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A Rough Guide to the IARC’s Carcinogen Classifications

A Rough Guide to IARC Carcinogen Classifications
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Today’s big news has been the story that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified processed meat (including bacon, ham, and salami) as a Group 1 carcinogen. This places it in the same group as smoking, which has led to a number of headlines claiming that it means the risk from the two is the same. It isn’t – and today’s post takes a close look at the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s classification system in order to explain why.

The IARC is a part of the WHO. The IARC’s system was developed to classify different chemical agents, mixtures, or exposures, into one of five groups depending on the evidence for their cancer-causing potential, or carcinogenicity. They began publishing their categorisations in 1971, and since then have assessed over 900 different agents.

The important thing to realise about the IARC classifications is that they don’t assess the level of risk that a particular agent poses with respect to cancer. They simply rank the quality of the evidence of it being cancer-causing. Group 1 is the highest in this regard – the placement of a substance into this classification means that there is sufficient evidence in humans for it causing cancer. Other example group 1 substances include alcohol and smoking.

Red meat, meanwhile, was placed into group 2A. This group is for substances defined as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’; this means that the evidence in humans is still somewhat limited, but there is sufficient evidence in experimental animals of the substance’s carcinogenic nature. As the evidence decreases, so does the ranking. Group 2B ‘possibly’ causes cancer, group 3 is for substances for which the evidence remains inadequate to state either way, and group 4 is for those for which there is evidence that they are not carcinogenic.

So substances being in the same group tells us the evidence for their carcinogenicity is comparable, but tells us nothing about their relative risks. According to Cancer Research UK, smoking causes 19% of all cancers; by contrast only 3% of all cancers are thought to be caused by processed meat and red meat combined. To put this in a little more perspective, it’s estimated that 34,000 cancer deaths worldwide every year are caused by diets high in processed meat, compared to 1 million deaths per year due to smoking, and 600,000 due to alcohol consumption. It’s clear then that the headlines likening the risk of cancer from smoking to that of eating processed meat are well wide of the mark.

It’s also interesting to note the other substances found within the different IARC groups. Group 1, as we’ve mentioned, contains alcohol, which a large number of us drink on a regular basis. It also contains sun exposure – the DNA damage caused by UV radiation from the sun can increase the risk for developing skin cancers.

Red meat falls into the same category, group 2A, as the emissions from frying food at high temperatures. Additionally, exposure to various substances whilst working as a hairdresser or barber is also found in this category. Remember, this simply means the substances or exposures in this group all probably cause cancer, and doesn’t tell us the level of the risks.

When you get down to the other groups, it becomes clear that merely having an IARC classification doesn’t always pose a cause for concern. Substances like coffee are classified as ‘possibly carcinogenic’, simply because the evidence isn’t strong enough one way or the other. In fact, any substance or exposure tested by the IARC gets put into one of these five groups, and there’s actually only one substance that’s been placed into group 4 (probably not carcinogenic) in the history of all the substances that have been assessed.

After all this, you might be wondering what the news on processed meats and red meat actually means for you. Should you give up both and go fully vegetarian? Well, the IARC concluded that eating 50 grams of bacon per day would increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. This sounds pretty significant, but when you look at the actual numbers behind the percentage increase, it makes it a bit clearer. On average, 64 out of 100,000 people develop colorectal cancer per year; eating 5o grams of bacon every day would raise your risk to 72 in 100,000.

In short, unless you go on regular bacon binges, today’s news isn’t something to be overly concerned about. Smoking is still a vastly bigger risk factor for cancer than the odd rasher of bacon every now and then. There are health benefits to eating meat, too, so it’s not necessary to cut it out of your diet entirely – simply enjoy it in moderation, as with most things.

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References & Further Reading

68 replies on “A Rough Guide to the IARC’s Carcinogen Classifications”

They’re not lying. Meat causes cancer, this is now a fact that has to be accepted. Whether it is as bad as smoking or drinking isn’t important, every time you eat meat you are more and more likely to get cancerous bowels. If you’re okay taking that risk then go for it. wouldn’t want to be you though.

Thanks for providing yet another example of how unprofessional or biased reporting leads to widespread public misunderstanding or flat out false beliefs. In your case, the additional distortion is to go from “read meat is carcinogenic” to “all meat is [equally] carcinogenic”, with the latter a flat out lie (which would be entirely unsurprising to me if it turned out you were a vegan propagandist).

