Relax, meat might not kill you after all


University of Otago Prof Jim Mann has taken issue with the findings of a group of worldwide researchers, who found there were very few health benefits to cutting personal consumption of red and processed meat.

"The public could be put at risk if they interpret this new recommendation to mean we can continue eating as much red and processed meat as they like without increasing their risk of cancer", she said.

Ahead of the new paper's publication, Hu and his colleagues completed their own analysis of data from studies used to form the new recommendations, and "calculated that a modest reduction in red meat consumption could hypothetically reduce mortality by 7.6% [at the US population level], or approximately 200,000 deaths a year", he says.

Their new guidance flies in the face of recommendations from health organisations including the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), which has told people to avoid processed meat altogether or eat very little of it, while limiting red meat to about three portions a week.

Johnston previously authored a study, also published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, that challenged the quality of the evidence behind the recommendations to limit sugar.

The team - which included 14 experts from seven countries - said their analysis offered the "most up-to-date evidence on the topic". Professor Andrew Salter, study author from the University of Nottingham's School of Biosciences, said, "With a high saturated fatty acid, content red and processed meat have been linked to heart disease, and other chronic diseases, particularly colon cancer".

"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", he said.

Mr Johnston said the team found no real benefit from cutting down below this level. The authors of these new studies judge the evidence to be weak, and the risks "very small".

"Our weak recommendation that people continue their current meat consumption highlights both the uncertainty associated with possible harmful effects and the very small magnitude of effect, even if the best estimates represent true causation, which we believe to be implausible", the panel of scientists conducting the study wrote.

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The new research runs counter to a 2015 World Health Organization evidence review, which concluded that processed meat is a proven carcinogen and red meat is a probable carcinogen, based on the evidence for colorectal cancer, McCullough said.

Current estimates indicate that adults in North America and Europe eat red meat and processed meat about three to four times a week, researchers said in background notes.

But the conclusions are not a go-ahead to eat as much bacon, cold cuts or hamburger as people wanted, one of the editorial co-authors cautioned. By contrast, most nutrition research is observational, since it's hard logistically and ethically to ask people to change their eating habits to the extent and length necessary for a randomized controlled trial.

"They're not saying meat is less risky", McCullough said.

As you can imagine, leading cancer and heart associations didn't warm to the new findings. However, experts from Harvard and Yale say these claims are irresponsible. Today, the more highly educated Americans are, the less red meat they eat, he noted.

Where does this leave us, the eaters who are trying to make good choices? The findings suggest thateven by bringing down the consumption of red meat by half, you can reduce the risk of developing heart diseases.

The reviews looked at "randomized control trials" - rigorous studies in which patients are randomly assigned to either a specific intervention, such as changing their weekly red meat intake, or a control group.

Cancer Research UK said about 5,400 of the 41,804 cases of bowel cancer seen each year in the UK could be prevented if people did not eat processed meat at all.