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Making Sense of the WHO Announcement About Meat

To me, the smell of crackling bacon is one of the greatest smells on earth. It automatically makes me think of lazy Sundays and leisurely brunches with my family. Turns out bacon is not a good choice – at least not on a regular basis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, salami and other deli meats as cancer-causing carcinogens, putting them in a category that includes tobacco and asbestos. Red meat has been identified as a probably carcinogenic to humans.

The studies the WHO panel considered aren’t new, they’ve been in the scientific literature for years. So if the research is old news why all the attention?

First, this is the first time a group of renowned scientists pored over the collective findings of these studies and concluded the body of evidence was clear that people who consume the highest levels of processed meats have an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Second, because the WHO is an influential organization of more than 190 member nations, their announcement got a lot of attention from news media around the world.

Here’s the key to understanding the risks: it’s not just exposure that impacts the cancer risk, it’s the amount of exposure. 

Tobacco smoke is also a Group 1 carcinogen, but smoking one cigarette is unlikely to meaningfully impact cancer risk. The same is true for processed meats. The occasional BLT or ham sandwich is unlikely to be a problem. Frequent intake is another story. This announcement should make you cut way back on these types of foods.

And there’s more benefit to cutting back on these items than just potentially reducing your cancer risk. Processed meats are high in sodium and saturated fats. So reducing your intake of processed meats will also help lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol profile.

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