By spooky coincidence at the exact moment I read in the newspaper that the World Health Organisation has declared processed pork products to be in the same cancer risk category as asbestos, tobacco and plutonium, I was eating a big fat sizzling rasher of bacon.
Actually that’s a lie. It’s not remotely spooky or coincidental that I was eating bacon when I read this because I always eat bacon at breakfast with my newspaper.
The reason I always eat bacon at breakfast, every day, without fail, is because bacon tastes delicious. It’s one of the three main reasons God invented the pig (the others being ham and sausage, obviously). I like it so much that sometimes I wonder whether I should become a vegetarian, just so that I can experience that incredible thing all well-adjusted vegetarians go through whereby they realise just how joyless and pointless being a vegetarian is and are seized by an insanely powerful urge to eat a bacon sandwich. And then they do eat a bacon sandwich and tears stream from their eyes and celestial choirs sing the Hallelujah chorus and the interior of their mouth explodes in a gustatory orgasm and they vow never to return to the dark side again. (Cara Delevinge will experience something similar, probably, when she finally remembers that she isn’t actually a lesbian).
But now the World Health Organisation’s International Agency For Research On Cancer (IARC) is telling me I shouldn’t eat bacon because it will increase my risk of getting cancer.
(You mark my words, they won’t stop at bacon. Pretty soon those health nazi killjoys will be trying to claim that barbecued food gives you cancer. And toast. Even cigarettes, before long, I shouldn’t wonder. Imagine!)
As always when you look into the details of this new health scare, it isn’t quite as clear-cut as the newspaper headlines make out.
Christopher Snowdon is good on this:
The IARC are not claiming that eating processed meat is “as bad a cancer threat as smoking”, nor are they saying that “processed meats pose the same cancer risk as smoking and asbestos”. They are merely claiming that the evidence that there is some increased cancer risk is strong enough to be considered proven.
The agency has trawled through the vast literature of nutritional epidemiology to come to these conclusions. This literature is a notorious swamp of publication bias, competing interests and contradictory findings. Almost every type of food has been linked to some disease or other over the years, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, but rarely on a scale that would alarm a level-headed individual.
Better still is an organisation I’d never heard of before, but which I’m definitely going to join on principle, if they’ll have me on board: the North American Meat Institute.
Here’s what their Vice President of Scientific Affairs Betsy Booren had to say in a statement:
“They tortured the data to ensure a specific outcome.”
“Red and processed meat are among 940 agents reviewed by IARC and found to pose some level of theoretical ‘hazard.’ Only one substance, a chemical in yoga pants, has been declared by IARC not to cause cancer.”
I still can’t work out whether the yoga pants thing is a joke or not but I like this woman’s style.
She’s quite right though. If we paid any heed to all the things researchers tell us can give us cancer, then we’d probably have to give up eating and drinking altogether.
This study from 2013 – Is everything we eat associated with cancer? A systematic cookbook review – illustrates the problem well.
The researchers selected 50 common ingredients from cook books. Forty of these ingredients (80 per cent) had articles reporting on their cancer risk.
Associations with cancer risk or benefits have been claimed for most food ingredients. Many single studies highlight implausibly large effects, even though evidence is weak. Effect sizes shrink in meta-analyses.
Now I’m going to celebrate with a large bacon sandwich with plutonium dressing and a cigarette to go with my coffee afterwards. It’s not like we’re not all going to die anyway.