Have you checked out the sizzling debate over bacon’s impact on the human lifespan? Bacon lovers are reeling from a new study by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that classified bacon as carcinogenic.
News stories about this research have been passionately defensive of bacon. It would seem that the headline writers are all bacon addicts. (Even vegetarians and vegans have confessed to cravings for bacon.)
“Bacon causes cancer? When pigs fly!” scoffed the New York Post. “Bacon Is Carcinogenic,” sneered Newsweek, “But So Is The Air You Breathe.” Men’s Health: “We’re talking about a minuscule risk.” Bacophiles suggest that we “contextualise” the findings of this new study which they find so threatening.
“Though this announcement may seem terrifying to the average meat lover, the IARC doesn’t provide much context for its new categorization. Yes, there is a link between consuming these foods and cancer, but the risk is incredibly small — much smaller than smoking cigarettes or being exposed to other known carcinogens. The report also doesn’t identify if there is a safe level of meat to eat. Mostly, the IARC findings tell us that there is an established cancer risk associated with eating processed meats, albeit a minor one. It’s something that researchers have suspected for some time. ‘The first thing to do is don’t freak out,’ said Tim Buyers, a professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health. ‘We’ve known that for general health for a long time that it’s not a good idea to eat large amounts of red meat.'”
In fact, the research into bacon was not just a study, but a study of studies. As an adherent to an evidence-based belief system I was pleased to note how rigourously the evidence against bacon was interrogated. Scientists reviewed research from 800 studies before drawing the conclusion that eating bacon, or any processed meat, can cause colorectal cancer.
Big Bacon countered with a combination of defensiveness and bravado. Much like the tobacco industry in response to proof that cigarettes cause cancer, the meat processing industry offered PR: a breakfast protest featuring bacon tacos.
“Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods.”
It should be noted that concern over meat causing health problems is by no means new. The view that eating too much meat is bad for the brain dates back to the Elizabethan Age. A character thought he was the butt of a joke about his intelligence in a Shakespeare comedy and he worried that his diet could be the cause.
“I am a great eater of beef, and I believe that does harm to my wit.”
– Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night
By the mid 18th century there was a word for stupid people that seemed based on a link between too much meat and too little brain power: meathead. The epithet was popularised two centuries later by one of America’s longest-running sitcoms, All in the Family. Meathead was the nickname given by the show’s main character, loveable bigot Archie Bunker, to his son, a liberal college student.
Back to the bacon denialists. Their argument is that the risk of getting cancer from the preservatives used in processed meat is way smaller than that of other carcinogens. Like smoking packs of cigarettes a day or living at a toxic waste dump.
Before you take the B out of BLT, before you quit ordering Bacon Sundaes at Burger King, bacon’s die-hard defenders recommend looking at the big picture. Check out all the other things that studies have shown to cause cancer, they urge. The latest list, from the same cancer research agency that probed bacon, includes 116 activities that can cause cancer, from sunlamp tanning to chimney sweeping. No insight into how eating bacon is less problematic simply because other things are carcinogenic too.
Methinks the baconites doth protest too much. An old proverb seems apt here, and has indeed been invoked in the online comments in debates about the demerits of bacon.
“The church is near but the roads are icy. The tavern is far… but I’ll be careful.”
– saying variously claimed as Russian, Lithuanian, Rumanian and Ukrainian
At least the new study has given rise to some bacon-driven humour.
“Red Meat Linked To Contentedly Patting Belly. The consumption of processed meats, such as bacon and sausage, was linked to a 100 percent chance of seconds.”
– satirical story on bacon study from The Onion
A British news satire website profiled a 103-year-old who allegedly eschewed bacon throughout his long life and now regrets it.
“A man who extended his life span by avoiding processed meats bitterly regrets having done so, it has emerged. 103-year-old Roy Hobbs never ate sausages, bacon or black pudding apart from a one-off fried breakfast which he admits was mind-bendingly delicious. He said: ‘I am over a century old, partly because I’ve exercised extreme self-control when it comes to my base desire for meat.’”
– It wasn’t worth it, says 103-year-old vegetarian, The Daily Mash
That super-centenarian was made up, but a real 116-year-old has emerged to exonerate those who pigheadedly refuse to accept the anti-bacon study. Susannah Mushatt Jones of Brooklyn, New York, anointed by the Guiness Book of World Records as the World’s Oldest Person, doesn’t smoke, drink or party. But she sure eats a lot of bacon. Four strips of it every morning with her scrambled eggs and grits.
According to news reports, this granddaughter of Alabama sharecroppers attributes her top spot in the longevity stakes to her eleven-plus decades of daily bacon breakfasts. Does she ever eat less than four strips? Never, according to her 70-year-old niece: “Sometimes, she’ll take the last strip, fold it in a napkin, put it in her pocket and save it for later.”
Bacon banter aside, consider the evidence against the nitrates and nitrites used in processing meats in this infographic from Time