Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bacon: Time to end this crazy love affair

A new study should take some of the sizzle out of the "baconalian" feasts celebrated daily in kitchens all over America. For researchers have found that if you regularly eat processed meats, you may be increasing your risk of pancreatic cancer -- one of the deadliest forms of the disease.

The study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, found that for each 50g (1¾ oz) of processed meat eaten daily -- the equivalent of a sausage or two rashers of bacon -- there was a 19% rise in the risk of pancreatic cancer compared to those who ate none. For people eating double this amount of processed meat (100g, or roughly 3½ oz), the risk jumped to 38%, and was 57% for those eating nearly 150g (about 5½ oz) a day.

The overall risk of pancreatic cancer is low; in Britain, for instance, the lifetime risk is one in 77 for men and one in 79 for women, the study's authors write. Nonetheless, the disease is deadly: it is frequently diagnosed at an advanced stage and kills 80% of people in under a year. Only 5% of patients are still alive five years after diagnosis.

The pork industry has been keen to downplay the implications of the study. The Pig Site offers this rather tortuous calculation: "If eating one less sausage a day reduced the risks by 19% ... the risk of dying of pancreatic cancer would be reduced to one in 84. The deaths saved per year would be 1,357 [in the UK]. If we take the population of the UK to be 60 million, and assume 50 million eat sausages (subtracting infants and vegetarians) then more than 36,000 people would have to make this dietary change to save one death per year." (If you extrapolate similar rates for the U.S., the number of lives saved each year  annually would be around 6,000.)

Well, I don't know about you, but I think saving 1,357 lives is a worthwhile goal, and reducing our processed meat intake not such a terrible sacrifice: bacon is hardly an essential food group, as hundreds of millions of healthy non-pork-eating vegetarians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and other religious groups can attest.

How does processed meat increase cancer risk? Bacon, ham, cold cuts and sausages are usually preserved with nitrites and may also contain chemicals called N-nitroso compounds, carcinogens that reach the pancreas via the bloodstream.

Processed meat isn't the only culprit; cigarettes are another source of N-nitroso compounds and a known contributor to pancreatic cancer. Obesity and sweet sodas are also thought to increase the risk. In some cases, these factors interact: thus, people who eat a lot of processed meat may also smoke, drink soda and be obese. Clearly, more research is needed to unpick these complex risk factors.

But why not take this opportunity to examine America's obsession with bacon -- both the real thing as well as bacon-flavored mass-produced "faux foods".

These days, a person can go through an entire day eating, drinking and even wearing bacon. For example, following a McDonald's Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit breakfast, you can curb daytime hunger pangs with a near-infinite range of baconey snack foods that include every crispstick, fry, ring, puff and bacon-flavored cricket (yes!) imaginable.

For dinner, bacon-loving home cooks can weave bacon cups and fill them with salad, or enjoy a bacon-wrapped hot dog with a blob of Baconnaise and a bottle of bacon soda.

And for dessert, hard-core Baconistas can satisfy their sweet tooth with a bacon-studded chocolate bar, chocolate peanut butter bacon cookies, bacon and toffee brownies and bacon ice cream.

Look, I'm no stranger to the gustatory delights of salty, smoky pork -- after all, I was raised by two ham- and sausage-eating Germans. I also see the humor in bacon-rock, witty merchandize and even (in small doses...) Epic Meal Times' gargantuan sausage and bacon pig-outs.

But eating bacon every day, several times a day, in every possible guise and vast quantities? That's more than a popular food, that's a cult! Indeed, judging by the fervor of the bacon craze, this looks like a kneejerk reaction from consumers fed up with being told to eat plant-based diets low in salt, low in fat, low in meat and (often) low in crunch and flavor -- everything that bacon isn't!

I'm all for teenage rebellion, but when it becomes self-destructive (especially when you're shoveling down low-quality, mass-produced meat that, incidentally, may also harbor dangerous microorganisms, the rebel should recognize that a degree of moderation may be needed.

This doesn't mean that you should never, ever eat bacon or sausage. "I don't think any food should be entirely excluded from the diet (except toxic mushrooms!)," Denis Corpet, Professor of Food Hygiene and Human Nutrition at the University of Toulouse and an eminent researcher into the link between meat and cancer, tells me in an interview. "But I do think one should avoid eating processed meat every day: It is not a "normal" meat for "normal" days, but should be a special treat (e.g. dry raw ham served with melon), a useful picnic food when (I like to take a small piece of cured sausage or ham when I go hiking in the mountains), or a particular recipe (e.g., sauerkraut) for a special occasion. But the majority of the "meat" we eat should be found elsewhere."

And here's another thing all you bacon-gorging rebels should know: healthy food doesn't have to taste dull! It can and should offer exciting textures and flavors and provide satisfying, healthy fats, proteins (including, if you like, from animals) and even salt! Without needing to pile it with bacon! A little imagination, a well-stocked pantry and an interest in cooking is all that's needed.

