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Latest WHO report on meat consumption may lack long-term bite

(Rick Wilking/Reuters)

You can buy an alarm clock that awakens you to the scent of bacon or send a beau a bouquet of bacon roses. If you're single, you can even find your bacon-loving soul mate in an Oscar Mayer dating app.

America has elevated bacon from the egg's crispy pork sidekick to a cultural obsession so extreme that we refuse to give it up — even if it means risking cancer.

The World Health Organization last week labeled bacon, sausage, and other processed meats as carcinogens and said red meat probably causes cancer, too.

The news ignited a Twitter frenzy and prompted a market research firm to examine responses to a similar warning from the American Cancer Society dating back to 2002.

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The NPD Group of New York found no significant change in consumption of processed and red meat after the first report made headlines. Today, the average person eats more than 100 pounds of red meat a year in the United States.

"That was totally expected," said Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst with the NPD Group. "Yeah it created some buzz and it was in the news cycle, but unless there's an immediate threat to our health or our lives, we try to find the green light to go back to our regular habits."

The study found that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Anyone who has pledged to eat healthier to lose a few pounds understands the difficulty of breaking longstanding habits. Nutritionists say the barriers to change are many and extend far beyond a lack of willpower against a plate of warm bacon.

Socioeconomic status, a continuing drumbeat of studies with contradictory findings, and the massive marketing budgets of McDonald's, Coca-Cola, and other major food industry players can all impact our ability to lead healthier lives.

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"It's hard to get your message out and inspire change when there are people out there yelling just the opposite," said Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "There's a barrage of messages that make it more challenging for people to weed through and decide which one to listen to."

Nutritionists say it's especially hard for people to create lasting change, even when they know their behaviors are bad for them.

A recent poll of more than 2,200 Boston Globe readers found that 48 percent said they intend to cut back on red and processed meats in reaction to the latest report. Total red meat consumption in the United States has waned in recent years from about 111 pounds per person five years ago, which Seifer attributes to rising prices at supermarkets.

Twitter also reacted with a flurry of opinions, with some 240,000 tweets on the subject in a little over a week, according to an analysis of social media responses by the Boston company Crimson Hexagon.

The tone of the conversation around our beloved bacon in particular turned negative as more people weighed in on the findings.

But then a funny thing happened. After the initial frenzy died off, bacon made a comeback. Now the majority of tweets about bacon are positive once again, Crimson Hexagon said.

Lena Campagna, a 28-year-old student studying for her PhD in sociology, said she eats red meat at least once a week. She said the WHO findings wouldn't change her eating habits because she's on a student budget and can't afford healthier foods.

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Meanwhile, Milton lawyer Ellen Lopez said she doesn't intend to alter her diet, either. She eats processed meat a few times a month and doesn't think it's enough to cause cancer. And some traditions are just too hard to break.

"I do enjoy a hot dog at Fenway Park," the 67-year-old said.


Taryn Luna can be reached at taryn.luna@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TarynLuna.