On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) filled the pants of meat-eaters worldwide when it announced that processed meat causes cancer. And if you’re waiting for a caveat, I’m sorry to say there isn’t one. After analyzing hundreds of studies, the WHO’s cancer research unit has classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans.” Unprocessed red meat may also be carcinogenic.

This is undeniably bad news for those of you who enjoy bacon and sausages, but you’re probably wondering just how much you should be freaking out right now. That depends on your diet.

An Arby’s Brown Sugar Bacon & Roast Beef Sandwich. (Photo Credit: Flickr)

An Arby’s Brown Sugar Bacon & Roast Beef Sandwich. (Photo Credit: Flickr)

Processed Meat Is Not Good for You

A “processed meat” is a meat that has been modified for the purposes of changing its taste or prolonging its shelf life. Such meats include bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, beef jerky, ham, canned meat and meat-based sauces.

In a press release, the WHO announced that it has classified processed meat as carcinogenic to humans based on “sufficient evidence” that its consumption causes colorectal cancer. The WHO’s report, published in The Lancet Oncology, states that as much as 50 grams of processed meat per day can increase the risk of cancer by 18 percent.

If there is any good news to be had in this report, it’s that the risk is relatively small to begin with. Obviously not everyone who’s eaten a hot dog is going to contract cancer. However, if processed meats are eaten regularly, over enough time that can do some damage.

“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,” said Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the Monographs Program at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). “In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance.”

And lest you cry foul, the press release states that these results were arrived at after the IARC “considered more than 800 studies that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets.”

Red Meat Probably Isn’t Good for You Either

According to the WHO, red meat refers to “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.”

While acknowledging red meat’s nutritional value, 22 experts from 10 countries have classified red meat as Group 2A, meaning it is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Like processed meat, the association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but links to pancreatic and prostate cancer were also observed.

Group 2A is the second tier below Group 1, which poses the highest risk of causing cancer. Processed meat is Group 1, as is cigarettes, alcohol and plutonium.

So What Should You Do?

Cut down on processed meats. It’s really that simple (and, for those of us who enjoy bacon, that sad). According to Dr. Christopher Wild, Director of IARC, “These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat.”

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