bacon causes cancer

Meat lovers could be forgiven for fearing it’s only a matter of time before tobacco-style warnings adorn packs of bacon. “Processed meat as dangerous as cigarettes”, headlines screamed following news that the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has declared processed meat a Group 1 carcinogen - alongside tobacco smoke, arsenic and asbestos, among others.

Scientists and the meat industry have been quick to point out that - contrary to those alarmist headlines - being classed in the same category as tobacco does not mean eating a bacon buttie is as dangerous as puffing through a packet of cigs. The WHO classification of carcinogens reflects how confident it is that a certain substance could cause cancer - very confident in the case of processed meat, it turns out - and not how likely someone is to develop cancer.

“The classification only reflects the strength of the evidence for an effect, not the size of the risk,” says Professor Ian Johnson, emeritus fellow at the Institute of Food Research.

To put this into context, in the UK about six out of 100 people will get bowel cancer in their lifetime. IARC data suggests eating 50g of processed meat a day would increase that risk to seven in 100. “It is not anything like smoking, whereby a heavy smoker is about 20 times more likely to get lung cancer than a non-smoker,” he says.

Nutrition researcher Gary Taubes adds observational studies are notoriously unreliable for proving cause and effect when it comes to meat and disease. “People who don’t eat meat are more health conscious, they weigh less, they smoke less,” he says.

Cause and effect

Indeed, although the IARC is confident there is a link, it does not know how processed meat might cause cancer. That makes the issue different from sugar, for example, says Dr Carrie Ruxton, a dietician for the Meat Advisory Panel. “There is a very strong link bewteen sugar and dental caries, and sugar and obesity,” she says. “For processed and red meats, we don’t understand the mechanism.”

But there is no escaping the fact this is the strongest condemnation of processed meat to date. So will meat sales suffer?

With average UK processed meat consumption at just 17g per person per day, most people won’t have to make changes to their eating habits to stay below the 50g threshold.

Which is not to say they won’t. IARC’s report might not bring any new science to the meat debate but it does strengthen the language. Processed meat is no longer just ‘linked to cancer’ - it is a ‘known carcinogen’.

Industry experts have previously blamed health concerns around red and processed meat for falling sales. According to AHDB data, red meat consumption is down 7.5% over the past five years, with sausages down 7.1% and bacon down 4.5%.

However, AHDB senior consumer insight analyst Steven Evans says it is impossible to isolate health as the driving factor behind this, with other lifestyle and cooking habits in play.

He points out other processed meat categories are showing growth, with burgers and ham up 5% and 6% respectively over the past five years.

Ruxton adds there was some drop-off in processed meat consumption after the 2011 SACN report on possible cancer risks, but says this could also be attributed to the loss in confidence that followed Horsegate.

With this in mind, experts worry the most concerning aspect of the report and the associated media hype is that it might dilute messages around smoking, and convince people they can have another cigarette if they just lay off the bacon.