Bye, bye bacon; fizz out of colas!


By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The recent report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) linking processed meat and bowel cancer has evoked so much publicity that the well-known medical website ‘Medscape’ has termed it ‘Bacon-gate’. Since the notorious scandal of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., in June 1972, and the subsequent cover-up that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon, the only US President to resign from office, the suffix "-gate" has become synonymous with political scandals but this is the first time, I think, it is used to describe a health controversy.

What has confused many and caused alarm is the fact that the IARC, the ‘cancer-arm’ of the World Health Organization (WHO), deciding to classify processed meat as carcinogenic to humans, putting them into the same category as smoking and asbestos in IARC group 1, which is the highest of five possible rankings. In view of the large number of banner headlines published across the globe, some misleading, WHO had to set up a webpage to answer questions and a lot of the material had been tweeted around.



Processed meat refers to meat that has been changed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Most contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood. Bacon, ham, sausages, hot-dogs, corned-beef and tinned meat are well known processed meats.

Experts found that each 50 gram portion of processed meat (one and a half rashers of bacon) eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal (large bowel) cancer by 18 per cent. An association with stomach cancer was also seen, but the evidence wasnot conclusive. According to the same report, red meat is also ‘probably’ carcinogenic being associated not only with bowel cancer but also with pancreatic and prostate cancers.


Putting processed meats into the same category with smoking and asbestos raised alarm but WHO has explained that the IARC classification describes the strength of the scientific evidence not the level of risk. Different substances in the same category have different levels of risk. The UK cancer charity, Cancer Research UK, has explained this well in its website which states:

"The EVIDENCE that processed meat causes cancer is as strong as the evidence for tobacco but the RISK from tobacco is much higher"

It points out that whereas 86% of lung cancers and 19% of all cancers are caused by smoking, only 21% of bowel cancers and 3% of all cancers are caused by processed meats. If no one smoked, 64500 fewer cancers will occur each year in UK but only 8800 fewer cases will occur annually, if no one ate processed meat or red meat.


Admittedly, red meat has nutritional value and some are ‘addicted’ to the taste. Anyone wishing to continue eating processed meats and red meats should cut down consumption to a minimum. I am not suggesting this to put butchers out of business, as was indicated in a response to a previous article I wrote on vegetarianism (Must we eat other animals? The Island, May 21, 2013) but to prevent bowel cancer in meat eaters.

There are environmental benefits too as it is shown that rearing of animals in large numbers for slaughter is adding to carbon dioxide emissions; hence, global warming.

Good vegetarian imitations made with textured soya or fungi, often flavoured with artificial flavours closely resembling the taste of bacon, salami or whatever you want, are now available and are much healthier.

It is better to be vegetarian, if you can.


It has been known for quite some time that fizzy drinks, ‘colas’, are bad for health as they are laced with sugar. The worldwide epidemic of obesity, very evident in Sri Lanka as well, is largely due to the spread of two ‘American evils’; colas and fast food, made worse by the sedentary life style of the modern world. Multinational ‘Giants’ in these businesses do their utmost to increase their sales and ‘Coca-Cola’ trucks, beautifully decorated and illuminated, traverse around the UK distributing free drinks in the spirit of Christmas. I saw, on BBC news, one MP requesting Coca-Cola not to do this for health reasons but if they do decide to go ahead at least to indicate how many spoons of sugar is there in each drink.

Well, you would think Coca-Cola or Pepsi or Sprite or any branded fizzy drink is the same wherever in the world; apparently, it is not so. When the group called ‘Action on sugar’ tested 274 sugar-sweetened soft drinks around the world they found a wide variation. A single 330ml can of Sprite in Thailand had the highest amount of sugar, 47g almost twice the daily WHO recommended amount of sugar for an adult which is 25g (six teaspoons). A can of ‘Coke’ in both UK and USA contains 9 teaspoons of sugar. A can of Schweppes Tonic Water in UK had 17g whereas one in USA had 45g! I do not think they analysed the sugar content of fizzy drinks in Sri Lanka but am sure, considering our ‘sweet-tooth’, levels may even be higher than in Thailand.

Mary Poppins sings ‘A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down’ but we seem to be poisoning ourselves with sugar!


Manufacturers were keen to introduce diet drinks to prevent slump in sales and Coca-Cola went to the extent of introducing a ‘Coke-Zero’ for men as ‘diet’ implied a female obsession! There have been a number of reports that these drinks are no better with increased risk of diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. May be Aspartame used to sweeten is as bad as sugar.

A study presented from the University of Iowa at the annual scientific session of the American College of Cardiology in March this year, where 60,000 women participated in the study, it was shown that women who consumed two or more diet drinks a day are 30 percent more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke and 50 percent more likely to die.

A recent survey from Sweden has produced evidence for increased incidence of heart failure, a disease that is on the increase throughout the world. This study which was carried out at the Karolinska Institute found that men who drank two or more servings of 200ml of Diet Coke, Pepsi Max and other beverages using artificial sweeteners, many of which are marketed as 'diet' options due the absence of sugar, had a 23 per cent higher risk of developing heart failure. The wide-ranging research looked at 42,400 men over 12 years and found 3,604 cases of a positive association between sweetened beverage consumption and risk of heart failure.

It looks as if any fizzy drink, even the ‘diet’ variations are a health hazard. A glass of water or freshly squeezed fruit juice is a much safer option.

After all, a good cup tea, without sugar, is still the best drink.

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