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Bacon and cancer risk

20 March, 2020
Do you love bacon, but keep hearing conflicting stories about if it’s good or bad for you? We’ve decided to take a look and get both sides of the argument, so you know what’s what.

In 2015 the World Health Organisation declared that processed meats cause cancer. Processed meats include bacon, ham, sausages and salami.

The World Cancer Research Fund, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the American Cancer Society, the Cancer Council in Australia and many other bodies also agree that there are dangers associated with eating even small amounts of processed meat.

According to the WHO, processed meat is classed as a group 1 carcinogen, which means it’s known to cause cancer. Red meat, by comparison, is a group 2 carcinogen, which means it probably causes cancer. The WHO report estimated that each 50-gram increase in daily intake of processed meat raised the risk of contracting colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

A large-scale study in the UK found processed meat could also increase the risk of breast cancer in older women. More than nine grams a day – that’s typically less than a single rasher of bacon – increased the risk of developing breast cancer by 21 percent.

What is processed meat?

Processed meat is any meat that has been treated. Meat gets treated to either preserve it or to change the taste. It can be cured, salted, smoked or fermented. Processed meats include ham, bacon, salami, prosciutto and sausages.

What’s the problem with processed meat?

Nitrates are often used to keep meat fresher for longer. These produce N-nitroso chemicals when your body digests the food. N-nitroso chemicals can damage the cells that line the bowel, which in turn can lead to bowel cancer. There’s also a chemical in red meat known as haem, which has the same effect.

How much processed meat is safe to eat?

If you want to eliminate the cancer risk that comes with eating processed meat, it’s best to stop eating processed meats. The Cancer Council recommends we should cut out processed meat altogether, or keep them to an absolute minimum.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines exclude bacon and processed meat from their recommended foods. They refer to such foods as ‘discretionary’ foods only to be consumed occasionally.

study from the UK that looked at whether people who ate an average of 76 grams of processed and red meat a day – that equates to around 3 slices of ham – were still at increased risk of bowel cancer found a 20 percent increased risk of colorectal cancer. So, even relatively small daily amounts of red and processed meat increase the cancer risk.


All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.

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