Chicken has terrible hormones and is bad for you and now red meat has been confirmed as a probable carcinogen and processed meats of all kinds are definite carcinogens. If you want to fight this then you’re the one who is going to suffer. There is no reason that we need to eat meat. Some nutrients are more easily attained through meat but they are not the ONLY sources and vegetarian alternatives fortify their products with the essential nutrients. Like with smoking and alcohol you’re the one who is suffering, no one is pushing anything on you and your anger is misplaced.

We don’t HAVE to eat red meat. But then the only thing we HAVE to do is eat enough calories and take some vitamin C. Pretty monotonous, but we’re unlikely to starve that way. People are living longer than ever in western countries, and this focus on dangerous diets seems to me entirely misplaced. AS for hormones – these have not been fed to poultry for decades, in Europe or the US.

That’s true, and according to some theories this contributes to antibiotic resistance. But it is not a suspected cause of cancer (for example). A radical reduction in antibiotic use would require less intensive farming (and more expensive meat). This is unlikely to be a popular move, and will probably lead to increased meat imports from China. You can argue for meat-free diets, but strict vegetarians are actually rather uncommon.

Even air, water, plants and a person’s mood can both cause and accelerate cancer, in essence life itself causes cancer, people need to stop dwelling on the more useless bull and just focus on the major causes as well as curing it.

I lost both my father and grandmother in that order to leukemia and ovarian cancer respectively, and little to no progress has been made in the area since except to instill everyone with fear, how about instead of having everyone picking apart their lives to try avoiding a decision that may or may not cause cancer 30 or 40 years down the road, we just let people live their lives without being afraid of every tiny little thing, just because it has a chance of causing cancer.

They’re not lying, it’s mostly the media that’s misinterpreting this classification, and then give us misinformation. The WHO is not doing anything wrong, except that I understand the classification system can be confusing and easily misunderstood. But it is also the responsibility of the people and media to make sure they understand what they are reading.

Hmm. The WHO have found a relative risk of 1.18 and want us to worry about it. It’s not lying, but it’s economical with the facts. You want a relative risk of 3.00 or more before devoting resources to a disease; especially when the evidence is based on 10 studies picked from a wheelbarrow of 8000.

IARC is the specialized cancer agency of the WHO. The press release said ‘”These findings further support current public health recommendations to limit intake of meat.” The word ‘worry’ was not used, but it is hard to see the recommendation as a neutral report of the findings. It is not the job of the WHO simply to report data; they make policy recommendations on the basis of them.

stop trying to justify eating meat. It’s killing you, it’s killing the environment and it’s killing animals. Time to move on people, meat is in the past.

Bless you brak! I am grateful for non-meat eaters, as they keep the demand for meat lower, which translates into lower meat prices for the rest of us. I’d hate to see how much bacon might cost if all the Muslims decided it wasn’t forbidden.

Meat’s going to get more and more expensive as it causes more and more death and has an even bigger effect on the environment in terms of pollution and wasted resources. you might think its a hilarious joke right now but when your rectum starts bleeding you’re not going to think it’s so funny.

The environmental problems with factory farming are well documented and accepted. First google result is this “http://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/food-agriculture/our-failing-food-system/industrial-agriculture#.Vi9v32zosrk” but I urge you to do our own research if you feel doubtful. Once again this is not a contested subject, meat production is highly inefficient and wasteful as well as destructive. The goal of food production should be to create sustainable, healthy and good food that has minimal impact on the environment. By eating meat our culture is doing the exact opposite.

Yeah and it is made from soya which is also a problematic food as there have been studies linking it to breast cancer.

The propaganda that was going around was that soy contained estrogen which can cause breast cancer. What wasn’t reported is that it was PLANT estrogen which has no effect on humans and definitely doesn’t cause cancer.

That makes no sense. If the demand for meat diminishes there will be less production in smaller facilities => the overhead will increase => the price will increase. It’s in our interest as people who don’t ignorantly and unscientifically deny the omnivorous nature of our species to keep high productions of meat (or development of meat-like alternatives) going.

