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Meat lovers around the world are no doubt suffering from major heartburn over the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer's announcement that red meat (especially when processed) is going on their list of carcinogens. Just how scared should bacon-eaters be? Could sausage really be as bad as for us as the 984 other things on their list, which includes tobacco and plutonium? Maybe.
Watch more on Seeker: Why Do Americans Love Their Bacon?
The process of cooking any kind of meat can create types of molecular compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and advanced glycation end products (AGEs). They're harmless on their own, when we eat them, they break down and mess with the DNA in our colons, which can lead to colorectal cancer. This is why the WHO classifies them as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning the definitely cause cancer. The problem is, exposure to plutonium, which is also on that list, is very likely to cause cancer. Exposure to bacon? Much smaller chance of getting cancer from it.
What exactly is "processed red meat" and what makes it especially carcinogenic? Technically, it's any kind of red meat (beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, of goat) which has been treated by "salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation." Sometimes any of these number of actions can create more PAHs, as well as n-nitroso compounds. N-nitroso compounds are some of the most carcinogenic things on earth, and usually result when meat is exposed to nitrites or nitrogen oxides.
The truth is, we've known that n-nitrosos are carcinogenic for more than 50 years, but people don't seem to be dropping left and right, even though we're eating more meat today than 50 years ago. The WHO said that a 50 gram increase in processed meat could increase cancer risk by 18 percent, but also admitted that their evidence is was slight. Unprocessed red meat (which includes pork, btw) was also added to the WHO's list as group 2A, which means it may cause cancer. Meat is still a great source of protein, B vitamins, minerals, iron and zinc. Eating it is still recommended, but just not as much.
How much red meat do you eat? What about processed `meats? Do you think this study will make you eat less? Sound off in the comments below.
How Red Meat Joined the 478 Other Things That Might Give You Cancer (Bloomberg)
"Eating processed meats causes cancer, and red meat probably increases cancer risks. That's the judgment of a panel of global experts assembled by the World Health Organization to consider the accumulated scientific evidence on the question."
Cutting Red Meat For a Longer Life (Harvard)
"New data shows substantial benefit in eliminating or reducing consumption of red meat and substituting healthier proteins."