Myth-busting Monday: Bacon vs Cigarettes

Mondays are great for busting myths.

(They’re also great for going meat-free, which may seem even more appealing after reading this article.)

Today’s myth concerns the cancer-causing nature of processed meats, and how it compares to other well-known carcinogens.

Myth: Eating bacon is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes.

Truth: It is true that in October 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report that confirmed a link between processed meats and cancer. Not only that, it placed processed meats such as bacon, frankfurts and salami in the Group 1 Carcinogens category, alongside cigarettes, asbestos, and radioactive metals.

This prompted a flood of articles with headlines along the lines of today’s myth – that eating processed meats was as bad for you as smoking cigarettes.

BUT…all carcinogens are not created equal. There is equally strong evidence that all Group 1 substances are carcinogenic, but that doesn’t mean they are all equally carcinogenic.

Confused? Maybe some stats will help.

The overall lifetime risk of getting bowel or colorectal cancer is about 6% – in other words, about 6% of the population will have one of these cancers at some time in their lives.

The WHO report found that each daily 50g portion of processed meat you eat increases your overall risk of these cancers by 18%. That is, if you eat 50 grams of bacon, ham, or salami every day, your risk increases to 7.08% (6 x 1.18). If you eat 100 grams of bacon every day, it increases to 8.35% (6 x 1.18 x 1.18), and so on.

These figures are for consistent daily consumption over your whole life – so the effect of an occasional BLT or hot dog on your cancer risk is minimal.

Smoking cigarettes, on the other hand, increases your overall cancer risk by a much higher percentage. The Cancer Council states that smoking 10 cigarettes a day DOUBLES your cancer risk, and smoking more than 25 a day doubles your risk again – that is, an increase of 400% on the overall risk (which is also around 5-6%).

Smoking is also implicated in 86% of lung cancer cases and 19% of all cancer cases – by comparison, daily consumption of processed meats is linked with 21% of bowel cancers and 3% of all cancers.

These numbers are certainly significant and should probably make bacon-lovers reconsider their consumption…but smoking is still far worse for your health overall.

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about the specifics of the World Health Organisation report, visit their Q & A page on this topic.

For Australian-based advice on how to reduce your cancer risk by swapping to healthier alternatives in various areas, visit the Cancer Council website.

To read more about the cancer-linked ingredients in bacon, have a look at this article from The Guardian.

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So how does soap affect all this?

Soaps and detergents reduce the surface tension of water – this is part of what helps them clean away oils from our hands and dishes. But the germs don’t exactly leap away.

Bacteria and viruses are partially made up of fats, which are broken down by detergents – the detergent reduces the water’s surface tension, allowing it to get between the bits of oil. Detergent is also a long molecule with one end that attracts water, and the other attracts oils. This allows the oil to mix with the water, and be washed away as you rinse.

So back to our pepper experiment. When you touch the detergent to the surface, the surface tension is reduced in that one spot. It’s a similar effect to popping a balloon – if the tension is reduced in one spot, the higher tension everywhere else pulls back from that spot, making the ‘hole’ bigger. And the pepper just helps us to see how those water molecules at the surface are moving.

So this awesome experiment is a great demonstration of how soap changes the surface tension of water, but unfortunately, germs don’t leap away from soap like the pepper does. Which means you need to keep washing your hands! Properly! Go and do it now!

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