When the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) a branch of the World Health Organization reported that hot dogs, bacon, and other processed meats* cause cancer, a lot of people wondered, would I think twice before purchasing a hot dog at an Angel’s baseball game?
But in all seriousness, this report shouldn’t have come as a surprise because, for years the IARC has been publishing statements on over 1,000 different things; from chemicals to foods on a 5-tier system.
Group 1: Carcinogenic — causes cancer
Group 2A: Probably causes cancer
Group 2B: Possibly causes cancer
Group 3: Can’t tell — not enough evidence
Group 4: Doesn’t cause cancer
Processed meats have long been linked to certain cancers of the digestive tract, especially colorectal and stomach cancers. However, scientists don’t have a definitive answer as to how much meat is too much. But they point out that your risk rises the more processed meats you eat.
So far so good right?
Well, after this report was released, the IARC determined there was enough evidence to put processed meats in the top-tier of cancer risks (group 1) alongside tobacco smoke and asbestos.
So does that means smoking is as risky as eating a hot dog?
No, instead it means that scientists are certain something causes cancer, not that the risks of eating processed meats and smoking are equal. In fact, there is evidence that certain chemicals are created when meats are cured and smoked, which are known to increase cancer risk. Some cuts of red meat are higher in saturated fat, which is also linked to cancer. Even some cooking methods like grilling or frying can create cancer-causing chemicals in meat.
In the end, we simply don’t have enough information to know if one type of processed meat is worse than another. There are different kinds of processing, so it’s unclear which processing method may be more hazardous than others.
At the same time, the report is a good reminder to make red and processed meats occasional treats, not mealtime staples, according to Marion Nestle, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.
He advises sticking close to dietary guidelines like those from the USDA: Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and stick to low-fat or fat-free dairy; cut back on sodium, saturated and trans fats, and added sugar.
*The IRAC defined processed meats as those that are salted, cured, fermented, smoked, or otherwise treated either to enhance their flavor or keep them from spoiling.
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