You won’t be saying that when you get bowel cancer and you’re lying on the deathbed wishing you could have just one last breath.

So, you are going to live forever? At least when I go, I can look back with fondness on the pleasures of some really good meals. And who knows, maybe you’ll get smacked by a bus tomorrow, and as you lay writhing and bleeding under the wheels of the bus, your last thought might be of me enjoying a nice bacon double-cheese burger, and you’ll be cursing me as you draw your last breath.

No I only get one life and I want to live it to the max. I wanna eat the best foods that I can thrive on, whole raw ripe organic foods not foods that slow me down in life and leave a trail of pain and suffering behind me.

>At least when I go, I can look back with fondness on the pleasures of some really
> good meals
So can I. The number of good meals increased when I gave up processed food (*), including bacon.
(*) OK…. I don’t make my own milk, butter, pasta, cheese or hummus.

It would be beneficial to explain to your readers the health benefits that you can’t get from a 100% plant-based diet. I will say that when you do the research, you will find that can also get everything from a plant-based diet (nutritionfacts.org is a good site fyi). Also C&EN came out with a great article earlier this year essentially about plant “meat”.

Maybe you can (though I doubt it), but it will not be nearly as cost-effective or efficient (your omnivorous body is not very good at getting some things from plants while it’s very good at digesting light or reasonably cooked meat).

For someone of scientific mind, you must have mounds of evidence that make you doubt it? What do you mean cost effective? That meat is cheap and you can get more nutrients for your money? If so, that is highly arguably since plants cost much less (and now we are finally understanding the cost of animal ag on our planet). It is true that we are omnivores (evolving more from our herbivore ancestors) but that does not mean that we *have* to eat meat, just that we can. I cannot disagree that some vitamins and minerals are more bioavailable in meat but that isn’t always necessarily a good thing. Also many foods are supplemented with vitamins making it easier to assure we get what we need (what ever your diet is) regardless of diet. I know many people who have been on a 100% whole foods plant based diet for 20+ years and are not only surving but thriving.

There are many different diets out there that people claim are perfect and miraculous from a plant-based one to a grain-free one to a sugar-free one. The truth is there isn’t one perfect diet for everyone as we’re all biologically different and respond to different foods and diets in different ways. Maybe a plant-based one works for yourself and others, but from my own personal experience it didn’t work. I was vegan for over two years and my health just kept declining (fatigue, no energy, little libido, pale, constantly sick, headaches, mood swings, little muscle mass). And before you make a condescending remark like “You didn’t do it properly” as other vegans have said to me in the past, let me assure you that I did. When I reintroduced animal products back into my diet I quickly regained my health. Most people in the world eat an animal and plant diet and are also thriving so what’s your point?

My point in saying that those who have been on a plant-based diet are “surviving and thriving” was a reply to someone else remarking that they are doubtful that they work. I absolutely agree that there are people who eat meat are fine, but the hundreds of thousands of peer review literature says that eating more plants and vegetables and less meat is better for you. And, I get what you are saying that you feel the remark of “you didn’t do it properly” is condescending and in a way it is, but more helpful responses would have been 1) it sounds like you were not getting enough calories (especially if you are an athlete and a 2) you should talk to a nutritionist who specializes in plant-based diets and/or someone who actually understands nutrition. I actually just listened to a podcast with Matt Ruscigno, who is a MPH RD, and he actually addressed the concerns you are expressing. Also the idea that “one diet doesn’t work for everyone” isn’t really convincing me since it’s mostly people on social media and bloggers that tote “oh eating grains just doesn’t work for me” doesn’t really address the problem of what might really be wrong. Garth Davis talks about that in his new book. And what is a sugar-free diet?

Actually I was getting excess calories to what I needed and still constantly felt hungry. I also had a nutritionist who helped me change up my diet a lot but in the end we agreed that a plant-based diet really wasn’t for me. Well different peoples have evolved in different climates and cultures with different types of diets so evidently there isn’t such a thing as a one diet fits all. Also, have you ever heard of the Blood Type Diet? It’s interesting and seems plausible to me. Basically, people with different blood types respond differently to different types of food. http://www.dadamo.com/ In terms of eating grains, there are many people who experience digestive issues, cramps and bloating especially if they’re from a culture which isn’t very grain-based. A sugar-free diet is one free from sugar. That includes honey, syrup, soda, sweets, juice, smoothies, really anything with sugar in it. Robert Lustig has done extensive evidence and has found that sugar is the biggest health risk in many countries as it can cause metabolic syndrome which is an umbrella term for a variety of conditions including diabetes, heart diesease, stroke and high blood pressure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM

Were you eating a whole foods, plant-based diet? Ahh, okay, so by “sugar free” you mean “added” sugars, not carbohydrates?

