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.

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