Have red meat studies gone too far?

Posted: 4 October 2019 | | No comments yet

Dr Sylvain Charlebois, from Dalhousie University, discusses how, with so many studies about the health impacts of red meat consumption, it is difficult for the consumer to make the right choice.

red meat in tube

For a few years now, we have been force fed the notion that red meat and processed meat products threaten our health. In 2015, The World Health Organization (WHO) went as far as to say that processed meats were carcinogenic, adding them to the same category as asbestos.

That is when everything went sideways for animal proteins. Since then, the collective conventional wisdom on proteins has suggested that we go plant-based, as far as possible. Canada’s Food Guide, released earlier this year, was the exclamation mark the plant-based movement had been looking for.

But the current protein war between the livestock industry and plant-based supporters has taken an interesting twist. A group of 14 scholars has published a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, one of the most cited journals in the world, which suggests that the consequences of eating meat vary from person to person. The report stated that health effects of red meat consumption are detectable only in the largest groups, and advice to individuals to cut back may not be justified by the available data. In other words, the group claims that the findings of many studies may have been generalised and, to some extent, scientifically alarmist.

This meta-analysis looked at 54 different studies with high methodological standards, published over a period of about 20 years. The disclosure section where conflicts of interest are listed takes up almost half of the report and the journal editors knew the findings were going to be controversial. 

But if the report is controversial, it is only because many of us have been led to believe that red meat should be avoided at all costs. Time and time again, we were reminded that red meat, and worse, processed meats, were evil and that we should be ashamed to eat them. Proteins were on everyone’s mind and everyone had an opinion, whether based on facts or not.

Regardless, like any other study, this report should be taken with a pinch of salt. There is no such thing as a perfect study, as scientific research is not absolute. It is a journey of discoveries with the intent to better our society by helping us make better choices as individuals and in business and government. This latest installment on the consumption of proteins only adds to the breadth of knowledge we now have on the subject. At the same time, the study’s judgement-free stance on scientific findings is refreshing, as it did not attempt to condemn alternative choices. The group clearly does not want the report to become a weapon. This is perhaps the reason that they did not discuss either environmental or ethical aspects of meat consumption, which carry their own share of confusion and controversies. 

When it comes to food research, we should remind ourselves that there is no right or wrong, but the overpowering plant-based narrative has got all of us thinking that way. Some diets are more desirable than others health-wise, but the way we assess risks related to food, should be individualised, as the report pointed out.

Many health professionals contributing to this talking-down message forgot that we are all individuals, with a past, a future, and our own dietary biases. Choices around food are intrinsically human, and as we look to science to address some of the ambiguities. The study by the group of scholars reminds us that generalisations are dangerously limiting in terms of giving choices to consumers.

The “protein war” is not about how much meat we should eat, but more about how scientific findings on the subject should be interpreted. It is a mess, created by academic factions with the agenda of curing the world of its dietary ills. Many are to blame for this one-sided dialogue, but academia, most of all.

Some scholars almost see this protein issue as a cause which often makes them blind and unreceptive to opposite views. Panels on university campuses are often dull, idealistic and predictable. Scholars tend to state what we want to hear, not going beyond what we know, or should know. Academic research in agrifood lost its way when it stopped valuing protein plurality, and media went along for the ride and provided us with a picture of what science had. Science is not a buffet where anyone can pick and choose what is preferred. In the end, consumers are the real victims, as such information generates more confusion than anything else. The public deserves better. 

About the Author

Dr Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculties of Management and Agriculture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. He is also the Senior Director of the Agri-food Analytics Lab, also located at Dalhousie University. His current research interest lies in the areas of food distribution, security and safety.