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Which is worse for your health – bacon or sausages?

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Meat lovers who hope sausages might be let off the hook as a cause of cancer are out of luck.

QUESTIONI’m surprised sausages were lumped in with bacon in the recent Nutrition column about processed meats, especially as the quantity discussed suggests half a sausage is equivalent to two rashers of bacon, unless someone is piling the same preservatives into sausages in the same proportions as bacon. I’d be grateful for any clarification, as I like the odd sausage but avoid bacon.

ANSWER: Weekend brunches may be somewhat fraught nowadays, given the news that processed meats such as bacon and sausages are carcinogenic to humans. You’re not alone in your concern about the health risks of these meats. That column continues to generate questions from a number of sausage- and bacon-loving readers. So which is worse – bacon or sausages?

To recap – after reviewing hundreds of studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded there was “sufficient evidence” to classify processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” given the evidence it causes colorectal cancer. The agency defines processed meat as “hot dogs [frankfurters], ham, sausages, corned beef and biltong or beef jerky, as well as canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces”.

It concluded that each 50g of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. What’s more, a number of other studies found links between processed-meat consumption and both death from cardiovascular disease and the development of type 2 diabetes (each 50g eaten daily increases the risk by between 24% and 105%). So the 50g serving examples given in the column were intended to provide an indication to readers of what 50g of processed meat looks like in real life.

Researchers identified a clear dose-response relationship between processed meat and cancer risk. That is, the greater the quantities of processed meat consumed, the greater the risk of developing colorectal cancer. However, there wasn’t enough research data available to differentiate risk based on the type of processed meat eaten or cooking method used.

We could try to surmise whether bacon or sausages are worse by looking at what agents within processed meat are causing these health problems. This is likely to include their preservatives, such as the nitrates used by manufacturers, which can form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds.

However, other factors may also contribute, including the high salt content of processed meats and how the meat is cooked; for example, if sausages are burnt on the barbecue, this can produce carcinogenic compounds such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The fact that processed meats are typically derived from red meats may also be a factor, as there is limited evidence to suggest even lean red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans”, notes the IARC.

But even if bacon does contain higher levels of harmful preservatives and salt than sausages, we still need to consider the typical “dose” of processed meat in the context of your diet. Consuming two sausages for a meal is fairly standard for an adult, and that would equate to 200g of processed meat. In bacon terms, 200g is eight rashers, far more than most adults would consume in a sitting. So even if bacon did contain a greater concentration of all the various harmful compounds (and we don’t know that for sure), we typically eat less bacon per sitting than sausages. So which presents the bigger health risk? A big serving of sausages or a smaller serving of bacon?

We simply don’t have the data to answer that question yet. That makes it impossible to say whether sausages are less or more of a hazard than bacon.

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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