Butty of the Gods

Report or no report, I'm not giving up BLTs to save my bacon

Ask vegetarians who once ate meat what they miss most, and there is a good chance that they will mention bacon sandwiches. I sympathise. Eating a well-made bacon sandwich - the perfect alliance of salty meat, tangy condiment, rich butter and bland bread - gives me the feeling I get when I listen to the music of a favourite composer: I wonder why I ever bother with anything else. Only when the euphoria of the experience has died down do I recognise that I need variety. Now I learn another reason for pursuing a varied diet. Eating too many bacon sandwiches gives you cancer.

Yes, I know that the recently published report, from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, didn't say that.

But it might as well have done, given the outraged reaction from sections of the British media. Jeff Randall in the Daily Telegraph asked what Winston Churchill (that celebrated medical statistician) would have said about these condemnations of alcohol and smoking; Churchill, noted Randall as if in support of his debunking argument, had been voted Greatest Briton. The line elsewhere was that this country did not become great through avoiding carcinogenic foodstuffs. Save our bacon butty was the cry.

What the report actually said was that poor diet and lack of exercise contributed to a third of cancers. They linked processed meats such as bacon and ham to bowel cancer. So the risk is relevant to you if you are unlucky enough to be among the estimated third of bowel-cancer sufferers contracting the disease as a result of your lifestyle. Applied to the whole population, the risk is low.

Challenging these findings is a long way beyond the competency of this column. But we note a few points that sceptics might raise.

The report was not original, but a synthesis of other studies; and it left out some studies that have come to different conclusions. There are questions marks over the robustness of the data linking processed meats to cancer risks. Another recent study linked bacon to bladder cancer, while pointing out that people who ate a lot of bacon were also likely to have unhealthy lifestyles in other respects. The reason for the link is sodium nitrite, used to protect cured meats from giving you botulism but also forming carcinogenic nitrosamines; but various measures have inhibited this nitrosamine production. We consume more nitrites from vegetables than we do from bacon.

I am not going to take the advice of the report, which advises me to eat "very little if any" processed meat. Giving up a certain pleasure on the grounds of a hypothetical risk is not a common human inclination. Should the risk be greater than I suspect, I hope that another inclination, not always to eat the same thing, will save me.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?