Yes, bacon really is killing us

The long read: Decades of research proves that chemicals used to induce bacon do induce cancer. So how did the meat industry convince us it was safe?

There was a little coffeehouse I used to go to that did the best bacon sandwiches. They came in a soft and pillowy white bap. The bacon, thick-cut from a local butcher, was midway between crispy and chewy. Ketchup and HP sauce were served in miniature containers with the sandwich, in order to be allowed to dab on the exact amount you liked. That was all there was to it: just bread and bacon and sauce. Eating one of these sandwiches, as I did every few weeks, with a beaker of strong coffee, felt like an uncomplicated pleasure.

And then, all of a sudden, the bacon sandwich stopped being quite so comforting. For a few weeks in October 2015, half the people I knew speak to me the news that eating bacon was now a proved induce of cancer. You couldn’t miss the story: it was splashed big in every newspaper and all over the web. As one columnist wrote in Wired,” Perhaps no two words together are more likely to set the internet aflame than BACON and CANCER .” The BBC website announced, matter-of-factly, that” Processed meat do cause cancer”, while the Sun went with” Banger out of Order” and” Killer in the Kitchen “.

The source of the tale was an announcement from the World Health Organization that” processed meats” were now classified as a group 1 carcinogen, intending scientists were certain that there was ” sufficient” evidence that they caused cancer, particularly colon cancer. The alert utilized not just to British bacon but to Italian salami, Spanish chorizo, German bratwurst and myriad other foods.

Health frightens are ten-a-penny, but this one was very hard to ignore. The WHO announcement came on advice from 22 cancer experts representing 10 countries, who reviewed more than 400 surveys on processed meat covering epidemiological data regarding hundreds of thousands of people. It was now possible to say that” eat less processed meat”, much like” eat more vegetables”, had become one of the very few perfectly incontrovertible pieces of evidence-based diet advice- not simply another high-profile nutrition fad. As every news report highlighted, processed meat was now in a group of 120 show carcinogens, alongside alcohol, asbestos and tobacco- leading to a great many headlines blaring that bacon was as deadly as smoking.

The WHO advised that devouring 50 g of processed meat a day- equivalent to that given to just a couple of rashers of bacon or one hotdog- would create health risks of get bowel cancer by 18% over a lifetime.( Eating larger amounts raises your risk more .) Learning that your own risk of cancer has increased from something like 5% to something like 6% may not be frightening enough to put you off bacon sandwiches for ever. But learning that consumption of processed meat makes an additional 34,000 worldwide cancer fatalities a year is much more chill. According to Cancer Research UK, if no one ate processed or red meat in Britain, there would be 8,800 fewer cases of cancer.( That is four times the number of people killed annually on Britain’s streets .)

The news felt specially shocking because both ham and bacon are quintessentially British meat. Virtually a quarter of the adult population in Britain eat a ham sandwich for lunch on any committed period, according to data from 2012 gathered by researchers Luke Yates and Alan Warde. To many consumers, bacon is not just a meat; it is a repository of childhood memories, a totem of home. Surveys indicate that the smell of frying bacon is one of our favourite smells in the UK, along with cut grass and fresh bread. To be told that bacon had given millions of people cancer was a bit like finding out your grandmother had been secretly scattering arsenic on your morning toast.

Vegetarians might point out that the bacon sandwich should never have been seen as comforting. It is surely no convenience for the swine, most of whom are kept in squalid, cramped situations. But for the rest of us, it was alarming to be told that these beloved meat might be contributing to thousands of needless human deaths. In the weeks following news of the Who are dependent, sales of bacon and sausages fell dramatically. British supermarkets reported a PS3m drop in sales in simply a fortnight. (” It was very detrimental ,” said Kirsty Adams, the product developer for meat at Marks and Spencer .)

But just when it looked as if this may be #Bacongeddon( one of many agonised bacon-related hashtags trending in October 2015 ), a second wave of narratives inundated in. Their message was: panic over. For one thing, the analogy between bacon and smoking was misinforming. Smoking tobacco and eating processed meat are both dangerous, but not on the same scale. To put it in context, around 86% of lung cancers are linked to smoking, whereas it seems that simply 21% of bowel cancers can be attributed to eating processed or cherry-red meat. A few weeks after publishing the report, the WHO issued a clarification insisting it was not telling consumers to stop eating processed meat.