Actually, most people in the world DO NOT eat animal products. Most cultures in the world don’t have the same ready access to animal products that we do in the west (particularly in the USA, where factory farming has made meat products cheaper than many vegetables). And strangely enough, those groups throughout the world who live primarily on plant-based diets exhibit far fewer (sometimes zero) incidences of the leading killers we experience with our Standard American Diet (SAD). Look up the “China Study” or the “Blue Zones” (among many others) for an anthropological study of world wide diet and health patterns. Also, we are not “biologically different” in regards to diet. We are still designed like our primate ancestors: we are biologically herbivores. We have evolved to eat meat only culturally. If you felt ill on a vegan diet, then something else definitely was wrong with you.

That’s the biggest load of rubbish ever. Total vegan propaganda not even backed up by verifiable sources. The majority do eat animal sources but much less than we do in the west. If you look at every major culture that has ever existed you’ll find meat was prized. One of the main things archaeologists find amongst human bones are animal bones. Major cultures developed tools specifically for hunting. The Japanese eat quite a lot of fish and beef, and have low incidences of disease and live the longest. The French eat meat and dairy and have lower levels of heart disease. The Icelandic eat a lot of seafood and again have lower levels of disease. The China Study has been refuted many times. It’s not even taken seriously in anthropological circles as the data has been totally screwed with to push a vegan position. No, we’re omnivores, whether you like that it or not. Again, there’s mountains of evidence to support that. No, you just can’t accept criticism of your precious diet which you seem to think is perfect and will work for everyone. There was absolutely nothing wrong with me thank you.

Vegan propaganda. You’re funny Daniel. Don’t be afraid of vegans. You should want to see more of them. They live longer and across the board are in better health, so they will keep health care costs down (good for you when you have to be treated for colon cancer or stroke). Because they are not participating in animal product consumption, they don’t perpetuate the horrors of factory farming, therefore they are actively reducing the amount of suffering in the world. They also are not contributing to the water, land and air pollution (fecal runoff, methane, etc.) that factory farming produces. They also are offsetting your climate change inputs. Add to this water consumption for producing meat (largest user), deforestation in developing countries for raising cattle (for US market) and habitat destruction in the US. I would think even a flesh eater like you would see the wisdom in more people becoming vegans.

Please provide your data source for the majority of the world’s population being meat eaters. (My bet is you won’t find it because it doesn’t exist). Ironically, there is great worry about the increasing demand for meat (mostly in China), because, for the reasons I just posted, meat consumption is not scalable. The destruction of the planet will be assured if we allow meat to all populations. You’re right that it is prized, but for all the wrong reasons. You mention Japan, which has traditionally consumed mostly rice, vegetables and some seafood as their diet staples. They have, as a result, had very low prevalence of heart disease, certain cancers, osteoporosis, Alzheimer disease and other diseases that are our greatest killers in the west (as a result of our meat and dairy fetish). As Japanese consumption of meat and dairy has increased, so have the diseases associated with them.

The China study has never been successfully “refuted.” The woman famous for challenging the China Study numbers has been thoroughly shut down by a great majority of clinical nutritionists (it was also shown that her work was funded by the North American Meat Institute).

Lastly, we are “cultural” omnivores. If you study our anatomy, we still carry all the evolutionary marks of our herbivore primate ancestors. We are optimized for eating plants. That, is a fact.

“The Japanese eat quite a lot of fish and beef, and have low incidences of disease and live the longest. The French eat meat and dairy and have lower levels of heart disease. The Icelandic eat a lot of seafood and again have lower levels of disease.”

This ^

My challenge to vegans: call me when you can quote a study published in a scientific journal showing that people following any kind of strict vegan diet for at least half of their lives survive to supercentenarian ages (110+) significantly more often than omnivores.

