A Far Cry From The Mass-Hysteria Media's Headline Grabbing, “WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!”
Just in time for Halloween comes the latest fright: the WHO has spoken and bacon is a killer. Now, we're not talking about the rock group that gave us “Tommy” back in the sixties. No, the World Health Organization is making this proclamation (although Messrs. Townsend, Daltrey, Entwhistle, and Moon could probably have done it with greater entertainment value). Of course, various learned groups and individuals have been warning us about the dangers of processed meats for years, but the scientists who populate the halls of this prestigious Swiss-based institution have gone so far as to include bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausage, etc. in the same class – Class 1 – as tobacco, UV radiation, and diesel fumes. That's serious stuff. And red meat – you know, those big juicy steaks and chops you so love and enjoy – are in the next class down. In the black and white eyes of the WHO, steak might kill you and bacon definitely will.
The thing is, this is not the first time the WHO has issued this edict. They've been bashing bacon, hammering hot dogs, and reviling red meat for years. This latest hyperbolic scare tactic is just an amped-up version of what they've already said.
To be precise, this time the pocket protector crowd says that consuming just 50 g (1.76 oz) of processed meats per day – or 100 g of red meat – will increase the likelihood of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. For those of you who are metrically impaired, 50 g equates to about two strips of bacon. And because it's a slow news week, the media is all over it.
One of the things the headline writers aren't adequately emphasizing, however, is the relativity of the situation. The fact is that the average person has only a 5% chance at developing these cancers to begin with. So if said average person were to consume the “deadly” two strips of bacon every day for the rest of his life, he would be increasing an actual 5% chance by a relative 18%, thus raising his overall actual shot at developing cancer to 6%. Granted, such an increase is still an increase, but it's hardly a reason to declare a total moratorium on pork products.
Which leads to the other thing the alarmists are overlooking: moderation. Boys and girls, I l-o-o-o-ove my bacon. But my love is limited to two or three slices of it on a Sunday morning. If I go really wild, I might crumble a piece over a baked potato a couple of times a month and I might add an additional strip or two to a grilled cheese sandwich once in a blue moon. As for other processed meats, I also enjoy a ham sandwich now and then – one or two a week, I suppose – so I'm probably doubling my risk to a little over half of what the WHO considers dangerous. In short, I'm not too concerned.
What I am concerned about is where did these guys go to school? And were they all absent for the discussion on "correlation does not imply causation"? Unless all other variables are controlled for, impossible except for in the strictest experimental conditions. For example: It can be stated that sleeping with your shoes on is strongly correlated with waking up with a headache. Therefore, sleeping with your shoes on causes headaches. The problem here is that this plays into the “correlation implies causation” fallacy by prematurely concluding that sleeping with your shoes on causes headaches. Was any consideration given to a third factor, i.e. you went to bed dead skunk drunk? No? So the conclusion is false. Kind of like, “man eats bacon. Man develops cancer. Therefore, bacon causes cancer.”
The big bad in all this is nitrites. I'm not usually good at quick explanations, but here goes: A long, long time ago, man discovered salt as a preservative for meat. The most commonly used salt for the purpose is a naturally occurring one called sodium nitrate (chemically NaNO3). About a hundred years ago, it was discovered that when sodium nitrate interacts with bacteria in meat it forms a new compound. This is sodium nitrite (NaNO2). Sodium nitrite is the substance that protects us by inhibiting the growth of some really bad baddies like listeria and botulinum. It also keeps the fat in meat from going rancid. All good so far, right? It didn't take long for food processors to eliminate the middleman and start using sodium nitrite directly in preserving food, especially through the use of curing salt or “pink salt” which is 6.25% sodium nitrite and 93.75% common table salt. Well, then around 1970 or so, some other researchers discovered that when you heat up sodium nitrite in food to temperatures above 266°, it joins up with organic compounds called “amines” and converts yet again into something called nitrosamines. And it's these nitrosamines that are thought to be carcinogenic.
