A 14-member research team from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Brazil, New Zealand and Korea say there is insufficient scientific evidence for consumers to reduce consumption of red and processed meats for health reasons. Their findings were published online Oct. 1 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
In analyzing 12 clinical trials involving approximately 54,000 people, the researchers didn't identify any statistically significant or important association between meat consumption and the risk of heart disease, diabetes or cancer, HealthDay reported. However, the team only looked at health concerns and didn't consider ethical or environmental reasons for not consuming meat.
Some public health researchers took strong exception to the findings and tried to keep them from being published, according to the Associated Press. A group of scientists at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health posted a critique of the findings and listed numerous problems they saw with the methodology used and conclusions reached.
It's hard to know how much stock to put in the international team's findings about red meat consumption, especially given that public health groups and experts tried to stop or delay their publication. The Harvard scientists then tried to counter the findings by saying they're inconsistent with the principle of "first do no harm." They're "irresponsible and unethical," they said, because the result promotes meat consumption, and the team didn't consider the environmental impacts of their dietary recommendations.
Although a majority of the team members found slim scientific evidence to recommend cutting back on meat consumption, they noted a small but "very uncertain" health risk reduction for those consuming three fewer servings per week, the AP said. While they said average per capita consumption is two to four servings weekly in North America and Western Europe, the evidence for reducing that amount wasn't compelling.
According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures cited by The New York Times, the average U.S. consumer eats approximately 4.5 servings of red meat each week, but 10% of the population has at least two servings daily. The team's findings could give those eating the average or much higher amounts of red meat and processed meats more confidence in their dietary choices.
However, the American Cancer Society continues to warn the public of health problems connected with red meat consumption. Marjorie McCullough, the group's senior scientific director, told The Times the international team's analysis "found the same risk from red and processed meat as other experts have."
In spite of the continuing dispute, U.S. consumers continue to eat plenty of red meat and poultry. In 2018, per capita consumption was projected to reach a record 222.2 pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That equals nearly twice as much protein as is recommended for a healthy diet.
Consumers claim they want to eat healthier and are becoming more environmentally conscious, but their feelings don't seem to be strong enough to make them willing to give up or significantly curtail their meat consumption. As long as that's the case, the meat industry has little to worry about, no matter what conflicting studies may say.
The same can't be said for consumers, though. The ongoing debate leaves them with little certainty about the most healthful way to proceed. Is red meat consumption safe or not? Should they continue to believe public health warnings, or follow recommendations saying those warnings are overstated? As long as study findings keep canceling each other out, any answers to those questions will be elusive at best.