Bacon, sausages and other processed meat will increase your chance of getting cancer.
There’s no doubt, I’m afraid. So why is it that one group of scientists says we should cut down on eating processed meat while another tells us not to worry about it?
“A Rasher of Bacon a Day is Deadly”
A scientific report in April 2019, told us all about it and got a lot of press coverage.
The Sun newspaper, in the UK, ran with the headline “A Rasher of Bacon a Day is Deadly”. While the Sun is well-known for its not-so-subtle headlines, there doesn’t seem much room for argument there.
The staple of the traditional English breakfast, we read, will increase your chances of succumbing to bowel cancer by nearly 20%.
“Bacon’s Safe — no Ifs or Butties”
So, what are we now to make of another scientific report, published in September, only a few months later, that tells us that there is nothing to worry about and we don’t need to change our eating habits? Or, as the Sun has it: “Bacon’s Safe — no Ifs or Butties”.
What has happened in the intervening months? What new evidence has come to light that has made the scientific community change their mind?
Nothing and none!
Not a thing has happened and the new research is based on pretty much the same data as the first one. So, why the entirely different conclusion? How can two sets of scientists come to such radically different conclusions?
What is the truth behind all this?
The 20% increase in the chance of contracting bowel cancer may sound shocking but it is a relative risk. It is definitely not saying that the chance of you getting cancer is 20% — far from it.
In fact, the chance of you getting bowel cancer is around 6% (that is the absolute risk) and if you eat a rasher of bacon each day, your absolute risk increases to around 7% (20% is the increase in the risk from around 6 to around 7%).
This, while less dramatic, is definitely something to be aware of.
It means that 7 out of 100 processed meat eaters will contract bowel cancer compared to 6 out of 100 people who are not. That’s one more in a group of one hundred.
That one might be you — but, then again, it might not.
The big difference in the way that the two groups of scientists approach the data is that the first group is considering the public good, as a whole, whereas the second is considering the impact, or not, on an individual.
In a large population, the effect of even only a 1% increase still means that an awful lot of people will get ill. This means more operations, more doctors and nurses, and higher insurance premiums or more public spending.
It also means a poorer quality of life for 1% of the population.
But you cannot apply the same simple mathematical approach to an individual. Some people will be more susceptible to contracting cancer than others and those people will, presumably, be at a higher risk that others.
It may be, for example, if you have a history of this sort of illness in your family, then you would take the warnings of increase risk much more seriously than someone who does not.
If you lead an otherwise healthy life, take plenty of exercise and generally have a good diet, and if you particularly like bacon, you might well decide that the risk of having the occasional bacon sandwich is worth it.
There is always a risk in doing anything.
If you drive you are far more at risk of a traffic accident than if you don’t. If you enjoy winter sports your chances of breaking a leg are higher than someone who spends their holidays sitting in front of the TV.
On the other hand, the couch potato maybe more susceptible to heart disease than the skier.
The best answer is probably to take a measured but informed approach. We need to be aware of the health risks of what we eat and, of course, where significant public health risks are involved, governmental bodies should take notice. Smoking is an obvious example where it is not unreasonable for government to discourage the use of tobacco given the both individual, and public, health risks.
But when the risks are low it should surely be for the individual to decide whether, given their lifestyle and family history, and taking into account the pleasure they gain from any particular activity, whether the risks involved are worth it.