Can we still feel good about taking home the bacon?

Smoking. Asbestos. Benzene. Coal tar. Bacon?

This week, the cancer research arm of the UN World Health Organization officially pronounced “processed meat” to be carcinogenic to humans. The IARC “Group 1” classification lumps hot dogs, ham, sausages and jerky in with a long list of other, more-obviously toxic chemicals and substances. The report, which also classified all red meat as “possibly carcinogenic,” triggered an onslaught of hyped up scare headlines.

Bacon, sausages and ham rank alongside smoking as cancer causes, says WHO

— The Guardian (@guardian) October 26, 2015

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What gives — do we need to start planning surreptitious back-alley bacon breaks if we want to continue eating it? Not necessarily. First, government warnings are not the most dependable resource for healthy eating advice, as chef Marc Vetri was quick to point out.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see [that announcement],” he wrote in an email, continuing:

I was busy stuffing my face with trans fats that clog my arteries more than butter, fat-free cookies that are loaded with sugar, gluten-free and sprouted bread loaded with xanthan gum and vital wheat gluten respectively to hold them together. Maybe I’ll ponder it while eating my healthy salad made with GMO corn, perfect unbruised tomatoes that taste like plastic and beautiful strawberries in October that won’t mold until next fall. All of which the government says is healthy for me.

Scratch Biscuits chef Mitch Prensky agreed. “The government has been right and wrong about all these things throughout history — eggs ring a bell?”

Second, as a rush of recent backlashtothebaconbacklash articles have noted, the announcement does not imply eating bacon poses the same risk as smoking cigarettes. That’s because the IARC grouping doesn’t take strength of risk or incidence into account at all; it’s simply a blanket classification that says “there is definitive evidence that thing X has been shown to increase cancer risk.”

Credit: Cancer Research UK

Then there’s the unanswered question of what, exactly, “processed” means.

It could mean making a wholesome thing worse, like turning wheat into nutrient-diminished white flour, but sometimes “processing” unlocks an ingredient’s potential, former Diving Horse chef Palmer Marinelli suggested. “Like broccoli cooked in fat, fermenting foods for gut health, or mixing rice and beans to make complete proteins.”

And even if you go by the IARC’s definition — “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation” — not all processed meats are created equal. Many local chefs make a concerted effort to use meat that’s humanely raised without chemicals, and cured with as few additives as possible.

“If you buy the Oscar Meyer/Jimmy Dean bullshit that’s full of sodium, preservatives [and] nitrates, and made from factory farm animals full of hormones and antibiotics, it’s not rocket science that something bad will happen,” chided George Sabatino, chef at Aldine. “We didn’t need the WHO to tell us that.”

“It comes down to the quality of the ingredients,” said Vetri partner chef Brad Spence. “If you buy shitty meat that was not raised properly, filled with hormones and God knows what else,” he continued, “then it’s not gonna be good for you. Pretty simple actually.”


That doesn’t mean the WHO findings should be summarily dismissed. According to most of the chefs Billy Penn reached out to, the report can serve as a reminder that moderation is key to a healthy diet.

“I thought we already weren’t supposed to eat too much meat, right?” said Scott Schroeder, the chef behind South Philadelphia Tap Room, American Sardine Bar and the forthcoming Hungry Pigeon. “We should be eating more vegetables anyway.”

“I do believe that there is some truth behind this new study; generally 20-some doctors doing research together are not wrong. No person should eat a pound of bacon in a sitting,” concurred Heritage chef Sean Magee. “Balance in a meal is what I hope people get out of this over-sensationalized media coverage.”

But in no way is he personally planning to give up his processed meat favorites.

“If Taylor pork roll kills me,” Magee said, “I think I would be cool with that too.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...