Bacon Star

Bacon and other red and processed meats are now Group 1 carcinogens, but there’s more to the story. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The hype around The World Health Organization’s study that bacon will kill you as fast as cigarettes has finally started to slow since it hit the Internet late last week. People have had some time to get over the sticker shock that nearly all of America’s most cherished foods—from hot dogs to hamburgers to bacon—are carcinogens, and the meat of the information is finally being digested. So what has a closer examination of the study led to? Here are four things to keep in mind before spurning the good stuff for good.

1. That scary “Group 1” classification doesn’t mean what you think it does

It’s true that red and processed meats were categorized as Group 1, the most dangerous group of carcinogens, which sounds extremely threatening when you see that such killers as asbestos, alcohol and tobacco reside in the same group. But that’s not how the system works—Group 1 merely states that something is carcinogenic, without actually ranking it by lethality. Essentially, Group 1 means something is carcinogenic, Group 2A is probably carcinogenic, Group 2B is possibly carcinogenic, Group 3 is not classifiable and Group 4 is probably not carcinogenic. Tl;dr: Everything in Group 1 is known to cause cancer, but not everything in Group 1 causes cancer at the same, or even vaguely similar, rates. Besides which…

2. The risk of getting colorectal cancer in your life span is actually very low

Over a lifetime, the risk of getting colorectal cancer is, on average, just 5 percent (according to Cancer Research UK estimates, 64 out of every 100,000 people develop the disease annually). So how much would that risk increase if you consumed the 50 grams of red and processed meats per day that the IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] is warning us about? A whole 1 percent, bringing it up to 6 percent risk total. That’s hardly a number that will cause people to change their life habits after hearing.

3. Bacon is definitely not the new tobacco

A whopping 86 percent of lung cancer is caused by smoking (a study on men who smoked 25 cigarettes a day found that those men were 24 times more likely to develop lung cancer—that’s a 2,400 percent increase). By contrast, processed and red meat is thought to cause 21 percent of bowel cancers. While that’s not a figure to be sneezed at, it’s clear that even though smoking and red meats are in the same category, the risk factor isn’t even close to being the same.

4. The meat industry will bury this study eventually anyway

Because no attempt can be made to alert the American public to dangers to their health without a powerful lobby group muscling their way in, the North American Meat Institute officially deemed the IARC’s report a “dramatic and alarmist overreach.” To support their argument, they threw in some jabs about coffee, sunlight and wine also all being potential cancer causers. You can expect a continued heavy push from the meat lobby that will essentially boil down to simply, “But…bacon!” And they’ll probably succeed, so you may as well just quit worrying early.

Nickolaus Hines
Nickolaus Hines is a freelance writer in New York City. He graduated from Auburn University, and his recent bylines can be found at Men's Journal, Inverse, and Grape Collective.