Red meat study questioned

Nutritionists, health officials and meat industry leaders have questioned the findings of a American study linking red meat consumption to early death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton of the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), said that the study, carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH),  was observational and could not be used to determine cause and effect. She added that the study’s conclusion that people could reduce mortality risk by swapping red meat for alternative proteins, such as poultry and fish, was based on a theoretical model and conflicted with evidence from previous controlled trials.

She pointed out that red meat was a vital source of iron, zinc and vitamin D, and that average intakes of red meat in the UK were already below the 70g recommended by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). “For most people, red meat consumption is not associated with health risk and does not need to be reduced,” she said.

Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors Association, also questioned the validity of an observational study. “It is misleading to link a particular food to a specific disease or cause of death. Other factors, such as diet and lifestyle, are very important and should be taken into account,” he said.

Commenting on the media coverage of the study, Nick Allen, Eblex sector director, said: “What is more concerning than the study itself is the continued willingness of the media to publish over-simplistic, misleading stories without any real understanding of the statistics involved, and with a sensational headline not borne out by the content of the story. The UK has a thriving red meat industry which makes a huge contribution to the economy. However, the continual drip-drip effect of stories risk turning consumers off to the benefits of eating home-produced red meat.“

Both the Department of Health and the British Heart Foundation have released statements reassuring the public that red meat can still be eaten as part of a balanced diet.

The study, which was published the Archives of Internal Medicine, observed 120,000 people in the US, assessing their diet through regular questionnaires. Researchers concluded that people who ate 85g of red meat a day had a 13% increased risk of mortality, while people who ate a serving of processed meat equal to two rashers of bacon had a 20% increased risk of mortality.
The authors claimed that people could cut their risk of death by reducing red meat consumption to less than 42.5g of red meat per day and replacing it with other proteins such as poultry, fish, legumes and nuts. The authors admitted that people who ate more red meat were less likely to be physically active and more likely to be smokers, drink alcohol and be overweight. Additionally, red meat intake was associated with lower intake of fruit and vegetables.

However, lead author An Pan, research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, told Meat Trades Journal. “We have carefully controlled (take into consideration) all these lifestyle factors in our statistical models, therefore, the associations we reported in the paper were independent of body mass index, smoking, alcohol and physical activity. But certainly, as in any observational studies, residual confounding is possible.”

>Study links red meat to early death

>Media more positive about red meat and health