Over the last few years, the news headlines have drawn attention to the potential health implications of eating red and processed meat. But should we really be worried about tucking into the occasional bacon sarnie? Is there any evidence that we should switch to buying nitrate-free products? We asked dietitian Emer Delaney to explain the research behind the headlines and separate fact from fiction.
What does the research say about processed meats and cancer?
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an independent agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO), reported that processed meat was carcinogenic to humans. This was based on an expert review article which was summarised in the prestigious scientific journal – Lancet Oncology. The WHO defines processed meats as products that have undergone salting, curing, fermentation or smoking to enhance flavour or improve preservation. This includes products such as bacon, salami, hot dogs, ham and corned beef. WHO found that eating 50g of processed meats a day would increase the risk of developing bowel cancer by 18% over a lifetime – a statistic that increases with the amount of processed meat eaten. In fact, recent research found that people eating around 76g of red and processed meat a day had an increased risk of developing bowel cancer compared to those who ate about 21g a day.
A more recent study of almost 29,000 participants over 7 years also found that a higher intake of red and processed meat was specifically associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer, but that there was little evidence that neat intake was associated with risk for other cancers.
The NHS recommends limiting intake of red and processed meats to 70g per day, which is the average daily consumption in the UK – although you may choose to eat less.
What are nitrates and what do they do?
Nitrates are food additives used to improve the look and quality of bacon and some other processed meats. They are sometimes included for food safety to protect against microbes such as botulism. However, when nitrate are cooked at high-hear it causes them to form compounds called nitrosocompounds (NOS), which are known carcinogens. A carcinogen is a substance that is capable of causing cancer in living tissue.
Are nitrates bad for you?
Nitrates are found naturally in the body as well as some foods such as green leafy vegetables, fennel and radishes. They are also added to meat by manufacturers to preserve them. So, nitrates themselves aren’t bad, unless they become nitrosamines.
This happens when bacon is cooked at high temperature, and the nitrates combine with the amino acids that naturally occur in the pork protein, and like a perfect storm they create nitrosamines.
Vitamin C is the body’s most abundant antioxidant and can inhibit nitrosamine formation in the stomach, so consuming high levels of fruit, such as citrus, or perhaps having plenty of green leafy veg or salad with your bacon, may in fact reduce the risk of gastric cancer.
There is also some evidence that having enough vitamin E may also have a similar impact on nitrosamines. Vitamin E-rich foods include almonds, spinach, pumpkin and red bell peppers.
Is it better to buy nitrate-free bacon and other processed meats?
The evidence is pretty strong and consistent that a higher consumption of processed meat is associated with increased cancer risk. However, nitrate-free bacon or other meats doesn’t mean that it’s better for you either. Instead of using artificial nitrates at manufacturing, bacon is cured with celery powder, which is also high in nitrates, so ‘no nitrates added’ on a food label is a little misleading.
Celery powder does not contain the levels of vitamin C that a fresh stick of celery would, so the vitamin C argument doesn’t stack up here either. Nitrate-free bacon carries the same risks as ‘normal’ bacon when it comes to nitrosamines and the risks of cancer.
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How much bacon is safe to eat?
Keeping your bacon intake to a minimum is recommended and only eating it every couple of weeks is best. The current advice from the NHS recommends that if you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, that you cut down to 70g a day. This is equivalent to two or three rashers of bacon, or a little over two slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, with each about the size of half a slice of bread. In light of the more recent evidence, it’s best to reduce your intake of all processed meats to once every couple of weeks.
Read more: How much red meat is safe to eat?
What are your top tips to cut down on bacon?
- Swap bacon for lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, peas, butter beans, baked beans or haricot beans.
- Try bacon alternatives such as turkey, tofu or tempeh rashers.
- Have bell peppers, avocado, spinach or a salad whenever you have bacon.
- Add small salmon fillets to your meal instead.
- Buy meat less frequently but make it the best quality you can afford.
- If you do cook bacon, cook it at lower temperatures.
- Portobello and porcini mushrooms have a very rich, meaty feel and flavour, so adding these to dishes can work.
- Paprika and chipotle peppers both have a smoky flavour and can add depth to dishes.
This article was last reviewed on 1 June 2021.
Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London’s top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.
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