, it's cheap for a reason that isn't immediately obvious.

But I am taking on board the specific warning that each 50 gram portion of processed meats eaten daily – two rashers of bacon, say – increases the risk of colourectal cancer by 18 per cent. Less, in this case is more. Less that is processed, more that is fresh. Smaller quantities, better quality is the way to go. And a great big bloody steak and a bottle of red wine every now and then when you feel like it.

Next up for study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in May 2016 is coffee. God help us all.