The World Health Organization says that eating processed meat can cause cancer. But that doesn’t mean it's as bad as smoking cigarettes.
The World Health Organization has declared that processed meat causes cancer, particularly colon cancer. The organization now places bacon, sausage, and hotdogs in a category of known carcinogens, a list that also includes cigarettes, diesel fumes and asbestos.
That doesn’t mean all the items in this category are equally likely to give you cancer. It just means that there’s sufficient evidence to support that these things can cause cancer, a conclusion that scientific study can only reach after much research.
But the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the organization within the WHO responsible for reviewing cancer research, doesn’t rank the items on this list against one another. In other words, all the items on this list can cause cancer, but do not represent the same level of risk.
But unfortunately, many newspapers—or at least their headline writers—don’t seem to understand this. “Bacon, burgers and sausages DO cause cancer and are as big a threat as cigarettes, says World Health Organisation” declares one headline. “Bacon, Hot Dogs, and Processed Meats Pose as High a Cancer Risk as Cigarettes” claims another. As attention-grabbing as these headlines may be, they are shamefully misleading.
Although the WHO doesn’t rank these known carcinogens, their data does provide some information about relative risk. They estimate that 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are caused by eating a diet that’s high in processed meat. You can compare that number to the 200,000 deaths per year caused by air pollution, 600,000 per year caused by alcohol consumption and 1 million deaths per year caused by cigarettes according to the Global Burden of Disease Project, another WHO research body.
The WHO also placed red meat—beef, lamb and pork—in the next-to-highest cancer risk category. That means red meat is a “probable” carcinogen, but the organization said they still need further data to confirm this and that in limited quantities it may have some nutritional benefits.
Setting the misleading headlines aside, there’s still plenty of reasons to quit eating heavily processed industrial meat. Producing processed and red meat has a much heavier environmental burden than plant-based foods, requiring more water and land, and creating more pollution and greenhouse gases. If more people choose to eat less meat for personal health reasons, there could be a decrease in the amount of resources these meat products gobble up.
And much like smoking cigarettes, increasing your exposure to processed meat increases your risk of cancer, and may also put you at a higher risk for other health problems like heart disease and obesity.
So, even if starting every morning with a sausage breakfast isn’t as likely to kill you as starting your morning with a cigarette, neither is a good choice.