“What do you mean cost effective?”

I mean it should cost the same or less for the same amount of metabolically usable essential nutrients and a plant-based diet very probably doesn’t, since the nutrients in plants aren’t directly usable but need additional digestion and convert only partially to useful substances, whereas the same nutrients, having been already processed by another animal’s metabolism, are ingested in their directly usable form when you eat meat.

“It is true that we are omnivores (evolving more from our herbivore ancestors) but that does not mean that we *have* to eat meat, just that we can.”

It means we function best on a combined diet of plants and meat and that restricting our diets to either meat only (like carnivores) or plants only (like herbivores) would be forcing our bodies to do things they’re not well adapted to do. Could we survive? Sure, this is a flexibility that makes omnivorous species resilient in the face of various shortages and environmental changes, but would we be benefiting from optimal nutrition? In most cases no, as that would require too much effort to gather together all the various plants necessary to cover all the nutrients that we could get from meat – essentially we’d have to do something like all of the hunting and foraging and pre-digestion that our food source animals would’ve done throughout their lives in their stead. 🙂

But what do you say to the hundreds of thousands of research papers that show time and time again that a diet high in vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and low in animals products is healthy? Even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Heart Association recommend this. And we can easily gather all the nutrients…they’re in a grocery store (assuming you live in the US).

These hundreds of thousands of papers do not exist. If it was really that obvious, a hundred papers would be enough. A scientist might ask, for example, whether nitrite in beetroot improves the circulation (in a sample of 20 people recruited into a study). By contrast with these experimental studies of single factors, there are no resources to test the long-term effect of this or that diet on health outcomes; all you have is association studies about the levels of bowel cancer in Crete, relative to their consumption of fish oil, and so on. Consider the French paradox: compared with Americans they eat 4 times as much butter and cheese, and 10 times as much alcohol, and less fruit and wholemeal bread. But they have the best rates of heart disease in the world. The simple equation of diet and health is naive.

Hundreds of papers are enough for some people. If it’s not obvious to everyone, it’s because politics are involved. I understand more of the science than the politics but the biggest issue is that the USDA is in charge of our health but also gives subsidies to animal ag farmers – which is extremely conflicting. I agree that one cannot look at one single factor to show that it improves or disproves something but you can show link or correlation (like they have with processed meats and colorectal cancer). The thing that is simple about the equation of diet and health is that there is one.

The colorectal/smoked meat correlation is not very persuasive – a relative risk of 1.18. The New England J of Medicine usually rejects studies with a relative risk lower than 3.00. Contrast this with the relative risk of lung cancer in smokers, RR=12.00. 1.18 looks puny alongside. If you look at life expectancy in western countries, it does not very strikingly according to diet.

“But what do you say to the hundreds of thousands of research papers”

You obviously have no idea how many diet studies there really are in the literature, since you’re using a propagandistic expression like that.

“that show time and time again that a diet high in vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes and low in animals products is healthy?”

What I’ve seen shown time and time again is that there is no significant difference in overall mortality between diets high in meat and diets high in plants and that significant benefits only appear when you focus narrowly on this or that specific cause of death (but of course since overall mortality is not affected much, it stands to reason that this effect is counterbalanced by how low-meat diets also carry risks of nutrient deficiency and generate poorer outcomes on other specific measures, which is also reflected in some of the studies).

“Even the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics”
… which is not a proper school of medicine and so doesn’t matter to me…

“and the American Heart Association recommend this”
… because cardiovascular health is probably one of the selected aspects of health that has been found to benefit more often than not from an increased percentage of plants in the diet relative to what most Americans are currently eating. This is still far from a statement that high-plant diets are significantly more healthy _overall_ than balanced or high-meat diets and it’s worlds away from a similar claim for purely vegan diets.

“And we can easily gather all the nutrients…they’re in a grocery store (assuming you live in the US).”
It’s not just about the commercial availability, there are also problems of concentration of micronutrients in plants (think vitamins D and B12) and of bioavailability after digestion (think iron or calcium). And guess what symptoms B12 deficiency leads to: fatigue, lethargy, weakness, anemia — sound familiar from up-thread? 😀

“You obviously have no idea how many diet studies there really are in the literature, since you’re using a propagandistic expression like that.”