Meanwhile, the meat industry was busily insisting that there was nothing to see here. The North American Meat Institute, an industry hall group, called the report” dramatic and alarmist overreach “. A whole tranche of articles insisted in a commonsense tint that it would be premature and foolish to ditch our meaty fry-ups simply because of a little cancer scare.

Nearly three years on, it feels like business as usual for processed meat. Many of us seem to have got over our initial appreciation of alarm. Sales of bacon in the UK are buoyant, having risen 5 % in the two years up to mid-2 016. When I interviewed a product developer for Sainsbury’s supermarket last year, she said that one of the quickest ways to get British consumers to try a new product now was to add chorizo to it.

And yet the evidence presented relating bacon to cancer is stronger than ever. In January, a new large-scale examine using data from 262,195 British women suggested that ingesting only 9g of bacon a period- less than a rasher- could significantly elevate the risk of developing breast cancer later in life. The study’s lead-in writer, Jill Pell from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at Glasgow University, told him that while it can be counterproductive to push forward total abstention, the scientific evidence recommends” it would be misleading” for health authorities to set any safe dose for processed meat” other than zero “.

The real scandal of bacon, nonetheless, is that it didn’t have to be anything like so damaging to our health. The part of the narrative we haven’t been told- including by the WHO- is that there were always other ways to fabrication these products that would build them significantly less carcinogenic. The fact that this is so little known is tribute to the power of the meat industry, which has for the past 40 times been engaged in a campaign of cover-ups and misdirection to rival the dirty trick of Big Tobacco.

How do you choose a pack of bacon in a shop, accepting you are a meat eater? First, you opt for either the crispy fat of streaky or the leanness of back. Then you decide between smoked or unsmoked- each version has its passionate champions( I am of the unsmoked persuasion ). Maybe you seek out a packet made from free-range or organic meat, or maybe your budget is squeezed and you search for any bacon on special offering. Either style, before you set the pack in your basket, you have one last appear, to check if the meat is pink enough.

Since we feed with our eyes, the main route we judge the quality of cured meat is pinkness. Yet it is this very colouring that we should be suspicious of, as the French writer Guillaume Coudray explains in a book are presented in France last year called Cochonneries , a word that entails both “piggeries” and “rubbish” or “junk food”. The subtitle is” How Charcuterie Became a Poison “. Cochonneries reads like a crime fiction, in which the processed meat industry is the perpetrator and ordinary customers are the victims.

The pinkness of bacon- or cooked ham, or salami- is a sign that it has been treated with chemicals, more particularly with nitrates and nitrites. It is the use of these substances that is widely believed to be the reason why” processed meat” is still much carcinogenic than unprocessed meat. Coudray argues that we should speak not of” processed meat” but “nitro-meat”.

Prosciutto di Parma has been produced without nitrates since 1993. Photo: Stefano Rellandini/ Reuters

” Pure insane crazy madness” is how Coudray described the continuing employ of nitrates and nitrites in processed meat, in an email to me. The madness, in his opinion, is that it is possible to stimulate bacon and ham in ways that would be less carcinogenic. The most basic behavior to cure any meat is to salt it- either with a dry salt wipe or a wet brine- and to wait for time to do the remainder. Coudray notes that ham and bacon manufacturers claim this old-fashioned behavior of curing isn’t safe. But the real reason they reject it is expense: it takes long long for processed meats to develop their flavor this route, which cuts into profits.

There is much confusion about what” processed meat” actually means, a embarrassment encouraged by the bacon industry, which benefits from us supposing there is no difference between a freshly minced lamb kofta and a pizza suffocated in nitrate-cured pepperoni. Technically, processed meat entails pork or beef that has been salted and cured, with or without smoking. A fresh pound of beef mince isn’t processed. A hard stay of cured salami is.

