Does bacon cause cancer?

Bacon is delicious, but is it also deadly?
Bacon is delicious, but is it also deadly? Photo: Fiona Morris

Meat lovers across the world collectively cried when the World Health Organisation this week announced that bacon had been added to the official list of group one carcinogens – products or lifestyles that are directly linked with causing cancer.

And it's not just bacon – ham, hot dogs, sausages, and other deli meats have been placed in the same high-risk category as tobacco. Red meat was placed in the category one below.

While it has long been recommended for people not to over-indulge in processed meats, the news was met with some shock. Outspoken Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce condemned the stance, saying if people were to follow it, we'd be "living in caves".

What is it about processed meat that increases the risk of cancer?

Deli meats – those that are cured, smoked or pickled in some way – contain nitrate and nitrite, which are chemical compounds found in some foods, such as salt. This salt is used because it help maintain flavour and colour and inhibits bacteria growing. But what happens to nitrates and nitrites when the meat is cooked at a high temperature – fried, roasted, grilled – is that it can create a second cancer-causing compound.

The microscope has been been placed over nitrate for years, with various scientists and food organisations issuing cautions eating too much of a good thing. Deli meats are often also high in saturated fats, high in salt and can contribute to cholesterol problems if eaten in large quantities. A diet high in salt is particularly linked with stomach cancer.

Can these risks be minimised by a particular method of preparation or cooking?

Not really. The compounds are already in the meats, so the only way to reduce your risk is simply to eat less, or none, of it.

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While WHO has stated that processed meats are a group 1 carcinogen, it does not say how much of it a person would have to consume in order to really increase their risk. While smoking cigarettes increases a person's risk of developing cancer by 2500 per cent, eating bacon and eggs for breakfast once a week is going to expose you to significantly less risk.

The common sense response seems to be "eat it if you want, but not too much. Maybe save it for special occasions."

To reduce your risk, eat small portions irregularly, don't cook it at high temperatures and fill your everyday diet with fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains and dairy foods. The healthiest cooking methods are steaming, boiling, poaching, roasting, baking, braising, stewing and casseroles.

Some food producers have been selling nitrite-free bacon for some years, some of which is touted as chemical, antibiotic and hormone-free. There has been little research on these types of meat, and they were not addressed in the WHO report.

So is red meat bad for you or not?

The WHO is sitting on the fence when it comes to red meat, placing it in the "maybe" pile. However, red meat has already been linked to bowel cancer and the World Cancer Research Fund long ago issued a warning over eating too much processed meats. It also recommended people limit how much red meat they eat, with no more than 500g of cooked meat eaten each week.

The alarm was also raised on barbecueing meats several years ago, with burnt or charred meats also linked to cancer, but the evidence is less clear.

According to the state government's Better Health website, burnt and barbecued foods contain the carcinogen polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are produced when food is overheated or burnt.

The Australian Meat Industry Council hit back after the WHO announcement, issuing a statement saying that all processed meats must comply with various regulations, including the Australian Food Standards Code, national and state food standards.

"An ingredients label specifying the quantities of items added is legally required for all products and is subject to the limitations of the code and legislation."

What is it about red meat that is riskier than white meats and fish?

Beef, lamb and pork contain more cholesterol and saturated fat than white meats, which is what makes them a less healthy option. The unsaturated fat in some fish is actually good for people, as it's high in good omega-3 fatty acids.

Some red meat, such as kangaroo and deer, have long been touted as healthy alternatives to beef, pork and lamb. Kangaroo meat in particular is lean, high in protein and low in saturated fat.

However, a study published in Nature Medicine journal in 2013 found that kangaroo meat is not as healthy as first thought, as it contains a compound called L-carnitine that is linked to heart disease, strokes and heart attacks.

Game meats, such as venison, are generally low in fat and so don't pose the same risk as traditional red meat. However, venison is still high in cholesterol, so moderation is again advised.

What about kids – no more ham sandwiches in the lunchbox?

Little Amelia or Little Gabriel can still munch on a ham sanga, but every day is not ideal. Better choices are tinned fish such as tuna and salmon, chicken, or try vegetarian options, such as cheese, falafel or char-grilled vegetables.