Think what you want about that. Maybe there is a slight inflation, but it’s definitely thousands. 🙂

“This is still far from a statement that high-plant diets are significantly more healthy _overall_ than balanced or high-meat diets and it’s worlds away from a similar claim for purely vegan diets.”

Honestly, I don’t think there is enough evidence for 100% whole foods, plant-based diets…yet. Notice how I haven’t used the word vegan (though it’s in my user name) because vegan diets are incredibly varied. You can eat a crappy vegan diet and be obese but you can also eat a 100% whole foods plant-based diet and thrive (I think we can agree here that obesity does not mean “thriving” whether you are an herbivore or omnivore).

“there are also problems of concentration of micronutrients in plants (think vitamins D and B12) and of bioavailability after digestion (think iron or calcium). And guess what symptoms B12 deficiency leads to: fatigue, lethargy, weakness, anemia”

I was waiting for you to mention that. 🙂 It’s great that now we know how we can increase bioavailability of metals like Fe and Ca! (i.e. eat foods high in vitamin C while eating foods high in Fe). I should also point out that many processed foods contain supplemented vitamins and minerals (think cereal) for any diet. While I agree that vitamin B12 is extremely hard to get from plants (I have read that some people will go as far as buying organic veggies and eating the microbes from the dirt for B12!) but you can easily fix that with a vitamin (this isn’t unheard of, say, for those with anemia have to take an Fe supplement). Vitamin B12 is a molecule that fascinates me! I cannot recall my one bioinorganic chemistry text book off the top of my head that discusses why some individuals may be deficient in it and some not – on meat-eating diets that is!

Honestly we could go on and on, but it seems like even you are agreeing that eating lots of veggies, fruits, legumes, grains is most likely an indication of good health.

Eating your veggies is one thing, but giving up meat completely “for health reasons” is pure bullshit if you’re not suffering from some very specific condition. And claiming that all meat is significantly cancer-causing, like some shameless vegan propagandists do, is the height of insanity, the evidence being what it is.

Actually, biologically, we have evolved very little from our primate ancestors. We are still designed as herbivores. Culturally, we have evolved to eat meat, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. In fact, there is a convergence of evidence that eating animal products contributes significantly to our top ten greatest killers (CV disease, cancer, etc.). For humans, plants are a much more nutrient dense food choice. Most clinical nutritionists have known this for quite some time. Stating it as fact is becoming easier over time as the evidence mounts (as this IARC report illustrates). Also, human health is only one reason to cut down or eliminate animal products from your diet, the ethical and environmental reasons are equally compelling.

Talking out of your ass. Every biology manual defines humans as omnivores and there is no “convergence of evidence” that meat (all kinds) is especially bad for us. Stop talking out of your ass and start posting links to studies if you have them. Thanks.

(The ethical and environmental reasons are equally bogus, just check The Vegetarian Myth, a book by a vegetarian of 20 years who eventually wised up to how the world works and found that she can devastate all of your precious “reasons”.)

Just from a common sense point of view.

You have evolved for millions of years to eat meat. Changing that suddenly, in one lifetime can not be healthy.

You have canine teeth for a reason.

When the canine teeth evolve away…then let’s talk about going vegan.

>When the canine teeth evolve away…then let’s talk about going vegan

We evolved canine teeth because being able to eat meat was an advantage to making it to child bearing age and we hadn’t invented cutlery at the time. Once you are old enough to have children then evolution is just random and now we have cutlery we don’t need canines to eat meat, so what you say makes no sense.

I don’t doubt that it’s possible to get all your nutrients from plants. But if you can find weak associations between meat and cancer, it is most unlikely that plants are entirely benign in this respect. My mother got liver fluke from watercress. I happen to like duck and salmon and eggs and don’t see any compelling reason to give them up.

Guys instead of arguing whether plant diet or meat diet is good enough, did you guys think about living without death? In India mystics have conquered death by following only plant based diet. We can live a deathless life with plant based diet alone. Showing compassion to other living beings is the next.

Considering that many people have lived longer than the average age of their generation even while smoking, consuming processed meat, and just all around not being ‘healthy’, I think many people are okay with processed meat. There are many worse things to worry about becoming ill from, and bacon just doesn’t seem like a significant threat.

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