Processed meat and cancer

I don’t think of myself as a big processed meat eater, but I imagine all those slices of pepperoni pizza add up.  That said, the latest research reporting that processed meat causes (not correlates with, causes) cancer is not about to have me give up my pepperoni pizza. Vox’s Brad Plumer puts it in proper context:

In the United States, a person’s lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer is roughly 5 percent. The IARC says that eating 50 grams of processed meat per day (about one hot dog or two bacon strips) will boost that to around 6 percent, on average. If you chow down even larger helpings of processed meat, then your risk goes up even more. But that should provide some sense of scale here…

So keep this all in mind whenever you hear that the WHO has classified some new substance as “carcinogenic” or “probably carcinogenic.” It’s one thing to establish causality. It’s another thing entirely to tell us what the risks actually look like.

And Drum’s take:

In other words, the WHO took care to explicitly say that processed meat didn’t rank alongside smoking when it comes to cancer risk.

Colorectal cancer is fairly common as cancers go, but it still affects only about 4.5 percent of the population. What’s more, an increase of “18 percent” does not mean your cancer risk skyrockets from 4.5 percent to 22.5 percent. It means that if you eat a few ounces of processed meat—bacon, bratwurst, ballpark franks, spam1every day, your lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer goes up from 4.5 percent to 5.3 percent.

That’s not nothing. You’re probably better off taking it easy on the spam. Nevertheless, not everything in the category “causes cancer” is created equal. If you’re really worried about cancer, cut out the smoking, the drinking, the overeating, and the city living. Once you’ve done that, then it’s time to decide if you also want to skip the bacon.

So, yeah, you may not want to eat bacon every day, but the occasional amount– as I assume most people consume– certainly doesn’t seem worth worrying about.  And even the every day there’s probably a lot of other things to worry about more.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Processed meat and cancer

  1. r. jenrette says:

    I heard an expert (so identified by the TV host) say that red meat has a lot of nutritionally good stuff (technical term). The primary risk is in the cooking and we should avoid eating the charred parts caused by grilling at high temperatures to minimize it.

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