Still with me? Here's where it gets really funky. All these nitrates and nitrites and stuff don't just hitch a ride into your body on strips of bacon and beef jerky. Nitrites are naturally occurring substances in the human body. Your saliva, for instance, is loaded with the stuff. Scientists say that for every kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight you carry, your body naturally produces about a milligram of nitrite. And nitrosamine formation is inhibited by the presence of ascorbic acid – good ol' Vitamin C. Thus, the USDA limits the amount of nitrites added to cured meats and they require all products containing nitrites to also include vitamin C.
The real kicker is that we don't even get most of our daily dosage of nitrate/nitrite/nitrosamine from processed meat. Nope. Only about 6%. Around 80% of our nitrate consumption comes from vegetables. Good old healthy celery, leafy greens, leeks, parsley, beets and a host of other dietary delights are packed with it because the soil they grow in is packed with it. You know why? Because we dump tons of the stuff on fields as fertilizer. And when you eat those nitrate-laden veggies, guess what happens? Ding, ding, ding! The bacteria in your mouth converts the nitrates to nitrites! Just like it does with those aporkalyptic processed meats. Further, a recent British study found that nitrates can actually improve cardiovascular function by thinning blood and widening blood vessels, lessening the risk for clots and stroke. The bottom line here is that your body doesn't differentiate between the nitrates you ingest from meat and those you ingest from vegetables, water, and other sources. And chemical substances in our bodies – like Vitamin C – prevent the combination of nitrites and amines. No combination means no nitrosamines, the scary carcinogen about which the WHO is all exercised. But there's no “breaking news” in that, so we get the hyped up version instead.
Does that mean you can eat a pound of bacon for breakfast, a package of hot dogs for lunch, a slab of steak for supper and an entire sausage for a snack and expect to be healthy? Come on. Use a little common sense. For decades, eggs were considered little ovoid cholesterol bullets aimed directly at your heart. Better science now says that's not the case. But that doesn't mean I'm going to pillage the neighborhood chickens and eat a dozen eggs a day. I'll stick with my two scrambled on Sunday and be content in the knowledge that they're not really going to kill me after all. Not that I ever thought they would, but now I've got the nutrition nerds on my side.
Dr. Andrew Chan, associate professor of medicine at the Harvard School of Public Health, says, “The epidemiological data supporting an association between processed and red meats and colon cancer is very strong. There is definitely some reason for caution about the consumption of red and processed meats.” And then he opens the other side of his mouth and says, “It’s pretty clear that the link between consumption of meat with cancer appears to be dose-related. The more you eat, the higher your risk.” He goes on to state that it is “reasonable” to continue to include red meat in a balanced diet, provided it is done in moderation. Even the people responsible for this latest outburst, the researchers at the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), have fessed up to the fact that moderation is the key. The head honcho on the study, Dr. Christopher Wild, acknowledged the nutritional value of meat and stopped well short of saying people should avoid it altogether. Instead, the WHO soft-pedaled the advice that government agencies should “balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and provide the best possible dietary recommendations.” That's a far cry from the mass-hysteria media's headline grabbing, “WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!”
Besides, as I was writing this, I noticed that, in the face of a worldwide backlash, the WHO has already back-pedaled on the whole affair, releasing this statement: “The latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats, but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer." Watching people back-pedal in lockstep is really quite amusing.
Am I going to give up bacon, the sublime porcine substance I have often referred to as “ambrosia”? Not likely. In the same way that I never bought into the media-hyped cholesterol myth that has now been so thoroughly discredited, I'm not going to believe that Porky Pig lurks in the darkness of my colon waiting to do me in. He hasn't done so in sixty years of consuming slightly less than a pound of bacon a month, even with the help of the double death-dealing whammy of fewer than a dozen eggs. And did I mention I use real butter?! So I will continue to exercise common sense and moderation, and, with careful driving, I may actually make it to 90 or 100 like my mother and my great-grandmother. (My poor grandmother only made it to 85.)
As for the WHO, maybe they should actually consider teaming up with The Who. It would make their next dire prediction really rock.