The bad news is that if you’ve put down the processed pork on your fork following the "bacon is bad for you" scare of 2015, you may never achieve your health conscious goals.
The good news is that if you regulate your intake of every single processed and preserved food product on the shelves – not just the streaky pork treat – you’ll most likely lower your risk of colon cancer and achieve optimum health.
Scientific advisor to the Cancer Council Australia, Professor Bernard Stewart was the chair of the World Health Organisation committee that made the infamous bacon ruling.
He tells SBS that if we’ve ditched the cured delight because of recent headlines about bacon causing colon cancer, then we’ve only heard half the story.
“The data does not allow us to single out a particular type of processed meat, like bacon,” Prof Stewart says. “In fact, the data relates to all processed meats that have been smoked, salted or cured.”
That includes salami, corned beef, peperoni, prosciutto, sausages, cabanossi and most of the cold meat products in the refrigerated section of your supermarket.
The WHO’s recent ruling also recommends eating no more than 100 grams of processed meat a day. So if you have prosciutto at lunch and peperoni in your dinner, you might just be doubling your daily risk of colon cancer. But if you keep under the recommended limit, you can still indulge.
What’s the problem with preservation?
Prof Stewart explains that artificial preservatives contained in processed foods, mostly nitrates, are to blame.
Usually listed on the back of the food packet as "200" numbers, these chemicals keep products fresh for longer than normal. They’re also the reason you can buy salami on Wednesday and serve it in your antipasti platter on Sunday.
“There is evidence suggesting that these chemicals may be the vehicle causing an increased risk of cancer,” says Prof Stewart.
“We can’t single out a particular chemical and eliminate the agent causing the problem because it all happens in the course of digestion.”
Australian dietitians have also sounded cancer warnings about "other" foods containing high levels of nitrates and sodium, used to artificially preserve foods. Think frozen dinners, canned beans, cheeses, potato crisps and frozen chicken nuggets.
Nitrates are also found naturally in vegetables, but research shows that if they occur naturally, they’re safe and don’t turn carcinogenic during digestion.
Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, Tania Ferraretto, adds that cured meats made without preservatives are also a safe and healthy option to consume.
“Look for other alternatives like fresh meats or vacuum-packed cold meats that don’t contain preservatives as they don’t need them to stay fresh,” says Ms Ferraretto.
“There are a number of food products out there that are marketed like that. There’s roast beef, cooked chicken breast and ham that doesn’t have nitrates in it. The shelf life is shorter and once you open the packet, you have to use it in two to three days.”
Will I get cancer in 30 years?
What research has not yet confirmed conclusively is whether small quantities of nitrates and other preservatives, consumed over 30 or 40 years, will cause cancer.
“There is evidence showing there is a bit of a concern but we don’t know how much exposure is needed or over what time period,” Ms Ferraretto explains.
“As a mother, I’d prefer to be cautious.” Speaking as a parent, not a DAA spokesperson, Ms Ferraretto recommends other parents also limit the amount of preserved foods they serve children.
“The evidence is only starting to compile and we don’t know what the effect of exposure will be over their lifetime.”
Professor Clare Collins from the School of Health Sciences at the University of Newcastle agrees but reminds us that Food Standards Australia and New Zealand exists to ensure that our food products remain safe.
“Their role is to ensure that based on reasonable consumption, Australians will never consume amounts of preservatives [that cause cancer].”
That said, “they are not responsible for what we put in our mouths”.
“If you eat ham once a year on Christmas Day it’s okay. But if you have a ham sandwich every day for 40 years, you will have a greater risk of developing colon cancer.
“So make processed foods ‘exception foods’ not foods you pack in your lunch every day.”