The #1 Reason Why You Shouldn't Eat Bacon, Says Science
The sound and aroma of strips of bacon sizzling in a cast-iron skillet is, without doubt, one of life's greatest pleasures. When bacon is heated the fats melt and the meat undergoes a transformation called the Maillard Reaction, the browning effect that occurs when sugars react with amino acids, producing bacon's delicious flavors and about 150 different mesmerizing aroma compounds. No wonder humans are gonzo for bacon, using it in just about everything from ice cream to bourbon cocktails.
So, who are we to say you shouldn't eat bacon? We love bacon ourselves, and we know it's too mouthwateringly hard to resist, but we urdge you to approach the breakfast meat with restraint. The number one reason you shouldn't eat bacon is that it's highly processed, and it—like other processed meats—has been linked to a higher risk of cancer. (Related: Ugly Side Effects of Eating Too Much Bacon.)
Is there a reason not to eat bacon, ever? It depends on who you ask. Some doctors believe it is one of the unhealthiest foods on the planet. Other doctors and nutritionists say it provides important nutrients and is satiating, filling you up so you won't crave carbs, but probably shouldn't be a mainstay of your diet. Here's what we know:
Bacon is a carcinogen
In 2015 the World Health Organization classified bacon and other processed meats including ham, salami, and hot dogs, as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning there's strong evidence that eating them increases your risk of cancer, particularly bowel and stomach cancer but also pancreatic and prostate cancers. The WHO designation was based on findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), 22 cancer experts from 10 countries, who analyzed more than 400 studies on processed meat using epidemiological data from hundreds of thousands of people. Reporting in The Lancet Oncology, the IARC estimated that for every 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily (roughly 2 strips of bacon), colorectal cancer risk increased by 18%.
Bacon and other cured meats often contain nitrites and nitrates, preservatives that when cooked over high heat form nitrosamines, a known carcinogen. Classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, bacon and other processed meats have been added to a list of more than 100 known carcinogens, including tobacco smoke and asbestos. However, that's not to say bacon is as dangerous as cigarettes, with 34,000 cancer deaths per year attributed to high consumption of processed meat compared to 1 million deaths yearly due to tobacco smoke.
"I would like to see people cut back on eating processed meats," says physician-scientist William Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Disease, The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. "The overwhelming evidence shows that heavy consumption of red and processed meat places a burden on health."
To be clear, the IARC analysis of studies on processed meat consumption did not find causation, but a correlation between eating a lot of processed meat and increased cancer risk. And what's not known is if the meat-eaters studied had other poor eating habits, such as consuming added sugars and refined carbohydrates, which might have impacted their health outcomes. "They certainly aren't eating small to moderate amounts of grass-fed or organic meat along with a pile of colorful fruits and veggies," writes Mark Hyman, MD, author of The Pegan Diet: 21 Practical Principles for Reclaiming Your Health in a Nutritionally Confusing World.
Hyman believes red meat is not the bogeyman it's been made out to be and that bacon can be part of our diet, especially if it's sustainable and humanely produced, and organic. "If you opt to eat meat, the most important thing to think about is quality," writes Hyman. "Overconsumption of processed, factory-farmed meats is absolutely bad for you. Grass-fed meat has much better types of that than grain-fed—more omega-3s and fewer omega-6s."
Moderation is key
"My philosophy is that all food can fit into a healthy diet," says nutritionist Jana Mowrer, MPH, RD, founder of HealthWins.org. Even bacon. The danger, she says, is that the more red meat people consume, the less they tend to eat other food groups, particularly those with fiber such as vegetables.
"A fiber-rich diet promotes gut health and regularity of the bowels, and provides an array of beneficial vitamins and nutrients," says Mowrer. "Bacon and other highly processed, fatty meats, kill off healthy gut bacteria." So take Mowrer's advice and feel free to include bacon sporadically in your diet—just make sure you're always prioritizing real, whole foods at every meal. For more, see The Best Way to Eat for your Microbiome and Improve Gut Health.
For more healthy eating news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!