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Red and Processed Meat and Health

(NB: This article is not one for our vegetarian and vegan customers, sorry).


BASIC ADVICE SUMMARY - if it suits you, eat organic, grass fed, top quality unprocessed meat in general.  It's an excellent source of key nutrients.  Processed meats should be kept to occasionally, ideally again organic, and look for traditional, quality cures.  But in moderation and with top quality, there is no cause for concern.


2015 Update - here we go again! This time at least the coverage DOES highlight processed meat.  However, the media were in a frenzy again.  Excessive processed meat consumption is unhealthy, and we do go along with this.  If you want to enjoy OCCASIONAL processed meats, buy local, and traditionally cured, then there are no issues healthwise. 

2014 update  - another small study in 2014 had the media at it again ignoring real data. This time it was a sweeping generalisation about protein in middle age.  Yet the study didn't even assess the type of protein - this is entirely relevant and discussed below.  Jack Winkler, former professor of nutrition policy at Metropolitan University summed it up "I'm not being rude, but my attitude towards that study is contempt"

2012 update : a new study in March 2012 and another media frenzy about red meat.  But questionnaires every four years isn't science, (how many times did you eat beef in 2009, or was it bacon, can you remember?!) Data was input into a theoretical model. The study was entirely observational not controlled.  And the data looked at Americans only - US cattle are fed large amounts of (often GM) soya and grains, and very rarely, if ever grass (total contrast to the UK). This is highly relevant to results. 


Red and Processed Meat - What’s the Beef?

NB: we preface with an emphasis that in our opinion whenever possible, animal protein should always be organic.

Let's look at some of the issues surrounding the red meat headlines.

First things first, red and processed meats are not the same thing at all.  Only lazy scientists, and lazy journalists would say they are.   A fresh, organic, free-range, steak for example, could not be more different than a pack of cheap sausages packed with additives and off-cuts.

Here’s how the researchers justify the generalisation;

“Processed meat typically refers to meat (usually red meat) that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or by the addition of preservatives (WCRF, 2007); however, there is considerable inconsistency in the definition and categorisation of “processed meat” in epidemiological studies. Following a review of the evidence by Food Standards Agency (FSA) toxicologists, it was advised that the available data do not support an association between increased CRC risk and the presence of preservatives. The modelling exercise therefore considered the impact of a reduction in total red meat consumption as there was no clear basis for separating red and processed meat”.

No clear basis? That sounds crazy to us. And there IS research in place demonstrating clear differences.

Just one recent example.  The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) systematically reviewed nearly 1,600 studies of over 1.2 million people in four continents. They found that 50gm of processed meat daily was associated with a higher risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. No such increased risk was observed with unprocessed red meat.

Results were published in May 2010. This comprehensive and very credible study was widely reported last year.  It seems the media forgot all about it?

The Problems With Processed Meat

  • Meat is often pumped full of water and held in place by phosphate additives, starch or gelatine
  • Many processed meats are found in over processed foods (“ready meals” for example), so they come along with high levels of toxic trans fats
  • Processed meats typically contain very high levels of refined salt (sodium chloride, not full spectrum salts)
  • Sodium nitrite (gives red colour and apparently “flavour”) is commonly used – thought to be carcinogenic. It was nearly banned in the 70s, but food manufacturers won the day
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is found in many processed meat products
  • Non organic (as all cheap processed meat will be) will have pesticide and antibiotic residues
  • Overall nutrients will decrease the more processing occurs
  • Processed meats are often cooked at very high temperatures creating unhealthy chemicals called heterocyclic amines (it should be noted that high temperature flame type cooking of meat at home should also be avoided, barbeques being a typical example)
  • Meat from grain fed stock (factory farmed meat will of course always be this type) contains 11 times LESS omega 3 than pasture fed
  • Processed meat has less natural antioxidants

 

There was a a major focus on the apparent cancer risk in the media. Somewhat surprising then when we look at the study itself by the The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, that it’s called “Iron and Health”.

Now there is mention in the introduction of a “possible” link between and here they go again - “red and processed meat” and colorectal cancer reported in 1998 (this report itself grouped red and processed meat). But the emphasis and basis of this new report is in fact on the role of iron in the diet and whether reducing meat intake will impact on this specific nutrient. So the headlines are again a little off the mark.  Further the report states;

“it is not possible to quantify the amount of red and processed meat that may be associated with increased colorectal cancer risk because of limitations and inconsistencies in the data”

Even more confusing, researchers also say;

“Currently there are no accurate estimates for total red meat consumption in the UK”.

So there MAY be an association, BUT they don’t know how much “red and processed meat” that MIGHT be…curious?

When we look at the healthiest cultures around the world, animal protein always features.  On the particular issue of red meat, it's interesting to note that the Argentine population consumes 70 kilos per head of red meat per year, and have low rates of bowel cancer.  Argentina of course is famous for its quality beef. Yet the UK average is 17 kilos, a much smaller figure (a lot of which will be cheap processed meat).

In summary, it is clear that red and processed meat are not the same thing at all. The media does the health of the nation a disfavour by with sweeping over-dramatic statements.

Good quality red meat brings many benefits. It is nutrient dense, packed with protein, amino acids, and vitamins and minerals including A, B6, B12, D, E, K, iron, zinc and selenium.

It is worth mentioning that red meat consumption amongst women has dropped by 40% in 5 years, from an average of 161g per week in 2003 to just 91g in 2008. With red meat being an excellent source of vitamin D, and with vitamin D deficiencies being widespread in women, the sensationalist reporting on these matters may be part of the problem.

Buy the very best quality fresh, real red meat you can, always organic, and preferably grass fed (proven to have higher quality nutritionally). Of course cost can be a major issue, but in our view, the best you can buy, less frequently is the best for your nutritional needs.

Our advice if you do want OCCASIONAL processed meats would be to seek out traditionally cured products from farmers markets and delicatessens

 

What about the saturated fats?

Whilst this aspect was not really the drift of this piece, it needs a quick mention. There is absolutely no evidence that saturated fats cause heart disease, (or other modern problems often attributed to saturated fat including obesity), in fact quite the opposite. The modern nutritional obsession and dogma surrounding “low fat” is a disaster for health in the modern world. Whilst the article Butter or Margarine, does not relate to meats, the points made on saturated fats are valid.

 

The Confused Media Headlines...

"Hurrah - eating red meat is good for you! After all the warnings, Sunday roast not linked to heart disease" Daily Mail

"Red meat DOES increase cancer risk, new report will confirm" Daily Mail

"Worried about red meat? Giving it up can be bad for you, too" Daily Mail

"So how much red meat CAN we eat? Latest warning suggests too much will cause cancer"Daily Mail

"After red alert you could think fish and chicken" - The Sun

"Eat less meat: Government experts warn Britons" - London Evening Standard

"Red and processed meat warning - Press Association"

 

References

“Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Renata Micha, Sarah K. Wallace, Dariush Mozaffarian, Circulation 2010

A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef Cynthia A Daley, Amber  Abbott, Patrick S Doyle, Glenn A Nader and Stephanie Larson

SACN Iron and Health Report - 25th February 2011

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