WHO Says Bacon Causes Cancer.

OMG! Just Kill Me Now!

[Photo: neontommy.com, Creative Commons]

The World Health Organization (WHO) today released a report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that states if you eat 50g of processed red meat (like bacon!) per day you will increase your risk for colorectal cancer by 18%!

OMG! Just kill me now!

Or not.

This "report" consists of one-and-a-half pages of vagueness and contradictory information. On the one hand, they report that after examining 800 studies that include data that relate colorectal cancer and red meat they believe that there is "sufficient evidence" to support the classification of processed red meat as a carcinogen. Not a suspected carcinogen, but a real honest-to-goodness carcinogen that can cause cancer if you eat 50g per day.

In the Q&A document issued along with the main report (if 1-½ pages can be considered a report) they go on to say: "Eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer."

Hang on. Am I the only one who sees something of a logical disconnect here? The WHO has, on the basis of this monograph (not really a report, you see), listed processed red meat as an unequivocal carcinogenic substance, then turns around and admits that said substance has not yet been proven to cause cancer.

No wonder people are confused.

Let’s take a quick and dirty look at some numbers. The raw data in the IARC report states that the incidence of colorectal cancer in the general population is 0.064%. Keep in mind that that number is 64/1000ths of ONE percent. The incidence of colorectal cancer in those that eat 50g of processed red meat a day is 0.072%. Unless my calculator is lying to me that’s an increase of 12.5%. I’m still not sure where they came up with 18%. And I’m not even going to talk about how I feel about their methodology that led them to that 50g of processed red meat.

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that the 18% number is correct. The UK National Health Service says that the chance for a UK resident to develop colorectal cancer is 5%. If the IARC number is correct, eating 50g of bacon (about two slices) EVERY DAY OF YOUR LIFE will increase your chance of developing colorectal cancer all the way up to 6%!

Now, I am, by profession, an engineer. I am more than comfortable reading studies and dealing with numbers. To me an increase, over a lifetime, of 1% is not statistically significant. That 1% increase could be caused by any number of variables in a person’s day-to-day life up to and including the predominant wind direction at a given location. When you take into account that most of the epidemiological studies they examined depended on dietary self-reporting, well, color me skeptical.

In short, this is just one more instance of a public organization which is supposed to be looking out for the welfare of the common man dumping a sensational headline or sound byte into the Main Stream Media for the sole purpose of increasing its visibility and, quite possibly, its funding.

Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

I admit, I could be wrong. I could have misread something or not read deeply enough. Don’t take my word for it. In fact, PLEASE, don’t take my word for it. Look into it yourself and draw your own conclusions.

[Edit] For a long, but clear, explanation of the WHO cancer ranking system see this blog. After having read it I am still skeptical about the connection between cancer and processed red meat, but I have a better understanding of the ranking system.

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