Health & Wellbeing

Controversial red meat study causes division among scientists

Controversial red meat study c...
The divisive conclusion of a new study that there is little health benefit to reducing red meat consumption has been called "irresponsible and unethical" by some scientists
The divisive conclusion of a new study that there is little health benefit to reducing red meat consumption has been called "irresponsible and unethical" by some scientists
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The divisive conclusion of a new study that there is little health benefit to reducing red meat consumption has been called "irresponsible and unethical" by some scientists
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The divisive conclusion of a new study that there is little health benefit to reducing red meat consumption has been called "irresponsible and unethical" by some scientists

A series of five systematic reviews published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine is suggesting there is little to no evidence that moderate consumption of red or processed meat significantly increases risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. The research contradicts many general nutritional recommendations, with some scientists explicitly calling the new conclusions “irresponsible and unethical”.

The new research consisted of five separate metastudies, looking at a large number of randomized controlled trials and observational studies investigating the correlation between red and processed meat consumption, and various health outcomes. A panel of 14 experts was subsequently convened to examine all five reviews, and offer overall recommendations for red meat consumption. The conclusion was that there is no evidence to suggest current recommended meat consumption levels are damaging to human health, and most people should continue to consume red and processed meat at average levels.

"This is not just another study on red and processed meat, but a series of high quality systematic reviews resulting in recommendations we think are far more transparent, robust and reliable," says Bradley Johnston, a corresponding author on the new research from Dalhousie University. "We focused exclusively on health outcomes, and did not consider animal welfare or environmental concerns when making our recommendations.”

The new research is unsurprisingly proving divisive among scientists as its conclusions seem strangely at odds with the vast number of general nutritional recommendations suggesting health benefits for eating less red and processed meat. Lennert Veerman, from Australia’s Griffith University, notes this new research seems to interpret previous data in a novel way.

"The findings of these studies are broadly in line with previous findings,” explains Veerman. “Per three serves of red or processed meat per week, the risk of death is 10 per cent higher. But there is uncertainty: the risk of death could be 15 per cent lower, or it could be that reducing meat consumption does not make you live longer. It is mostly the interpretation that differs. The authors of these new studies judge the evidence to be weak, and the risks ‘very small’. They conclude that from a health point of view, there seems to be no reason to change meat consumption.”

One of the more divisive aspects of the research is the fact the fundamental conclusion was based on relatively low meat consumption levels. The health benefits of limiting red or processed meat consumption to three or four servings per week may be minimal, but approximately one third of American adults eat much more than that, around one serving of red or processed meat every day.

“The authors interpreted the statistically significant health benefits from reduced red and processed meat consumption as small, because they focused on small changes in consumption,” explains Marco Springmann, a senior researcher from the University of Oxford.

A team of scientists from Harvard University presented a particularly critical assessment of the new research concluding, “From a public health point of view, it is irresponsible and unethical to issue dietary guidelines that are tantamount to promoting meat consumption, even if there is still some uncertainty about the strength of the evidence.”

The Harvard team also questioned the decision to separate any environmental considerations from the health effects of reducing red meat intake, arguing that the climate change and environmental degradation resulting from meat production can result in indirect, but substantially deleterious, effects on human health.

In an accompanying editorial published alongside the five new studies, two of the researchers, Aaron Carroll and Tiffany Doherty, accept their work will inevitably be considered controversial. However, they point out their work is, “based on the most comprehensive review of the evidence to date,” and, “those who seek to dispute it will be hard pressed to find appropriate evidence with which to build an argument.”

Despite the scientific bluster, Aaron Carroll has expressed concern his research may be misinterpreted. In an interview with NBC’s Today show Carroll clearly notes, “I would not say that this is a green light to eat more. I worry that that’s what people will hear, and it’s not what I would say.”

Ultimately this new research has come to the same meat consumption recommendation as many other scientists and advisory bodies over recent years, which is to limit red and processed meat to no more than three or four servings per week. However, the concern being raised currently is how this new work is being framed, and whether it is responsible to oversimplify this research into a singular sensationalistic headline.

“… the journal may have exacerbated the situation by circulating a press release entitled “New guidelines: No need to reduce red or processed meat consumption for good health.” Such sensational headlines can cause enormous confusion among health professionals, journalists, and the general public,” notes a response from Harvard scientists.

The new research is published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Source: McMaster University

13 comments
JohanJordaan
Yes, the anti-lobby will never end. The claim that meat production is bad for the environment is also rubbish. When you uproot grasslands (that held tons of carbon both above and below the surface) to produce plant based foods, you use tons of diesel, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides - in the process releasing the carbon that was bound up by the grass. The planet always had grazers on the grass plains - replacing then with cattle or sheep does not produce more greenhouse gasses. When will the 'scientists' stop pushing their lies about what is healthy and what not? The problem with meat production lies in the feedlots that round off the cattle. As long as we produce meat from pastures we have no problem - but we never hear that. Grass-fed meat is also much better for your health. So, start buying grass-fed meat and do something for the environment. Vote with your wallet and force meat producers to comply.
paul314
So what fraction of people in the industrialized western world currently limit red and processed meat to three or four servings a week? That's one day of bacon at breakfast, one ham sandwich (or baloney/whatever), and one or two other meals with beef in them. I wouldn't be surprised if there were millions or tens of millions who do one or two servings a day.
guzmanchinky
Excellent article about how even scientists form results based on manipulations of data.
piperTom
To call research "irresponsible" because you don't like the conclusion is, itself, irresponsible. Scientific results are either right or wrong; if you don't like the result, find the illogic, point to the missing data, or do your own study! As to the misleading headline, gimme a break -- headlines have been misleading since the very first newspaper. Read the article!
nick101
Nothing is more rubbish than 'food science'. They can't even agree on what makes you fat.
Troublesh00ter
Even as different drugs are more or less effective on different groups of people, and frequently related to their genetic background, so the effects of red meat consumption almost certainly vary widely with different populations and genetic groups. I really wish that there could be more specificity on who was participating in these studies and if there were any marked differentiations in outcomes on those bases. The kind of generalization represented by any study which fails to cite the backgrounds of the test subjects can be worse than useless. More detail is needed here, not less.
buzzclick
Eat less animal flesh. It's better for you and everything else. One cannot compare the meat "industry" to the animals that used to roam naturally in our world, who are dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the business of meat consumption that exists today. There are so many other plant sources for protein. Go to a supermarket and watch the people at the meat section looking at the available choices at their disposal. The older folks there truly look like they've been meat-eaters for a long time. The farts of someone who eats meat every day can be quite stinky. Eating more vegetables can only be a benefit for you and the world.
BrianK56
It depends on each humans biology it's no different than who will develop cancer in their lifetime.
Catweazle
"The farts of someone who eats meat every day can be quite stinky. " --- but nowhere near as stinky as veggies who eat a lot of beans and cabbage! You certainly wouldn't want to enter a lift with them.
Douglas Rogers
There has been a documented need for "walking protein" over the past few years. People with a short alimentary canal are probably more adapted for meat than those with a long alimentary canal. Some time ago, Japanese doctors were noting a reduction in the number of good sumo wrestlers. This was attributed to the prevalence of the western diet, leading to the shortening of the torso.