The health risk of bacon is largely to do with two food additive: potassium nitrate( also known as saltpetre) and sodium nitrite. It is these that give salamis, bacons and cooked hams their alluring pink colouring. Saltpetre- sometimes called sal prunella- has been used in some recipes for salted meats since ancient times. As Jane Grigson explains in Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery, saltpetre was traditionally applied when brining hams to give them” an attractive rosy appearing when otherwise it would be a murky greyish brown “.

In earlier centuries, bacon-makers who use saltpetre did not understand that it converts to nitrite as the meat panaceas. It is this nitrite that allows the bacteria responsible for cured flavour to emerge quicker, by impeding the growth of other bacteria. But in the early 20 th century, the meat industry found that the production of cured meat could be streamlined by adding sodium nitrite to the pork in pure kind. In trade journals of the 1960 s, the firms who sold nitrite powders to ham-makers spoke quite openly about how the main advantage was to increase profit margins by speeding up production. One French brand of sodium nitrite from the 60 s was called Vitorose or “quick-pink”.

Nitro-chemicals have been less of a boon to customers. In and of themselves, these compounds are not carcinogenic. After all, nitrate is naturally present in many green vegetables, including celery and spinach, something that bacon manufacturers often jubilantly point out. As one British bacon-maker told me,” There’s nitrate in lettuce and no one is telling us not to eat that !”

But something different happens when nitrates are used in meat processing. When nitrates interact with certain components in red meat( haem cast-iron, amines and amides ), they form N-nitroso compounds, which induce cancer. The best be made aware of these compounds is nitrosamine. This, as Guillaume Coudray explained to me in an email, is known to be” carcinogenic even at a very low dose “. Any time someone fees bacon, ham or other processed meat, their gut receives a dosage of nitrosamines, which damage the cells in the lining of the bowel, and can lead to cancer.

You would not know it from the route bacon is sold, but scientists have known nitrosamines are carcinogenic for a very long time. More than 60 years ago, in 1956, two British researchers called Peter Magee and John Barnes found that when rats were fed dimethyl nitrosamine, they developed malignant liver tumors. By the 1970 s, animal studies showed that small-scale, repeated doses of nitrosamines and nitrosamides- exactly the kind of regular dosage a person might have when feeing a daily breakfast of bacon- be considered to make tumour in many organs including the liver, stomach, oesophagus, intestines, bladder, brain, lungs and kidneys.

Just because something is a carcinogen in rats and other mammals does not mean it will induce cancer in humans, but as far back as 1976, cancer scientist William Lijinsky argued that “we must assume” that these N-nitroso compounds may be in meat such as bacon were also” carcinogens for humankind “. In the years since, researchers have amassed a massive torso of proof to lend weight to that hypothesi. In 1994, to take just one newspaper among hundreds on nitrosamines and cancer, two American epidemiologists received that eating hotdogs one or more times a week was associated with higher rates of childhood brain cancer, particularly for children who also had few vitamins in their diets.

In 1993, Parma ham producers in Italy made a collective decision to remove nitrates from their products and revert to using only salt, as in the old days. For the past 25 times , no nitrates or nitrites have been used in any Prosciutto di Parma. Even without nitrate or nitrite, the Parma ham bides a deep rosy-pink colour. We now know that the colour in Parma ham is totally harmless, the purposes of the enzyme reactions during the ham’s 18 -month ageing process.

Slow-cured, nitrate-free, artisan hams are one thing, but what about mass-market meats? Eighteen months “wouldve been”” a long time to wait on hotdogs”, as the food science expert Harold McGee comments. But there have always been recipes for nitrate-free bacon using nothing but salt and herbs. John Gower of Quiet Waters Farm, a pork producer who advises many British manufacturers of cured meats, confirms that nitrate is not a necessary part in bacon:” It’s generally accepted that solid muscle products, as opposed to chopped meat products like salami, don’t necessitate the addition of nitrate for safety reasons .”

Bacon is proof, if it were needed, that we cling to old solaces long after they have been proven harmful. The attachment of producers to nitrates in bacon is largely “cultural”, says Gower. Bacon cured by traditional methods without nitrates and nitrites will lack what Gower calls that” hard-to-define tang, that delicious nearly metallic savour” that makes bacon savor of bacon to British customers. Bacon without nitrates, says Gower, is nothing but” salt pork “.

