Last year, the Nanny Police declared war on my favorite breakfast food.
If you remember the headlines, media everywhere shouted that bacon caused cancer on the same level as cigarettes.
A World Health Organization's (WHO) report officially classified processed meats – like bacon – as a Group 1 cancer-causing agent (or carcinogen). Red meats – like beef and pork – landed in Group 2A.
Some folks let this news scare them into giving up their tasty strips of bacon in the morning. But it shouldn't.
First of all, Group 1 carcinogens include dangerous stuff like arsenic. They also include paint fumes and sunlight – things that aren't dangerous unless you have prolonged or repeated exposure. (We've often said sunlight is the best way to get vitamin D.) Does this mean we need to stay inside and never paint our houses again? Of course not.
A Group 1 designation simply means the WHO found evidence that processed meats cause cancer in humans. Group 2A means that red meat probably causes cancer, but the research is limited in humans.
Plus, the report had a significant flaw... Only a handful of the 8,000 studies reviewed showed the link between processed meats and cancer. Add that to some misleading reports on the statistical findings and you've got yourself an all-out war on bacon.
I've been adamant about this issue for years: Cancer is not a single-cause disease. Many factors contribute to cancer growth. Genetics, lifestyle, diet, and exposure to certain things (like air pollution) all play a role.
And even your exposure has multiple facets and levels of risk. Processed meat, for example, has several possible mechanisms of action. And as it turns out, we've warned readers about them for years.
The first culprit – nitrites. These are chemical preservatives used to keep meat from spoiling. Hot dogs, for example, contain a lot of nitrites. Nitrites also cause inflammation, which causes other problems like heart disease, arthritis, and high blood pressure. Nitrites also damage the lining in our intestines, which leads to DNA mutations... and cancer.
How you cook your meat also influences risk. Grilling meat produces two known carcinogens – heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
HCAs form from high-heat cooking. The five foods yielding the highest levels of HCAs (when prepared well-done) are chicken breast, steak, pork, salmon, and hamburger.
PAHs come from the smoke. The cloud of smoke that rises when you open the top of your grill contains huge amounts of PAHs. They form when a piece of fat from your steak falls into the fire. Partially burned-up residue of fuel, like wood or gas, also contains PAHs. This residue sticks to the surface of food (and also adds flavor).
Both PAHs and HCAs damage the DNA in our cells. And damaged DNA sometimes creates cells that grow and divide uncontrollably... causing cancer.
Finally, heme iron could also play a role in cancer. Heme iron is the compound that gives blood its red color, so it comes from red meats specifically. Although heme iron provides the iron we need to help build muscle, it also speeds up the formation of nitrites in our bodies.
I'm not about to give up bacon or red meat based on a dubious ranking by a government-backed agency. And I hope you won't either.
However, it is important to reduce the health risks associated these foods. So next week, I'll share seven tips on how to safely cook red meat.
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P.S. In my monthly newsletter, Retirement Millionaire, we're skeptical of Big Brother's announcements like the one from the WHO. We prefer to dig into the evidence and see what's really going on. If you'd like to read more of our evidence-backed research, click here to learn how to get started today.