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Don't panic, bacon lovers: Why the new report on cancer and processed meats doesn't mean a total pork ban

A skeptical health researcher discusses WHO research linking some meats to cancer


Scott Timberg
October 27, 2015 1:43AM (UTC)

It’s been a tough day for meat eaters, as a report by an international World Health Organization describes the relationship between processed food in specific and red meat in general and various kinds of cancer. The headlines, of course, have been blunt. CNN Money phrases it this way: “Processed meat causes cancer, says WHO."

The Guardian offers a blunt headline as well “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO.” The story goes on to say

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Bacon, ham and sausages rank alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer, the World Health Organisation has said, placing cured and processed meats in the same category as asbestos, alcohol, arsenic and tobacco.

The report from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said there was enough evidence to rank processed meats as group 1 carcinogens because of a causal link with bowel cancer.

Are we destined to bounce between reckless hedonism and alarmist headlines about our health choices? Do we really need to swear off bacon?

Salon spoke to Timothy Caulfield, a heath researcher at the University of Edmonton and the author of "Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty, and Happiness." The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

The first thing I’m wondering is, What did this study tell us that we didn’t already know? Didn’t most people suspect that eating a lot of bacon or processed food or red meat wasn’t great for them?

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I’ve been following this for a long time, and often when I give public lectures I use bacon as example… Everyone seems to love bacon so it’s a great starting point. There have been some conflicting stories about bacon and red meat in general and its health value. What I think this allegedly does – they looked at over 800 studies and tried to come to some kind of consensus about the actual risks associated with cancer. That’s why it’s gotten so many headlines…

I don’t think anyone eats bacon because they think it’s good for them. They eat it because they love it.

But it sounds like you are saying it’s an important study and worth taking seriously.

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Yeah – and keep in mind, it’s more than a study, it’s a group of experts looking at the available evidence. It really did resonate with people. They said, Yeah, it really is bad for us. I don’t know if they were holding out hope that it was okay.

But the headlines have been incredibly alarmist. So my message is to look beyond the hype and ask, What is this study really saying?

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And the message for me is really a story of moderation. We don’t all have to ban bacon from our kitchens. On the contrary, it probably shouldn’t be your go-to meat product.

The study made some claims not just about processed meat but about red meat – the claims were not quite as pronounced.

One thing about this study: We have to be careful about not mixing up relative risk and absolute risk. If you’re looking at an increased chance of getting colon cancer of 17 percent – that sounds really grim. But, it’s one of the more common forms of cancer, your chance of getting it over the course of a lifetime is about three or four percent. So you’re talking about an increase of a relatively rare event.

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So it’s a 17 percent increase on three or four percent?

Yes – often these are read as, “That means there’s a 17 percent chance we’re gonna get it.” No, it’s not that at all. So often that’s left out of news stories, and it confuses thing.

It’s a nice message – eat healthy, eat in moderation, whenever possible try to eat real food.

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This feels like part of a pattern of health scares. What are the most garishly distorted or misinterpreted study or report? A case where a scientific study came out and the media or general public took it wrong.

Oh God, there are so many. You get, “Red wine is good for you.” Then, “You know what? Maybe antioxidants aren’t so good for you.” Or, “Eggs are terrible for you.” Then, “Maybe eggs aren’t so terrible for you.”

The one I love is chocolate – “Chocolate is good for you.”

Often you get studies that are correlation studies that suggest something that is either good or bad for you, and that study is blown up to a truism. We do it with macronutrients too. In general, when you’re talking about nutrition, you should be very skeptical toward anything that demonizes a certain food group, or makes any kind of food a super food. There are no super foods.

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I’m fascinated at how this is all presented. The fact that this study has resonated so much.

How have you seen the report be misread and how do you think it will continue to be misinterpreted in the media?

The headlines have [mostly]been extremist: “Bacon causes cancer.” That is an over-interpretation of the conclusions. Keep in mind: Everything causes cancer. You look at that World Health Organization list, and it’s long, and it has a lot of things on it we’re exposed to throughout the day. It’s not that bacon causes cancer – it’s that bacon has been associated with cancer.

The other thing to follow going forward is how the information will be polarized. You’ll get the vegan and vegetarian community using this in their arsenal of why we should avoid meat. And to be fair, there are more arrows in that quiver. And you’ll see people who love their meat and love their bacon cherry-picking, saying it’s all just one study. It will be interesting to see that polarization, because it’s certainly happened in the past.

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What should the informed person take from this report?

It’s the boring story of moderation. This is more evidence that eating a lot of processed meat is probably not a good idea. But it doesn’t mean you have to avoid it altogether. This increasingly suggests we should view it as a treat, and it looks like that’s increasingly true of red meat. But look, red meat has nutrients in it – it’s not a completely unhealthy product.

And moderate means what, a burger once or twice a week?

Yeah I think that’s fair to say. And also probably leaning toward meat that’s not as processed.

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But you can watch this story unfold. Look, nutrition research is really hard. That’s why we get these conflicting stories. You get these big cohort studies, they’re almost always association studies, and it’s often very hard to control for all the variables that are relevant. Some people have criticized this study and the alcohol-is-good-for-you study that they are really proxies for living a different kind of lifestyle. So if you eat a whole bunch of processed meat, there’s probably some other stuff going on in your life. And if you are drinking two glasses of red wine a day, maybe that’s a market for living a moderate lifestyle. It’s really hard to control for all those variables. So you’ve got to look at the whole body of evidence.

These experts have tried to do that. And they’ve come to the conclusion – taking in all the biases – and come to the conclusion that bacon and processed food probably is associated with cancer to some degree.

Finally, how does this distortion and panic fit in with the celebrity-worship you describe in your book? Does the cult of Gwyneth and other health-and-lifestyle gurus contribute to this kind of problem?

For sure that’s the case. Pop culture generally serves as a polarizing source. They use these studies to promote whatever kind of lifestyle they’re promoting, whether eating raw food, or promoting whatever kind of product or agenda a celebrity is pushing.

But I always say, There is no magic lifestyle. It’s all about the sensible stuff we’ve long known. So don’t believe the hype – don’t believe these messages that tend to flow out of celebrity culture.

There is no magic diet. We’ve long known that lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts… It’s the stuff in general that most of us have known for a long time, and the research continuously backs that up. This study just confirms that – it really us about moderation.


Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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