Should we give up eating bacon?

  • Vir Sanghvi
  • Updated: Dec 13, 2015 00:11 IST
There is no bowel cancer epidemic in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Spain or any other country that preserves meat by turning it into salamis, hams, sausages or bacon. (Photo: iStock)

So you knew cigarettes would kill you. You were aware that too much alcohol was dangerous. But did you ever realise that bacon was a silent killer?

I shall pause for the shock to subside.

But yes, it is true. Or so they say. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, based in Lyon, France (and affiliated – somehow; the exact link is a subject of controversy – to the World Health Organisation), bacon causes cancer. And so, it is not good for you.

Bacon? Really?

Oh yes, says the Agency. Not just bacon, but all processed foods such as sausages, ham, salami, pepperoni (you can forget about those pizzas, pal) and chorizo are carcinogenic.

At this stage, you may react as I did. Charcuterie causes cancer? Oh yeah? Then why isn’t Parma, home of the famous ham, the cancer capital of the world? Why don’t New Yorkers collapse on the sidewalk after they have bitten into a hot dog? Why isn’t the entire population of Germany already dead? As for this Agency, based as it is in Lyon, home of delicious French sausages, do its researchers smile as they bravely look death (ie, a hunk of charcuterie) in the face?

My cynical and disbelieving responses have been echoed around the world. The North American Meat Institute, which you could call an interested party, laughed at the researchers. They think everything is carcinogenic, scoffed the meat guys. Barry Carpenter, head of the Meat Institute, sneered: “only one substance – a chemical in yoga pants – has been declared by the Agency for Cancer Research not to cause cancer”. (This is overstating the case but not by as much as the alarmist reports about bacon and cancer did – as we shall see.)

As you probably know, cancer is the next big thing in the food world after the heart disease scare subsided. In the Seventies, they told us that nearly everything good raised your cholesterol and caused heart disease. So butter was poison, eggs would give you a heart attack, etc. (All this nonsense about the so-called health benefits of egg-white omelettes dates to this period.)

Then, new research showed that butter was fine. It was margarine, which scientists had recommended, that was linked to heart disease. Eggs are now officially A Good Thing. And so on.

So it is cancer that we worry about these days. Anything good is carcinogenic. Researchers can’t always tell you why it is carcinogenic because the science is not yet clear. So they rely on statistical studies. These have some value. For instance, if 50 per cent of the people in a group of smokers develop lung cancer, while only 10 per cent in a group of non-smokers do the same, then it is a reasonable assumption that smoking leads to lung cancer.

But statistical evidence can be misleading. As Dr Ian Johnson, Emeritus Fellow at the Institute of Food Research said, even if there is “evidence for a statistically significant association between processed meat consumption and bowel cancer, it is important to emphasise that the size of the effect is relatively small and the mechanism, poorly defined”.

Is it small? Well, the Cancer Research Agency puts bacon in the same category as tobacco and asbestos. Surely, that is serious?

Well, yes and no. It turns out that this category (the so-called top category of carcinogenic substances) only includes agents where a cancer risk is clear. It does not mean that bacon or ham are as dangerous as cigarettes, in the way that the paper suggests. It just means that they are also dangerous.

(Photo: iStock)

So how great is the risk really? Well, if you eat two strips of bacon every day of your life, then your risk of getting bowel cancer goes up by 1.8 per cent.

Yups. That’s it. A less than two per cent increase in the risk factor. And that too, if you eat bacon every day.

Is that really worth worrying about? Is it worth the hype and the scary headlines?

According to me: no. At least not for us in India. Few of us eat bacon every day and it is worth remembering that in countries like Germany, where they do eat lots of sausages, there is no epidemic of bowel cancer. Nor is there any in France, Italy, Poland, Spain or any of those countries where farmers have been preserving meat by turning it into salamis, hams, sausages or bacon for centuries. (Nor, by the way, does this have much to do with modern preservatives. The Agency argues that any method of processing meat – even one that is 600 years old – increases the cancer risk. So forget about the benefits of organic bacon!)

