how scientists triggered the internet aporkalypse, and why you can still enjoy your bacon

Media reports about the carcinogenic properties of bacon have been greatly exaggerated thanks to the extremely confusing way IARC classifies studies.

pig butchery chart
Illustration by Benton Park Prints

If there was an award for the most reputable organization with the worst track record of making scientific pronouncements to the public, needlessly scaring millions while giving militant granola types and snake oil salespeople like Mike Adams and the Food Babe ammunition to make their fear-mongering and scamming look legitimate at first glance, the IARC would win it hands down because no one else even comes close. Pretty much every other press release they issue just makes experts and doctors want to smack them upside the head, and it’s no different with their latest announcement which sent much of the internet into a state of despair. Bacon, they say, is carcinogenic, so all that sweet, sweet processed pig with which the web is in lust, increases the odds of certain gastrointestinal cancers by as much as 18% according to studies they reviewed in their capacity to rule on the strength of evidence for whether something causes cancer. With that came worldwide weeping and gnashing of teeth as countless breakfasts were ruined.

This traumatic event for bacon-lovers everywhere, this Aporkalypse as none might call it, is the result of a systematic review of studies showing that a diet high in processed meat is linked to a slight increase in certain types of bowel cancers. That by itself doesn’t necessarily seem like an alarming finding in and of itself. After all, we’ve known that for many years. What was alarming, and very much remains so, is how the IARC communicated its review of these studies and how its classification system works because it turns generally well known research about what might cause cancer into an arcane classification system for carcinogens which often misinforms much of the public. Because the group only rates the quality of evidence found by studies rather than notes the true risks posed by the studied carcinogens, according to its system, bacon seems as dangerous for you as smoking and breathing asbestos fibers while taking a nap on a bed made of uranium. But it’s not. If anything, smoking accounts for a fifth of all diagnosed cancers while a diet of red and processed meat might be linked to a sixth of that amount of diagnoses.

In other words, while cigarettes and bacon are classified the same way by the IARC, the former is much less dangerous for you than the latter, depending on your genetics and lifestyle. If you shovel a dozen strips of bacon into your mouth every morning, follow that with a bottle of beer, then smoke a pack of cigarettes every day for a decade, you’re pretty much guaranteed a very nasty form of cancer in your future. We know this because it’s been very extensively studied by multiple scientists in both animals and humans, the IARC thoroughly reviewed all the published work, and was satisfied that the methodology behind them was sound. That’s why it exists, it’s a formal peer review committee on public health policy advice about cancers. But because of the confusion around the classification system it adopted for how it feels about studies, its decisions about the real world implications of the research it reviews are incredibly confusing. Not only do we get bacon on the same list of carcinogens as smoking, but we end up with the infamous and much abused Group 2B and Group 2A, which list countless things as maybe carcinogenic.

Basically, things in these groups “possibly” or “probably” cause cancer, which means that there was some sort of study in a cell culture, or on mice, showing that the chemical in question could somehow be linked to a cancerous tumor and the IARC thought it wasn’t a terrible study. Based on how well it felt about this study and others like it, the group would assign the chemical to one of these “maybe” categories. They don’t actually mean that something possibly or probably is a carcinogen, but that some scientists presented studies that made the group question if there is some chance that a particular chemical or compound causes some form of cancer. This is how cell phones ended up Group 2B, despite there being no biologically plausible mechanisms for a cell phone to trigger cancerous tumors. Someone adjusted enough study parameters to create some hints that maybe in some cases electromagnetic radiation could be linked to one specific type of cancer, or shot enough of it at cells in a petri dish to do some damage that looks like the start of a cancerous tumor, and the IARC chose not to take too much issue with the papers.

This is how it was with bacon. In studies showing links between processed meats and cancer, a diet disproportionately high in these things was found to be the culprit. Eating anything, even an apparently evil, carcinogenic sausage or bacon strip, once in a while, won’t increase your odds of being diagnosed with a bowel cancer in any significant way. So really, the proper advice is to moderate your daily intake of both red and processed meat, which the IARC actually said. But it did so in a way that put the onus of actually determining what moderation looks like, and how to go about it to an amorphous worldwide community of doctors and medical bureaucrats. Bacon, sausages, and steak, cause cancer just like cigarettes, they tell the world without noting that a cigarette is far deadlier than a bacon strip, figure out how you want to deal with that, have your doctors and researchers, who we’ve now just informed that this is a real problem, tell you what you should do to avoid killer tumors in your tract. Gee IARC, thanks for that helping hand.

And this is where we get to the heart of the problem. The IRAC’s very confusing and convoluted pronouncements which rely on its arcane, opaque classification system gives people little in the way of useful guidance by refusing to differentiate between the levels of risk posed by exposure to confirmed carcinogens, and by listing things in two confusing “maybe” piles with weak or very inconclusive evidence behind their carcinogenic potential, they hand quacks and modern snake oil salespeople a goldmine for new outlandish claims by which they can scare people to buy the random, over-priced crap they peddle. Can you think of a bigger disservice to the public than a scientific group that just issues random lists of scary things that can kill you with virtually no real elaboration and tells you to figure out what to do about it with your doctor? How had could it be to go into a little more detail? These people are scientists. Don’t scientists love to talk about the finer details of their work? And trust me, if it’s about cancer, people will definitely listen…

# health // bacon / cancer / iarc / medical research

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