Confused about bacon? You’re in good company. Lots of folks are.
Bacon was riding a huge wave of (deliciously deserved) popularity the past few years. And since today’s news media relies on controversy to get eyeballs, I suppose we should have seen this one coming.
I’m sure you saw the dire headlines late last year announcing “Bacon Gives You Cancer!”
Of course the truth behind those screaming headlines—and the World Health Organization Report that birthed them—is a whole lot different than the media blitz would lead you to believe. But the damage was done.
Bacon lovers were forced to listen to a lot of “I told you so’s” from their well-meaning friends, and a lot of people were left confused. Or even worse they swore off of delicious bacon forever.
Does bacon belong in a group with asbestos?
Now if you’ve followed me online at all you probably already know that I’m a huge bacon fan. So when it looked like the WHO went to war on bacon, dumping all cured and processed meats including bacon into a big carcinogen bucket, you can imagine I felt a certain way about it.
Does bacon deserve to be tossed into a group of cancer promoters such as asbestos tobacco, and arsenic? The short answer is, “No way!”
But I’m a reasonable guy who believes in data and facts so I didn’t immediately arrive at the short answer. If there was actually new evidence that ran directly in the face of my bacon-loving stance, I was willing to give it serious consideration.
Which is exactly what I did. I dove into the study that supposedly proved that bacon gives you cancer. I dug through the data and examined the methods used and the math.
Know what I found out?
The study doesn’t even come close to proving bacon gives you cancer. In fact, the connection is so flimsy no true scientist would be caught dead labeling it a “cause.” But that’s okay, the media did it for them.
Here’s what really went down.
Researchers completed a big observational study (in other words, not one that was done in a clinical setting) and after crunching the numbers they found that folks who ate two pieces of bacon daily had an increased statistical risk of 18 percent of being diagnosed with colon cancer.
For comparison, if you’re a smoker you have a 2500 percent increased statistical risk of being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I’d prefer no association be found… not even one as paltry as this one. But the truth is, that 18 percent doesn’t mean what many folks—including the media, clearly—think it means anyway.
Unpacking the truth behind the 18%
Stick with me here while I explain. Trust me, it will totally be worth it. Especially when you cook up a guilt-free batch of mouth-watering bacon for breakfast tomorrow morning.
Let’s take a quick look at how you figure out increased odds using a coin toss as our example. When I flip a coin up into the air I have a 50 / 50 chance of getting heads or tails. In other words, one out of two times I’ll get heads and one out of two times it’s going to be tails.
But suppose I run into a guy who makes me an offer I can’t refuse. He offers to sell me a rigged coin that bumps up my chances of getting heads by 25 percent. Most folks believe this now means I have a 75 percent chance of getting heads.
But most folks are flat out wrong.
Don’t feel bad if you got it wrong too. Because if you didn’t take several semesters of statistics in school it’s a natural assumption. But you see, when you raise the odds of something occurring—regardless if it’s a coin toss or getting cancer—you have to figure that increase based on the original odds and it’s a two-step process.
Doing the math behind increased odds
Remember a few moment ago when I asked you to stick with me? This is the part I was talking about. Let’s walk through this step-by-step.
1. Start with baseline odds:
In the case of the coin toss that’s 50%.
2. Multiply the baseline odds (50%) by the increase percentage (25%):
In this case the increase is one quarter of the total, so you want to calculate one quarter of 50%, which is 12.5%.
3. Add the baseline odds (50%) together with the increase (12.5%):
Added together you get 62.5%. So with your rigged coin that means your odds of getting heads has gone up to about 62.5%.
Still with me here? Good!
So let’s apply what we just learned to those colorectal cancer risks. But to make things a little less complicated we’re going to simplify the statistics.
We’re going to just say that around 5 in 100 adults in the USA will get colon cancer (for you data heads it’s actually around 43 in 100,000 or .043 percent). And we know that according to this observational study eating bacon will increase your risk by 18 percent.
So eating bacon causes your odds to go from your baseline of 5 in 100 to 5 plus whatever 18 percent of 5 turns out to be, which is .9.
Your real rise in risk is a small statistical blip
So your risk of colon cancer without eating bacon is 5 in 100, and that 18 percent increase raises your risk to 5.9 out of 100 of being handed a colon cancer diagnosis.
Not exactly worthy of those earth-shattering “bacon gives you cancer!” headlines, huh?
So what did the WHO study show in the end?
Well if you don’t eat bacon you have a 95 percent chance of not getting cancer. But if you do decide to indulge in a few delicious slices daily you have a 94.1 percent chance of not getting colon cancer.
Of course if the media had rolled with those statistics they wouldn’t have gotten the same reaction as telling us that bacon gives you cancer, would they have?
So bacon is fine?
Well, you’d sure think so, especially after I just decimated the lame statistical argument used to scare everybody to death.
But there actually is a legitimate concern when it comes to bacon, and it’s this.
Cheap commercial bacon frequently contains nitrates. Now, nitrates are a terribly misunderstood compound. They’re not dangerous at all. In fact, the biggest source of nitrates in our diet is green vegetables. But when nitrates are combined with amino acids and heated to high temperatures, they form a nasty little compound called nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic. And bacon, like any source of protein, is rich in amino acids.
So the only caution with bacon is to make sure to get pasteured pork—meaning the animal was raised far more humanely than it would be on a factory farm—which is free of any additional nitrates. And then don’t make it too crispy.
If you buy pasteured pork, nitrate free, and you don’t overcook it—well, then in my opinion, you should enjoy as much bacon as you like. It’s high in fat (which will be non-toxic if the bacon came from pasteured pork), it’s high in protein, and it’s delicious.
What’s not to like?