Given the harm of “nitro-meat” has been known for so long, the obvious question is why more has not been done to protect us from it. Corinna Hawkes, a prof of Food Policy at City University in London, has been predicting for years that processed meat will be” the next carbohydrate”- a meat so harmful that there will be demands for government agencies to step in and protect us. Some period soon, Hawkes belief, consumers will finally wake up to the clear links between cancer and processed meat and say ” Why didn’t someone tell me about this ?”

The most amazing thing about the bacon terror of 2015 was that it took so long for official public health advice to turn against processed meat. It could have happened 40 times earlier. The only time that the processed meat industry has appeared seriously vulnerable was during the 1970 s, a decade that find the so-called ” campaign on nitrates” in the US. In an age of Ralph Nader-style customer activism, there was a meet mood in favour of protecting shoppers against bacon- which one prominent public health scientist called ” the most dangerous food in the supermarket “. In 1973, Leo Freedman, the chief toxicologist of the US Food and Drug Administration, confirmed to the New York Times that” nitrosamines are a carcinogen for humans” although he also mentioned that he liked bacon” as well as anybody “.

The US meat industry realised it had to act fast to protect bacon against the cancer accusation. The first attempts to fight back were simply to ridicule the scientists for over-reacting. In a 1975 article named” Factual look at bacon scare”, Farmers Weekly was of the view that a medium-weight human had a duty to ingest more than 11 million tonnes bacon every single day to run the faintest risk of cancer. This was an outrageous fabrication.

But soon the meat foyer came up with a cleverer kind of diversion. The AMI- the American Meat Institute- was beginning to induce the controversy that the nitrate was only there for the consumer’s own safety, to ward off botulism- a potentially fatal poison sometimes produced by poorly preserved meat. The scientific administrator of the AMI was contended that a single cup of botulism would be enough to wipe out every human on countries around the world. So, far away from harming lives, bacon was actually saving them.

In 1977, the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture committed the meat industry three months had demonstrated that nitrate and nitrite in bacon caused no harm.” Without a satisfactory response ,” Coudray writes,” these additives would have to be replaced 36 months later with non-carcinogenic techniques .” The meat industry could not is proof that nitrosamines were not carcinogenic- because it was already known that they were. Instead, the debate was constructed that nitrates and nitrites were utterly essential for the make-up of bacon, because without them bacon would cause thousands of deaths from botulism. In 1978, in response to the FDA’s challenge, Richard Lyng, director of the AMI, was contended that nitrites are to processed meat” as yeast is to bread “.

The meat industry’s tactics in defending bacon ought to have” right out of the tobacco industry’s playbook”, according to Marion Nestle, prof of nutrition and food analyses at New York University. The first move is: assault the social sciences. By the 1980 s, the AMI was financing a group of scientists based at the University of Wisconsin. These meat researchers published a flow of articles casting doubt on the harmfulness of nitrates and exaggerating the risk from botulism of non-nitrated hams.

Does attaining ham without nitrite lead to botulism? If so, it is a little strange that in the 25 years that Parma ham has been attained without nitrites, there has not been a single suit of botulism associated with it. Almost all the cases of botulism from preserved meat- which are extremely rare- ought to have the result of imperfectly preserved veggies, such as bottled green beans, peas and mushrooms. The botulism debate was a smokescreen. The more that consumers could be made to feel that the harmfulness of nitrate and nitrite in bacon and ham was still such matters of debate, the more they could be encouraged to calm down and keep buying bacon.

A bacon sandwich at a diner in Michigan. Photograph: Molly Riley/ Reuters

The botulism pretext was very effective. The AMI managed to get the FDA to keep delaying its three-month ultimatum on nitrites until a new FDA commissioner was appointed in 1980- one more sympathetic to hotdogs. The nitrite banning was shelved. The only concession service industries had built was to limit the percentage of nitrites added to processed meat and to agree to add vitamin C, which would supposedly mitigate the formation of nitrosamines, although it does nothing to prevent the formation of another known carcinogen, nitrosyl-haem.

