Bacon, loved by our tastebuds but hated by nutritionists, has long been under the chopping block for it’s purported lack of concern for our health. Recently, public uneasiness towards bacon has intensified in the wake of a WHO report which claimed that processed meats, including bacon, can cause colorectal cancer. This post examines the science behind these claims and seeks to provide you, the taste-conscious yet health-savvy reader, with the bottom line in whether you should eat bacon, or avoid it like the plague.
The WHO lowdown on processed meats
Last month, 22 scientists from ten countries met at the the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to quantify the potential carcinogenicity from consumption of red meat (more on meat vs. health here) and processed meat. Based on the research findings, they determined that processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs and sausages, can cause cancer – specifically, colorectal cancer.
Diving down into the numbers, the IARC research found that eating approximately 1.8 ounces of processed meat daily (roughly equivalent to slightly less than 2 slices of bacon) will increase the risk of colorectal cancer by around 18%. Colorectal cancer is the third most common form of cancer, excluding skin cancers. The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is approximately 5%, therefore, by that reasoning, eating processed meats would increase your lifetime risk of this cancer to 5.9% – not a huge jump, but nothing to be scoffed at, either.
Is bacon really all that bad?
Bacon is generally hated on by nutritionists worldwide for a number of reasons, including it’s high content of “artery clogging” saturated fat, high sodium levels and nitrates/nitrites required for curing. Ancestral nutrition (i.e. paleo) proponents, on the other hand, can’t get enough of the stuff, even going so far as to consider it as “meat candy”. So, is bacon really as bad as most people would have you think?
In short, the answer is a big fat (pun intended) NO. Extensive scientific literature reviews have found no links between nitrates or nitrites and cancer, with recent research even going so far as to suggest that these compounds may in fact be beneficial, particularly for heart health. This is due to the fact that our bodies produce far more nitrates and nitrites than can be found in food, and they may play an important role in immune and cardiovascular function.
With regards to saturated fat, if you haven’t had the chance to read some of our other posts regarding this subject, you may still be under the opinion that it should be avoided at all cost. Well, we’re happy to tell you that this is not the case, with bucketloads of peer reviewed scientific research firmly proving that not only does it NOT cause heart disease, it actually plays an important role in fueling our bodies and helping to absorb nutrients from the food we eat.
Finally, our old arch-nemesis sodium. Popular consensus would still have us believe that salt is a harmful substance and should be dramatically reduced from our diets. The truth of the matter is, however, that sodium is a vital nutrient for humans. It is a major component of extracellular fluid and is essential for maintaining normal cellular metabolism. Check out this article for more information on the importance of salt.
How often should I eat bacon?
As with everything, moderation is key. We don’t want you to read this article and assume that you can embark upon a “bacon binge” and eat to your heart’s content (or malcontent, as it were). The main point of this article is that bacon is not the villain it has been made out to be, but as always we want to stress the need to find good quality sources for this particular food. This means pastured, organic, humanely-sourced bacon. It also means that you should check the ingredients before you buy – your bacon of choice shouldn’t contain anything other than pork, water, salt and nitrates/nitrites. Some bacon is cured with sugar, which is ok in small amounts but should be avoided if possible. Finally, cook your bacon slowly in its own fat – you don’t need to add any other oils, as the high saturated fat content in bacon is sufficient for cooking purposes, provided you don’t fry the crap out of it.
With these guidelines in mind, it shouldn’t do any harm to eat 3 pieces of bacon a couple of times a week. Many people on paleo diets eat bacon every single day for breakfast, however we generally recommend cycling intake of certain foods to avoid developing allergies. As such, try to take at least a day or two off between your bouts of delicious bacon eating. Enjoy!