The hysteria surrounding the headlines last week declaring bacon a carcinogen — comparing its consumption to the risks of smoking cigarettes — has calmed down a bit. And that’s good because the media hype with headlines like, “Processed Meats Rank Alongside Smoking as Cancer Causes — WHO” is largely just that, hype. While the World Health Organization (WHO) did issue a report that says processed meats, including bacon, sausages, and ham are among the most carcinogenic foods, several key factors have been left out of the conversation. And the lack of nuance in covering this report is emblematic of the broader problems with much nutrition and health reporting: A study is issued with a sensational finding and it gets repeated ad nauseam until the dietary findings are considered fact and become part of the conventional wisdom on food and health.
So here are some important factors to consider. First, it is not the meat itself — unprocessed pork or beef, for example — but the way meats are processed or cooked that causes certain carcinogenic compounds to form. These are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and according to the National Cancer Center, they are “formed when muscle meat, including beef, pork, fish, or poultry, is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame.”
Indeed, the way food is processed and cooked is critical. When it comes to cooking meat, cooking it slowly at lower temperatures — less than 300 degrees — results in fewer cancer-causing compounds. Furthermore, salt-curing, smoking, and other traditional forms of preserving meat have been in existence for thousands of years in populations with extremely low rates of cancer. On the other hand, much of our modern processed meats are produced industrially and contain a slurry of chemicals and additives. This is surely a recipe for health risk.
The findings from the WHO report are based on a review of the existing literature by 22 scientists from 10 countries, which is to say that none of this is exactly breaking news; we have long known that charring meat and some forms of processing meat result in carcinogenic compounds.
What’s more, carcinogenic compounds are formed in a variety of foods. A seemingly innocuous piece of dark toast could contain another carcinogenic compound called acrylamide that is formed when carbohydrates and proteins are cooked together at high temperatures — which is also the case with French fries, potato chips, and many other fried foods.
The intricate nature of nutrition science is often sacrificed in the service of providing clear, simple answers. But nutrition is incredibly complex. This is in part because once foods and their various compounds enter our bodies, there is a tremendous amount of change and variation. In the case of PAHs and HCAs, studies show that when you combine meats with the compounds found in many other foods, you reduce the amount of PAHs and HCAs drastically.
A 2014 study found that when you marinate pork chops in dark beer before grilling, the carcinogenic compounds were reduced by 50 percent. Researchers believe the antioxidants in the beer help to slow down the formation of PAHs, which are aided by free radicals in the body. Another study found that beef patties cooked with rosemary extract formed far fewer HCAs — the higher the concentration of rosemary, the greater the reduction — in some cases by over 90 percent. Scientists attribute this to the specific antioxidants in rosemary: rosmarinic acid, carnosol and carnosic acid. And in another study, researchers found that when an oil marinade containing garlic, onion and lemon was put on beef patties, the levels of HCAs decreased by 70 percent when the beef was fried. Other reports have shown that natural antioxidants from spices, fruits, chocolate, and tea can also inhibit the formation of carcinogenic compounds.
Cabbage, often served with meat in the form of sauerkraut and coleslaw, is full of cancer protective properties. Cabbage is especially rich in vitamin C, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, and has the powerful anticancer compounds known as glucosinolates. These compounds — also found in mustard and horseradish — work to increase antioxidant defense mechanisms and help the body detoxify harmful chemicals.
Traditional cuisines from around the world always feature some combination of spices, herbs, and vegetable dishes to accompany meat, poultry, and fish. These combinations are likely the result of nutritional wisdom passed down through the generations — and they are also based on what tastes good — an important reminder that taste corresponds to nutrition. We do a disservice to our understanding of food and health when we demonize particular foods and study them in isolation, separating them from our diets as a whole.
Unless you eat bacon by itself for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the hype about bacon killing you is largely unfounded. Of more worthy concern are the thousands upon thousands of chemical additives that lace our highly processed food supply. Eat bacon, but eat it without the chemical additives and preservatives. If you can find organic, even better. And most importantly, eat bacon and other meats with a variety of whole foods, especially vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices — and maybe wash them all down with a dark beer too.