Over the years, the messages challenging the dangers of bacon have become ever more outlandish. An explainer article by the Meat Science and Muscle Biology lab at the University of Wisconsin argues that sodium nitrite is in fact” critical for maintaining human health by controlling blood pressure, preventing memory loss, and accelerating meander mending “. A French meat industry website,, highlights the fact that the use of the “right dose” of nitrites in ham warranties” healthy and safe” products, and insists that ham is an excellent meat for children.

The bacon lobby has also detected surprising friends among the natural foods brigade. Type” nitrate cancer bacon” into Google, and you will find a number of healthy eating articles, some of them written by those in favour of the ” Paleo” diet, underlining the fact that bacon is actually a much-maligned health food. The writers often mention that veggies are the primary source of nitrates, and that human saliva is high in nitrite. One widely shared articleclaims that giving up bacon would be as absurd as attempting to stop swallowing. Out of the mass of stuff on the internet protecting the healthiness of bacon, it can be hard to tell which writers have fallen under the sway of the meat lobby, and which are simply clueless” nutrition experts” who don’t know any better.

Either way, this misinformation has the potential to induce thousands of people unwell. The amazing component is why the rest of us have been so willing to accept the cover-up.

Our deepening knowledge of its damage has done very little to damage the comforting cultural associations of bacon. While I was researching this article, I seemed a rising disgust at the repeated deceit of the processed meat industry. I thought about hospital wards and the horrible sorenes and indignity of bowel cancer. But then I recollected being in the kitchen with my father as small children on a Sunday morning, watching him fry bacon. When all the bacon was cooked, he would take a few squares of bread and fry them in the meaty fat until they had soaked up all its goodness.

In theory, our habit of eating salted and cured meats should have died out as soon as home refrigerators became widespread in the mid-2 0th century. But savor in meat are seldom rational, and millions of us are still hooked on the salty, smoky, umami savor of sizzling bacon.

We are sentimental about bacon in a manner that is we never were with cigarettes, and this stops us from imagining straight-out. The widespread willingness to forgive pink, nitrated bacon for causing cancer is an example of how torn we seem when something beloved in our culture is proven to be detrimental to health. Our brains can’t cope with the dreadful feeling that bacon is not what we thought it was, and so we become our rage outwards to the health gurus alerting us of its hazards. The reaction of many consumers to the WHO report of 2015 was: hands off my bacon!

In 2010, the EU held banning the use of nitrates in organic meats. Perhaps surprisingly, the British organic bacon industry energetically resisted the proposed nitrates ban. Richard Jacobs, the late chief executive of Organic Farmers& Growers, an industry body, “re just saying that” proscribing nitrate and nitrite would have signified the “collapse” of a growing market for organic bacon.

Organic bacon produced with nitrates sounds like a contradiction in terms, given that most customers of organic food buy it out of concerns for meat safety. Having gone to the trouble of rearing pigs utilizing free-range methods and making them only organic feed, why would you then cure the meat in ways that make it carcinogenic? In Denmark, all organic bacon is nitrate-free. But the UK organic industry insisted that British shoppers would be unlikely to accept bacon that was'” greyish “.

Then again, the slowness of consumers to lose our faith in pink bacon may partly be a response to the disorient behavior that the health message has been communicated to us. When the time comes to processed meat, we have been misled not just by wild exaggerations of the food industry but by the caution of science.

On the WHO website, the harmfulness of nitrite-treated meats is explained so opaquely you are able miss it wholly. In the centre of a paragraph on” what attains ruby-red meat and processed meat increase the risk of cancer”, it says:” For instance, carcinogenic chemicals that form during meat processing include N-nitroso compounds .” What this means, in plain English, is that nitrites build bacon more carcinogenic. But instead of spelling this out, the WHO moves swiftly on to the question of how both ruby-red and processed meats might make cancer, after adding that” it is not yet fully understood how cancer peril is increased “.

The typical British sausages does not fall into the’ processed meat’ category. Photo: Julian Smith/ AAP

This caution has maintained us as consumers unnecessarily in the dark. Deem sausages. For times, I believed that the unhealthiest part in a cooked English breakfast was the sausage, rather than the bacon. Before I started to research this article, I’d have sworn that sausages fell squarely into the” processed meat” category. They are erroneously listed as such on the NHS website.

