I’d just dug into the office potluck Little Smokies (in my defense, only two, and I eat them barely once a year), when I remembered this recent headline:
The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified processed meat as carcinogenic, or cancer-causing, to humans. It’s in the same category as cigarettes and alcohol. Think about that for a second. Cigarettes, alcohol, processed meat. All bad for you.
According to WHO’s cancer agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Processed meat was also tied to stomach cancer, to a lesser extent.
Their analysis on the topic surely caused many-a meat-loving hearts to flutter and vegetarians the world over to flash a smug “I told you so” look.
So, how much is 50 grams, you ask? It’s 1.76 ounces. Compare that to a standard quarter-pound burger, which is 4 ounces. Not a whole lot, really.
Still, the question lingered in my mind: How bad can it truly be? What are the odds of being affected by eating one hot dog too many at the ballpark or my backyard BBQ.
It’s not as bad as smoking or excessive alcohol consumption, really, but we don’t quite know how much is safe, said Andrew Weinberg, DO, a gastroenterologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center.
He added that the WHO announcement, based on a deeper look at a collection of existing studies, isn’t exactly new news, “but the experts are saying they felt more strongly about the connection between cancer and processed meats like pepperoni.”
What is not too clear is how much, if any, is a moderate and reasonable amount to eat.
“That part is still being researched, but it appears more is worse and less is better,” Weinberg said.
Processed meat is anything you eat that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked or undergone other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation, according to the WHO. So, that would include the usual suspects, from bologna and hot dogs, to even processed chicken or turkey bacon, for instance.
The concern is that processing, as this New York Times article notes, leads to the formation of potentially carcinogenic chemicals.
“For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” according to a public statement released by Dr. Kurt Straif of IARC. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”
Red meat, which includes pork, lamb, goat meat veal, was also tied to pancreatic and prostate cancer, although the evidence is less clear.
For context, colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths for men and women combined, according to the American Cancer Society. About 1 in 20 Americans have a lifetime risk of developing colon cancer and it’s expected to cause about 49,700 deaths in the country in 2015.
Weinberg suggested meat lovers minimize excess processed food consumption as much as possible, eat a well-balanced diet, and pay attention to upcoming research.
“Americans tend to be heavy meat-eaters, so people should pay attention to what they are eating,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg said changing some dietary habits is a good idea, even for other reasons such as the connection between a high fat diet and heart disease.
He recommended a well-balanced diet with “judicious use” of processed meats as the best course of action.
In other words, eat in extra moderation. A ham sandwich here or there should be OK.
The American Cancer Society recommends Americans minimize processed meats like bacon and sausage in their diets, and choose fish, poultry and beans as an alternative to red meat, which, when consumed, should be lean cuts of meat, such as eye of round roast or steak sirloin tip side steak, in small portions.
- Balance calories with physical activity
- Eat more healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seafood
- Consume less saturated and trans fats, added sugars and refined grains