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After WHO’s Report, U Of I Food Scientist Says Processed Meat A Risk, But OK In Moderation

 A deep-fried, bacon wrapped "Jersey breakfast dog."

A deep-fried, bacon wrapped "Jersey breakfast dog" contains two types of processed meat that are associated with an increased risk of colon cancer, according to a new World Health Organization report. Perlow/Wikipedia

A food scientist at the University of Illinois says the link between processed meat and colon cancer is real --- as outlined in a new report from the World Health Organization. But he’s still enjoying some bacon from time to time. 

Dr. John Erdman is a professor emeritus with the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition on the U of I Urbana campus. He says it’s been known for some time that eating processed meat is associated with an increased risk of colon cancer, as stated in the report from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. The report cites more than 800 studies that studied possible links between red or processed meats and more than a dozen types of cancers. The studies were conducted in many countries and with populations with diverse diets.

Erdman says meats that have been processed --- such as through salt-curing or smoking ---- contain carcinogenic chemicals. These chemicals are usually processed safely by the liver, but maybe not when people eat processed meats every day or in high quantities.

But he says the danger of cancer from processed meat is much less than such things as cigarettes or exposure to tobacco.

The WHO study concludes that daily consumption of 50 grams of processed meat --- perhaps a hot dog, or two or three slices of bacon --- can increase the risk of colon cancer by 18%.

But Erdman says that increase is tied to the normal lifetime risk of colon cancer, which in the US is about 4.5%.

“That would potentially increase the risk of cancer by less than 0.5% worldwide,” said Erdman. “So, you have a relative risk increase, but it’s a risk from a small number to begin with.”

Erdman says that personally, he tries to avoid heavy consumption of processed meat or red met, but he certainly eats it.

“My wife and I consume about anything,” said Erdman. “We have red meat, we do have some processed meats, but it’s not every day. And there are some days we have no meat at all, and there’s days we’ll have a steak.”

Erdman is more skeptical of the WHO report’s statement that red meat by itself is probably a carcinogen. A WHO news release says that conclusion was reached, “based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence support a carcinogenic effect”.

But while he has doubts about the cancer danger of red meat itself, he says meat can carry an increased cancer risk when it’s cooked too long on the grill or with other high heat sources.

At the same time, Erdman says there are other foods that can decrease the risk of cancers when eaten in sufficient quantities. Research, including Erdman’s own studies, found that eating 3 to 5 servings a week of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts reduced the risk of many different cancers.

Erdman’s final conclusion from the WHO report is that, “some bacon, a couple times a week, or a hot dog now and then, or a nice sausage, is fine --- not every day.”

And, Erdman says, Americans generally don’t eat enough vegetables, so eating a few more wouldn’t hurt you.