But the average British sausage- as opposed to a hard sausage like a French saucisson- is not cured, being made of nothing but fresh meat, breadcrumbs, herbs, salt and E223, a preservative that is non-carcinogenic. After much interrogate, two expert spokesman for the US National Cancer Institute confirmed to me that” one might consider” fresh sausages to be” red meat” and not processed meat, and thus only a “probable” carcinogen.( To me, the fact that most sausages are not processed meat was deeply cheer, and determine me dancing around the kitchen with hilarity thinking about toad in the hole .)

In general, if you ask a cancer scientist to distinguish between health risks of eating different types of meat, they become understandably cagey. The two experts at the National Cancer Institute told me that meats containing nitrites and nitrates have” systematically partnered with increased risk of colon cancer” in human examines. But they added that” “its hard to” separate nitrosamines from other possible carcinogens that may be present in processed meat like bacon “. These other suspects include haem iron- a substance that is abundant in all ruby-red meat, processed or not- and heterocyclic amines: chemicals that form in meat during cook. A piece of crispy, overcooked bacon incorporated in multiple carcinogens, and not all are due to the nitrates.

The problem with this reasoning, as I see it, is that it can’t account for why processed meat is so much more closely linked to cancer than cooked red meat. For that, there remains no plausible interpretation except for nitrates and nitrites. But go looking for clear verification of this in the data is tricky, given that humans do not eat in laboratory under clinical observation.

Most of what we know about processed meat and cancer in humen comes from epidemiology- its further consideration of disease across entire population. But epidemiologists do not ask the kind of detailed the issue of meat that the people who eat that meat may like answers to. The epidemiological data- based on surveys of what people eat- is now devastatingly clear that diets high in” processed meats” lead to a higher incidence of cancer. But it can’t tell us how or why or which meats are the best or worst. As Corinna Hawkes of City University remarks,” The researchers don’t ask you if you are eating artisanal charcuterie from the local Italian deli or the cheapest hotdogs on the planet .”

I would love to see data comparing the cancer hazard of feeing nitrate-free Parma ham with that of traditional bacon, but no epidemiologist has yet done such a study. The closest anyone has come was a French analyze from 2015, which found that intake of nitrosylated haem iron- as found in processed meat- had a more direct association with colon cancer than the haem iron that is present in fresh ruby-red meat.

It is feasible that epidemiologists have not asked people more detailed the issue of what kind of processed meat they eat since they are accept “were not receiving” mass-market alternative to bacon attained without nitrates or nitrites. But this is about to change.

The technology now exists to build the pink meats we adoration in a less damaging sort, which raises the question of why the age-old kind is still so freely sold. Ever since the” campaign on nitrates” of the 1970 s, US consumers have been more savvy about nitrates than those working in Europe, and there is a lot of” nitrate-free bacon” on the market. The difficulty, as Jill Pell remarks, is that most of the bacon labelled as nitrate-free in the US” isn’t nitrate-free “. It’s made with nitrates taken from celery extract, which may be natural, but creates exactly the same N-nitroso compounds in the meat. Under EU regulation, this bacon would not enable them to be labelled “nitrate-free”.

” It’s the worst con I’ve ever seen in my entire life ,” says Denis Lynn, the chair of Finnebrogue Artisan, a Northern Irish company that attains sausages for many UK supermarkets, including Marks& Spencer. For times, Lynn had been hoping to diversify into bacon and ham but, he says,” I wasn’t going to do it until we discovered a lane to do it without nitrates .”

When Lynn heard about a new process, developed in Spain, for building perfectly pink, nitrate-free bacon, he presumed it was another blind alley. In 2009, Juan de Dios Hernandez Canovas, a meat scientist and the head of the meat tech company Prosur, found that if he added certain fruit extracts to fresh pork, it bided pink for a amazingly long time.

