Does bacon really cause cancer?

By Dr Gunter Kuhnle, Nutritional epidemiologist, University of Reading

A few years ago, the decision by the WHO to classify processed meat as carcinogenic to humans has resulted in a lot of headlines. Unsurprisingly, comparing a full English breakfast with cigarettes didn’t go down too well.

This was of course an exaggeration – but the fact remains that processed meat consumption can increase the risk of bowel cancer.

So what are the real risks?

While this might not be relevant for the individual – the change in risk for the individual is small – it is important on a national scale as reducing bacon intake could reduce the burden on the health service, and on last night’s episode of ‘How to Stay Healthy’ on Channel 4, that’s exactly what we showed.

Dr Phil Kieran and Dr Gunter Kuhnle

When you eat processed meat like bacon, this increases the risk for cancer through the formation of nitrosamines – chemicals that are known to cause cancer for a long time. The easiest way to address this problem would be to eat less processed meat – but that is unlikely to work.

A much more clever way is to prevent these nitrosamines from forming – ideally in a way that doesn’t affect the taste or texture.

This is exactly what we have done: with funding from the European Union, we have investigated how different plant extracts can be used in meat products to prevent nitrosamines from forming.

Our results were extremely encouraging: by using natural plant extracts, we could make different types of processed meats (bacon, sausages …) that didn’t look or taste different. We compared those meat products with traditional ones in a large intervention study and found that our new recipe reduces the amount of nitrosamines formed considerably.

So perhaps you can have your bacon and eat it too.

Image credit:

Top: bacon, 2008, Jack Lyons. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Bottom: Phil and Gunter, 2017, Tern TV.

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