But yes, there is one reason why we should be concerned. Until the 1980s, “pork bellies” was one of those strange terms you heard commodity traders throwing around. None of us actually knew what it meant. And pork bellies – as any old-time commodity trader will tell you – were cheap. After all, how many people wanted to eat a pig’s belly?

Then, the fast food industry discovered bacon. As you probably know, most fast-food hamburger patties are revolting and tasteless. (Even worse in India where they use chicken.) So the success of the burger lies in the add-ons. One trick is to add cheese to mask the lack of flavour in the patty. A fast-food cheeseburger always tastes better than a fast-food hamburger.

But fast-food creators came up with a new idea. Why not add bacon to the burger as well? It was cheap, crisped up nicely, adding texture, and the flavour profile worked perfectly.

Umami flavour, which is abundant in the ketchup you eat with your fries, is also found in bacon. (Photo: iStock)

What did bacon add to the burger? Well, it added salt, and the fast food industry is big on salt. It added fat because they used the cheapest and fattiest bacon they could find. Plus bacon is high in a term that has become very fashionable lately: umami. The glutamate content of bacon is higher than tomatoes and cheese.

The fast food guys knew that umami helped shift their product. Umami is why we dunk our French fries into ketchup (because ketchup has a high umami content). It is why they sprinkle cheap Parmesan-style cheese (but not the real thing) on top of fast-food pizzas and pastas.

The addition of pork-belly bacon gives burgers a cheap, crispy flavourful kick, it also adds salt and fat. (Photo: iStock)

So bacon was a miracle ingredient for the fast-food companies: umami, plus fat, plus salt, plus texture. Wow! they all went. Soon every chain served a bacon burger. They put a bacon-like salami on pizzas. They topped chicken sandwiches with bacon. Taco Bell began stuffing its tacos and burritos with bacon. So-called salad bars at fast-food places included bacon lardons (usually synthetic). And some chains (I’m not taking names, but it is the big ones) coated their third-class, poor-quality bacon with synthetic bacon flavouring to make it taste more like bacon!

Now, bacon can refer to different cuts of the pig. In Europe, bacon usually comes from the side and back cuts of pork. But in America, bacon nearly always comes from the belly (what they call “streaky bacon” outside of America), which is mostly fat. So when Americans eat bacon, they are eating a much fattier product than you and me.

And as the fast-food industry bulked up on bacon, the demand for those strange commodities, pork bellies, shot through the roof as did prices. Suddenly the commodity traders discovered that lots of people wanted to eat the belly of the pig: virtually everyone who went to a fast food restaurant, in fact!

The popularity of bacon in the fast-food sector probably explains why, even though the cancer study talks about all processed foods, nobody has gone on and on about the perils of jamon Iberico or Toulouse sausage.

The worry is that the fast-food industry’s obsession with putting the cheapest and fattiest bacon into nearly everything will lead to a situation where the idea of eating two rashers of bacon every single day may not sound so far-fetched.

So should we give up eating bacon, sausages, ham and other processed meats?

I think we would be crazy to do that. Very few of us eat enough of the stuff to even come close to the new consumption limit; and after which our risk of bowel cancer goes up by only under two per cent anyway. There are many, many, things in our environment that are far more carcinogenic than the humble ham sandwich.

But yes, I do think that if you have children and you let them eat very often at fast-food chains (which is an extremely irresponsible thing to do anyway – let them eat real food!), then you should worry about the high-fat, high-salt, processed garbage that is being put into their mouths. It is one thing for a kid to have a sausage or a little bacon with his eggs once a while. But don’t let the fast food chains make that decision for you.

Beyond that, relax. Next year, the same Institute is expected to tell us that all red meat causes cancer. In which case America would have ceased to exist a long time ago.

So eat well. Eat in moderation. And don’t worry about the scary headlines.

From HT Brunch, December 13

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