In January 2018, Finnebrogue employed information and communication technologies to launch genuinely nitrate-free bacon and ham in the UK. It is sold in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose as” Naked Bacon” and” Naked Ham”, and in M& S as” nitrate-free bacon “. Kirsty Adams, who oversaw its launch at M& S, explains that” it’s not really cured “. It’s more like a fresh salted pork injected with a fruit and vegetable extract, and is more perishable than an old-fashioned flitch of bacon- but that doesn’t matter, given that it is kept in a fridge. Because it is quick to render, this is much more “economically viable” to make than some of the other nitrate-free alternatives, such as slow-cured Parma ham. The bacon currently sells in Waitrose for PS3 a pack, which is not the cheapest, but not prohibitive either.

I tried some of the Finnebrogue” nitrate-free bacon” from M& S. The back bacon savoured pleasant and mild, with a slight fruitiness. It didn’t have the toothsome texture or smoky depth of a rasher of butcher’s dry-cured bacon, but I’d blithely buy it again as an alternative to “nitro-meat”. None of their own families noticed the difference in a spaghetti amatriciana.

Nitrate-free bacon still voices a bit fancy and niche, but there shouldn’t be anything niche about the desire to eat meat that doesn’t create the health risks of cancer. Lynn says that when he first approached Prosur about the fruit extract, he wished to know how much they had sold to the other big bacon manufacturers during the two years they had been offering it in the UK. The answer was none.” None of the big guys wanted to take it ,” claims Lynn.” They said:’ It will attain our other processed meat appear dodgy ‘”.

But it also remains to be seen how much consumer demand there will be for nitrate-free bacon. For all the noise about bacon and cancer, it isn’t easy to extricate at a personal degree just what various kinds of peril we are at when we feed a bacon sandwich. OK, so 34,000 people may die each year because of processed meat in their diet, but the odds are that it won’t be you. I asked a series of cancer scientists whether they personally eat processed meat, and they all gave slightly different answers. Jill Pell said she was mostly vegetarian and ate processed meats very rarely. But when I asked Fabrice Pierre, a French expert on colon cancer and meat, if he fees ham, he replied:” Yes, of course. But with vegetables at the same dinner .”( Pierre’s research at the Toxalim lab has shown him that some of the carcinogenic effects of ham can be offset by feeing vegetables .)

Our endless doubt and embarrassment about what we should be eating have been a gift to the bacon industry. The cover-up about the harm of meat cured with nitrate has been helped along by the scepticism many of us feel about all diet advice. At the height of the great bacon scare of 2015, lots of intelligent voices were saying that it was safe to ignore the new the categories of processed meat as carcinogenic, because you can’t trust anything these nutritionists say. Meanwhile, millions of consumers of ham and bacon, many of them children, are left unprotected. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about this contention is how little public outrage it has generated. Despite everything, most of us still treat bacon as a dear old friend.

In an ideal world, we would all we eating diets lower in meat, processed or otherwise, for the sake of sustainability and animal welfare as much as health. But in the world we actually live in, processed meats are still a normal, staple protein for millions of people who can’t afford to swap a value pack of frying bacon for a few slivers of Prosciutto di Parma. Around half of all meat eaten in developed countries is now processed, according to researcher John Kearney, constructing it a far more universal habit than smoking.

The real victims in all this are not people like me who enjoy the occasional bacon-on-sourdough in a hipster cafe. The people who will be worst affected are those- many on low incomes- for whom the cancer danger from bacon is compounded by other risk factors such as feeing low-fibre diets with few veggies or wholegrains. In his volume, Coudray points out that in coming years, millions more poor consumers will be affected by preventable colon cancer, as westernised processed meat subdue the developing world.

Last month, Michele Rivasi, a French MEP, launched a campaign- of cooperating with Coudray- demanding a proscription of nitrites from all meat products across Europe. Given how vigorously the bacon industry has fought its corner thus far, a total ban on nitrites seems unlikely.

But there are other things that could be done about health risks of nitrites in bacon, short of an absolute veto. Better information would be a start. As Corinna Hawkes points out, it is “surprising” that there hasn’t been more of an effort from government to inform people about the risks of feeing ham and bacon, perhaps through warning labels on processed meat. But where is the British legislator brave enough to cast doubt on bacon?

* Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

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