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The other day, someone asked me my “position” on deli meat in my Instagram stories. I didn’t have much time, so I just said, “I don’t buy it, but it would take a long time to go into all the nuance about deli meat.” Enter: massive requests for all. the. nuance.
So, my friends, all. the. nuance. In 2 parts! And a quick link guide if you want to skip ahead:
- Who Wrote the Report
- Foods that Cause Cancer
- Will a Hot Dog Give Me Cancer?
- How Much is Dangerous
- How Much is Safe
My Bottom Line
First how I live: I don’t buy deli meat or processed meat often. I usually buy bacon 1-2 times per year. I buy lunch meat maybe 1 time per year. I buy salami, smoked fish, pepperoni, hot dogs also very sparingly… although, now that my little one has decided he likes pepperoni on his pizza, the future remains to be seen.
I work to crowd out processed meats with other options for my kids. And I use all my picky eating strategies to help my kids go for it.
We sometimes eat processed meat when we are out or at someone’s house if they serve it. I sometimes order bacon and eggs or Cobb salads with bacon at restaurants. Sometimes we all eat hot dogs when we’re at a party where that is the food option.
Well, want the scary headline that all the news papers report on?
Scary headline: Processed Meat Causes Cancer
Honestly, that’s why I don’t buy it. It’s carcinogenic.
Maybe you know me better than this though, because I dislike scary headlines and trite answers like “it’s carcinogenic.” Maybe you, like me, have 800 thousand questions about what this means, who said it and all that fun stuff. Hello, information and NUANCE.
Who Wrote the Report
Let’s start with this. Processed meats and red meat were thoroughly reviewed by the World Health Organization. Their International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) did a thorough study on the effects of processed meats and red meat on health. They wrote a report about it.
What does “thorough” mean? They reviewed over 800 hundred studies. EIGHT HUNDRED!
Good for them. Because that’s how many studies you need to make a determination like this. Each research study is like a drop of water. It takes a bucket before you should make any big announcements like “this food gives people cancer.”
It would take me a whole book to talk about nutrition research and why it is difficult. Suffice to say, I’m happy they looked at 800 studies before saying something strong.
Foods that Cause Cancer
I’ve been cynical in the past. In fact, I’ve rolled my eyes when someone has said, “That will give you cancer.” I may have even said, “Everything will give you cancer. [eye roll]” Be calm and open-minded with me for a minute though.
How many foods have been classified as carcinogenic by IARC?
Yes, T H R E E (3)
- Alcoholic beverages
- Processed meat
- Chinese-style salted fish
This is why it’s actually a pretty big deal that a food is considered carcinogenic. They almost never establish enough strong evidence from studies to determine that foods actually, without a shadow of a doubt, cause cancer. That’s why they needed 800 studies.
What about red meat?
Red meat, they classified as “Probably carcinogenic.” Because there was conflicting data. Maybe after more research they will be able to say, yes for sure, it does cause cancer. Until then, we think “probably”.
There are only 2 foods that have been classified as “probably carcinogenic”:
- Red meat
- Very hot beverages above 65 degrees C
Will a Hot Dog Give Me Cancer?
What does “carcinogenic” or “cancer-causing” actually mean? Headlines may want you to believe that processed meat could cause any kind of cancer.
This report specifically determined that processed meats can cause colorectal cancer (and maybe stomach cancer). Red meats probably cause colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer (but we don’t know for sure).
Is it time now to start telling kids hot dogs are the same as cigarettes?
Just because cigarettes and processed meats are both carcinogenic, does not mean that they are equally dangerous. They aren’t. Cigarettes are WAY more dangerous. Plus addictive. Plus, don’t taste as good as bacon (if bacon is your thing).
How Much is Dangerous
This report showed that each 50g of processed meat eaten per day (4 slices of bacon or 1 hot dog), increases colorectal cancer risk by 18%. Does it guarantee you will get cancer if you eat a hot dog every day? No. Research never guarantees anything. They estimate that about 34,000 deaths per year can be attributed to diets high in processed meats.
This report does show that the more processed meats you eat, the more risk you have. You will be more likely to get colorectal cancer than someone else who is not eating processed meats.
Of course you may tell me about your friend on Paleo who lost 200 lbs and was so healthy and lived to 100. That’s fine. I also know a woman on Paleo who lost 200 lbs and was so healthy, until she died of stomach cancer in her 50s.
Stories feel powerful and we could go back and forth on stories for ages. Research looks at populations, not people, though. We never know exactly what will happen to us or our kids. I like to use research to decide how I want to live. How I want to “give it my best shot” and hope for the best.
How Much is Safe
This report was not able to determine a “safe level.”
It is my personal feeling, that eating processed meat occasionally is not at all the same as starting smoking. That is why I still choose to consume processed meat on occasion. If I had digestive issues or cancer in my family, I would abstain completely. For example, if there was a family history of colorectal cancer, stomach cancer, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, etc.
This is not a recommendation based on research, though (I did not review 800 studies on red and processed meat), it’s based on common sense. We know the research says processed meats hurt the digestive system. If you already know you have digestive system issues, common sense to give your digestive system a break. Just my 2 cents. Maybe other people would feel like any cancer in the family would warrant abstaining. I can get behind that too.
Other people feel that a carcinogenic food should be avoided 100%. I can get behind that too.