Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Processed meat study – looking at the bigger picture

Our industry is no stranger to defending itself against research and claims that eating red meat and processed meat products can have a detrimental effect on peoples’ health.

The issue has recently hit the headlines again following the publication of an EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study linking processed meat consumption to cancer and heart disease deaths.

Inevitably the study, with the objective of examining the the association of red meat, processed meat, and poultry consumption with the risk of early death, attracted a lot of media attention.

However, there are as ever two sides to every story and as Meat Advisory Panel (MAP) dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton pointed out, there are two issues with the report. Namely, whether the EPIC survey really tells us anything new about diet and mortality, and identifying the healthiest way to eat red meat.

The EPIC survey reported the highest consumers of processed meat tended to smoke, drink large amounts of alcohol and had the lowest intakes of fruits and vegetables. While the researchers attempted to correct for this statistically, it is not possible to completely separate out the risks from these behaviours, prompting concerns about the usefulness of the survey for giving advice about diet and mortality.

Ms Ruxton added it is also vital to note this was an epidemiological population-based study from which it is difficult to tease out a cause and effect, and the study population is not entirely representative of the general populations in these countries.

It’s easy to focus on the negatives which arguably make for headlines with greater impact. What we shouldn’t lose sight of, however, is that eaten in moderation lean red meat is rich in nutrients, such as iron, B vitamins, vitamin D, zinc and selenium and forms an important part of a healthy, balanced diet, as advocated by the Government’s eatwell plate.

Ultimately the government advises that up to 500g of cooked red meat per week (around 70g per day) can be eaten as part of a balanced diet. This level of meat consumption, which includes processed meat, is consistent with health policies and is believed to deliver adequate amounts of iron. And with average consumption in the UK around this level or below, most people in the UK are eating red meat within recommended levels and don’t need to change their meat-eating habits.