At the risk of sounding like some grizzled veteran chain smoking a cigarette with one hand and sipping a whiskey with the other, eventually something’s going to kill you. So just how serious is today’s announcement from the World Health Organization stating that processed meats are now ranked as a “group 1” carcinogen?
Well, placing something in “group 1” means that scientists believe that “sufficient evidence” exists that a substance causes cancer in humans. As the BBC very matter-of-factly presents, this means that processed meats—basically any meat that’s had its shelf life extended or taste changed through smoking, curing or added salts or preservative—are now in the same group as alcohol and cigarettes, but they’re also in the same grouping as plutonium. Group 1 only means evidence exists that something causes cancer: It doesn’t discriminate between hot dogs and riding an atomic bomb Dr. Strangelove-style.
What the WHO report does say is that 50 grams of processed meat a day increases the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18 percent, according to their team's finding. But another important distinction: 18 percent from what? “Estimates suggest 34,000 deaths from cancer every year could be down to diets high in processed meat,” writes the BBC. “That is in contrast to one million deaths from cancer caused by smoking and 600,000 attributed to alcohol each year.”
Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the WHO’s IARC Monographs Program, laid things out in a pretty straightforward manner in the group’s press release. “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” he said. “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”
Simply put, it seems that, no, the elitists aren’t coming for your meats, at least not yet. If cigarettes, alcohol and plutonium are still around, bacon probably isn’t going anywhere. But what WHO advises is that it’s probably time for us to start thinking about the impact processed meat consumption can have on our bodies—even if you’re thinking about it while gnawing on a sausage.