University professors address WHO statement on processed meat


Ryan Fang | The Daily Illini

Yuli Wang, student in LAS, eats a Wendy’s cheeseburger at the food court in the Union on Wednesday.

By Elyssa Kaufman

On Oct. 26, the World Health Organization issued a statement regarding an 18 percent cancer risk in consuming processed meats. This shocking statement caused confusion in the true danger of meat and the risk of developing colon and other cancers.

John Erdman, University professor in food science and human nutrition responded to this report and stated, “The WHO report presented their findings in a way that was alarmist by describing an 18 percent increase. In reality, 18 percent is a very small risk.”

Processed meats are defined as salted, cured and grilled meats, according to Erdman. While he acknowledges the cancer risk, the professor recommends limiting the consumption of processed meats every day in order to avoid the risk.

“For someone consuming cured meats, for example hot dogs, every day there may be a small increase of risk for colon or rectal cancer. It’s a real risk, but it is very small.” Erdman said.

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Bill Helferich, University professor of nutrition, also responded to the report.

Helferich also explained that this risk report is limiting because of what he defines as a “hazard assessment,” or a statement only involving the dangers and not the benefits of a food. For example, looking at a hazard assessment of consuming red meat leaves out the important benefits of the meat. The professor said red meat is one of the most “available iron and protein sources.”

Dining Halls

University dining halls remain a major food source to students living on campus. With the WHO’s statement, new light has been placed on the processed meat served in campus dining halls.

Assistant Director and Dietitian of Dining Services Erica Nehrling Meador responded to this concern by stating that the dining halls will not be making alterations to the menus.

“We don’t plan to change our offering, most of the meat we offer is not processed meat,” Meador said. “It is up to students themselves. Most of our students are 18 and older, so they are able to choose what they want to eat.”

She explained that there are other protein options served at each meal in the dining halls, giving students an alternative protein choice rather than processed meat.

Meador also highlighted the WHO’s lack of specificity in releasing its statement.

“The WHO did not release the mechanisms by which they believe processed meat could be carcinogenic,” she said. “We are not sure if it is preservatives or the way the meat is processed.”

Ultimately, the dietician concluded that everything is okay in moderation. She said individuals have to look at relative risk versus absolute risk when deciding their daily meals.

Erdman also responded to the dining hall concern.

“University dining halls and programs should limit the amount of processed meat served and encourage students to eat vegetables or whole grains,” he said.

He discussed the importance of students establishing good dietary patterns early on, so they can continue as them as they get older.

However, Helferich discussed that rather than limiting the food served, the real issue is within the options available.

“In dining halls, I would push for more healthy choices, and if people choose to eat unhealthy, then that is their choice,” Helferich said. “Regulating food should be a personal choice.”

There is also an importance of cured meats in safety within dining halls. Helferich focused on the fact that cured meats are prepared to be preserved. If the meats are not preserved, there are potential bacterial dangers, like Botulinum toxins.

Botulinum toxin is a potent neurotoxin that is often found in foods that have not been preserved correctly. Cured meat is preserved and bacterial growth is prevented, especially when meat sits in a dining hall for a prolonged time period.

Helferich said he would rather consume cured meat in moderation then take the risk of potentially getting botulinum.

“I think we have to be careful in confusing the public with contradictorily nutrition information,” Helferich said. “The WHO recommendation about red and cured meats sent confusing signals to the public. I think the message is to consume a balanced, healthy diet.”

Eating in Moderation

Both University professors agreed on the importance of eating processed meats in moderation to establish a healthy diet.

Erdman recommended that an individual consuming bacon, sausage or other types of processed meat should add a vegetable and fiber to the meal to reduce the risk.

His research at the University includes testing on prostate cancer and finding ways to reduce the risk of cancer. He stressed the importance of eating a high fiber diet when consuming processed meats.

“It has shown in a number of studies that if you add tomato and broccoli to diets, animals have shown to have a reduced risk of cancer,” he said.

To Helferich, this 18 percent risk of cancer is really about moderation.

“I would never recommend consuming red meat three times a day, six days a week. I would also not want an individual eating bacon two meals a day and ham at the other two,” Helferich said. “I don’t see a real negative if you consume these foods in a well-balanced diet.”

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