So the next time you want to reach for the Bacon Bits shaker to liven up your salad, consider sprinkling it with tamari-toasted pumpkin seeds, feta cubes, grilled pine nuts, seaweed flakes, a dash of fish sauce or soy sauce, pan-fried garlicky mushrooms, a dusting of Parmesan, oven-roasted garlicky bread croutons, or a sprinkling of gomasio, a rich-tasting, lightly salted powder of toasted, ground sesame seeds from Japan. Salty, chewy, crunchy sensations guaranteed!

Image: 'Bacon Love' by Rob Parker.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

How to avoid the junk food trap

Have you heard the one about the nutritionist who struggled to follow her own advice?

A while back I travelled to London to attend a conference organized by the World Cancer Research Fund. I got up at 5 a.m. to catch my flight, chugged around London's Underground system for two hours to get to the conference center, and spent the ensuing eight hours in windowless rooms staring at PowerPoint slides and taking notes about the epidemiological, political, epigenetic, sociological and other facets of cancer in the modern world.

Teatime and lunch provided welcome breaks, but there were delegates to meet, papers to collect and video interviews to record, and before I knew it, I had spent an entire day eating not much, getting no exercise and glimpsing no daylight (in addition to not sleeping much the previous night). Unsurprisingly, by the end of the day I felt a bit out of sorts.

Mustering what little energy I had left, I travelled (again by Underground) to a suburb where I was staying in the house of a vacationing friend who had left me a key and a kind note inviting me to eat anything in her kitchen cupboards. My blood-sugar level was dropping by the minute and my exhaustion was palpable. "Chocolate biscuits!" my brain screamed upon reading my friend's note.

I hunted high and low, but not a cookie crumb was to be found. "Potato chips," was my next hope. Another round of frantic cupboard-door-clacking ensued as I searched for salty snacks - in vain. "Sugar-frosted breakfast cereal?" I pleaded. Again, nothing.

Instead, my friend's cupboards yielded jar upon jar of raw almonds, hazelnut butter, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried apricots, oats, quinoa, tea, raw honey, low-sugar fruit spreads, whole wheat pasta and brown basmati rice. Her refrigerator contained plain yogurt, a bottle of semi-skimmed milk, a piece of farmhouse cheddar, and a few jars of condiments.

Dejected and too hungry to continue the search, I cooked a bowl of oatmeal porridge, stirred in some yogurt and blackberry spread, and sprinkled it with chopped walnuts and cinnamon. It was surprisingly delicious. A hunk of cheese provided the fat, salt and protein I was craving. Finally, a cup of strong English tea warmed my insides, and by the end of my humble supper I was back to my old self.

Feeling more than a little sheepish, I realized what had happened: hunger and fatigue had pushed me into that crazy place, the junk food trap. Only the complete absence of junk forced me to eat a healthier alternative, and I felt much the better for it.

And here's the irony of the story: Some years back this friend was a client of mine, and my advice had been: "Don't keep unhealthy foods at home, because when you do, you will eat them." Obviously she had heeded my advice!

Change your environment to boost your New Year's resolve

When we buy unhealthy food (out of habit, or because there was a special offer on, or our children or spouse ask us to buy it, or the advertisers make it seem irresistible), we end up eating it.

On days when all is going well and we've got the time and energy to prepare healthy dishes, we may be less tempted by junk. But when we're in a rush or are feeling exhausted, depressed or ravenously hungry, we'll eat *anything* -- especially sugary, starchy foods that rapidly convert into blood sugar and lift our flagging energy levels. We don't necessarily choose these knowingly -- our biochemistry steers us towards high-energy instant gratifiers.

"Most of us have too much chaos going on in our lives to consciously focus on every bite we eat," psychologist and mindful-eating expert Brian Wansink said recently at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting. "The secret is to change your environment so it works for you rather than against you."

His advice is to keep unhealthy foods, such as cake and potato chips, out of sight and putting healthy foods like fruit and vegetables at eye level. This way, we can eat better without even realizing we're doing it. According to Wansink, avoiding "hidden eating traps," like making junk food easily accessible or eating in front of the TV, can help us to lose up to two pounds per month.

I would go even further: don't keep unhealthy food in the house at all - because when we're really desperate, we will go to extremes to retrieve it from its hiding place. There's enough unhealthy food swirling around us in offices, schools, gas stations and at social occasions. Let's keep our homes junk-free.

Many of us - flushed with New Year's resolve - are trying to break free from unhealthy behaviors. A wildly popular resolution is to eat less rubbish and shed a few pounds. So rather than testing your discipline and struggling to resist the siren call of the cookies "hidden" on top of your kitchen cabinet, how about simply getting rid of all the junk and daring to eat only healthy food at home?