The World Health Organization, possibly the most reputable medical body in the world, just dropped some earth-shattering news on Americans: Most of the meat we eat is probably giving us cancer. And bacon? That definitely is. 

The WHO released data Monday, Oct. 26,  that shows that processed meats such as bacon, sausage, ham, hot dogs, cured deli meat, smoked meat, and jerky are conclusively, irrefutably, without a doubt causing cancer. How sure are they? So sure, they are putting processed meat in Group One, the list of things absolutely linked to human cancer. Other members of Group One include cigarettes, arsenic, chewing tobacco, and formaldehyde.

According to the WHO, processed meats are most closely linked to colorectal cancer, which has killed about 50,000 Americans in 2015 (as of this writing, the year isn't over). It is the third most common type of cancer in the U.S., and if current eating habits continue, 1 in 20 of us will develop the disease in our lifetimes. A link is also shown between processed meats and pancreatic and prostate cancers.

But you can't necessarily just swap out your hot dog for pulled pork. The WHO also added all mammal meat to Group 2A, the list of things that are probably carcinogenic to humans. Not possibly (which is another classification), but probably. Since mammal flesh accounts for the majority of meat consumed in the U.S. (not counting sea animals), this boils down to a pretty big problem.

But the North American Meat Institute (which totally has nothing to lose), calls the development a "dramatic and alarmist overreach." They say the finding "defies common sense," citing some meta-analyses from previous years, showing an inconclusive correlation between red meat and colorectal cancer. Some of the studies listed are almost two decades old.

The WHO will make one concession, though: Although the strength of the evidence that processed meat causes cancer and that cigarettes cause cancer is about the same, the cigarette will kill you faster. 

"Risk increases with the amount of red meat or processed meat eaten," explained Dr. Kurt Straif, the head of the WHO arm that investigates cancer, to Reuters. "But it's important to recognize that the increases are relatively small ... compared to cigarette smoking or working with asbestos." 

Nevertheless, the correlation is just as clear. And while the definitive announcement has been a long time in coming, the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations released a report hinting at the findings as early as 2002, when they wrote:

"Households should select predominantly plant-based diets rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits, pulses or legumes, and minimally processed starchy staple foods. The evidence that such diets will prevent or delay a significant proportion of noncommunicable chronic diseases is consistent."

The U.N. has also emphasized that a global shift toward a plant-based diet is critical to fighting climate change.

The WHO published today's complete findings in the medical journal, The Lancet. A free account is required to view this paper online. They also released a Q&A related to the findings.

Photo: Christopher Aloi | Flickr

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