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Bacon, that Southern staple, linked to cancer

By Ligaya Figueras,

Bacon has long had a place at the Southern table, but a recent study might have consumers rethinking its place on the plate.

Hot dogs, bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats raise the risk of colon, stomach and other cancers, and red meat probably contributes to the disease, too, the World Health Organization said Monday.

WHO’s cancer agency analyzed decades of research on the subject and issued its most definitive statement yet, putting processed meats in the same danger category as smoking or asbestos. That doesn’t mean, though, that salami is as bad as cigarettes. And some Atlanta chefs say how the food is processed and how much we eat should be taken into consideration.

A group of 22 scientists from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, evaluated more than 800 studies from several continents about meat and cancer. The studies looked at more than a dozen types of cancer in populations with diverse diets over the past 20 years.

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Based on that evaluation, the IARC classified processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans,” noting links in particular to colon cancer. It said red meat contains some important nutrients, but still labeled it “probably carcinogenic,” with links to colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers.

The agency said it did not have enough data to define how much processed meat is too dangerous, but said the risk grows with the amount consumed. Analysis of 10 of the studies suggested that a 50-gram portion of processed meat daily — or about 1.75 ounces — increases the risk of colorectal cancer over a lifetime by about 18 percent.

An ounce and three-quarters is roughly equivalent to a hot dog or a couple of slices of bologna, though it depends on how thinly it is sliced.

The WHO researchers defined processed meat as anything transformed to improve its flavor or to preserve it, including sausages, canned meat, beef jerky and anything smoked. They defined red meat as “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat.” The primary methods for processing meat are smoking, curing or adding salt and preservatives.

Does this bad news for bacon spell a change in our eating habits here in the South? Perhaps, but according to two Atlanta chefs, it’s less about giving up bacon and more about reconsidering the sourcing of animal proteins, how the meat gets processed and the quantity of meat on the plate.

“Most of those are probably commodity meats, factory farmed,” said Steven Satterfield of Miller Union regarding the WTO findings. “We make a lot of our own lunch meats. We don’t use any nitrates,” he said of his culinary operation on Atlanta’s Westside.

Four years ago, Satterfield faced testicular cancer. Surviving that battle, he said, has made him much more aware of the sourcing of its meat, which he considers just as important as how the meat is processed. “We’re talking to local farmers asking how pigs are raised, what they are eating. I try to go back as far as possible in terms of sourcing and anything I should be alarmed about. The more you learn about sourcing, the more astonishing it can be. If we make more responsible choices, get more people on board for that and raise the demand, then you will see a shift. Hopefully, something like this will cause a shift.”

Satterfield isn’t the only area chef interested in the food discussion, where education and learning can lead to change.

“I am a cancer survivor so I think a lot about the word medicine and the word food,” said restaurant magnate Linton Hopkins, who successfully battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma 18 years ago. “Our foods are our medicine. We need to continue to work on knowing the importance of how food affects us physically. It’s why I am a nonchemical kind of chef.”

Hopkins doesn’t have plans to give up bacon, but he noted that the WHO report is a reminder to consider how much is too much. “Should you be eating hot dogs at every meal? Four hot dogs every meal means more nitrates in the blood,” he said, proposing that we consider our consumption of processed meat along the same lines that we think about a slice of cake — an occasional treat rather than a daily dessert.


That was a point that the meat industry raised, arguing that cancer isn’t caused by a specific food but also involves lifestyle and environmental factors.

Nationwide, there has been a renewed interest lately in Southern cuisine. And Atlanta’s exploding restaurant scene includes a number of restaurants where meat is king. Can we expect to see major menu changes at restaurants as a result of this report?

No, predicted Hopkins. “This won’t bother chefs. You may see chefs and consumer preference change in the world of charcuterie (preserved meats), which has been a big trend for a while, but not a knee-jerk reaction where sales of charcuterie will plummet.”

It’s too early to tell whether there will be a noticeable change at area restaurants due to this latest news of the evils of meat, yet places like Miller Union have been making modifications for some time.

“We have, over the years, slightly lowered the portion size on protein and increased fresh produce on the plate. I don’t think you should eat more than 4-6 ounces of meat at a meal. The rest should be filled with produce and grain,” said Satterfield, who limits his own intake of red meat.

“You are what you eat. It’s time to have that discourse of us knowing about our food,” Hopkins said. He envisions that this report could be beneficial for continuing the food conversation yet worries that it could contribute to the general public’s growing confusion over food. “We have a fear of food in our culture. This will breed the fear.”

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