Red Meat: Red Flag or Red Herring?

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We’ve been told for decades that red meat is bad for us but why, and has anything changed since then? And what about all those healthy alternatives we switched to? What’s the real story?

Main Points

  • ‘Red’ meat covers quite a few, including ‘the other white meat’;
  • Studies on harm from food are observational; they can show association but not prove causation;
  • Farming practices of white meat and fish have rendered these foods unhealthy;
  • Even plant-based foods are not assured of being healthy these days;
  • The harm from food has more to do with what’s done to it, than where it comes from.

(If you love variety in your food, say red and white meat, fish, vegies and maybe a glass of wine, check out the healthy way to eat, to lose weight and fight chronic diseases in our anti-diet for boomers: MMM! Lose Weight The Food Lover’s Way.)

What Is Red Meat & What’s The Risk?

What is red meat?

It includes beef, veal, lamb, mutton, venison, goat, kangaroo and pork. Yes, pork, the red meat that became ‘the other white meat’ when red meat was put under the microscope. It was pretty convincing at the time, but now we know it was just clever marketing.

As a result, we saw a stampede from beef to poultry, and to pork. The Skeptical Cardiologist tells us that ‘In the last 30 years US and worldwide poultry consumption has tripled.’

What is the risk of red meat?

The NCI (National Cancer Institute in the USA) sums it up thus: …’more research is needed to understand how red meat and processed meats influence cancer risk. The increased risk may be explained by the iron and fat content in red meat, and/or the salt and nitrates/nitrites in processed meats.’

Cancer Research UK is initially more absolute, ‘Red meat is classed as a probable cause of cancer,’ but goes on to say: ‘This means there is lots of good evidence of a link, but we need a few more of the best quality studies to be certain.’    

…’more research is needed to understand how red meat and processed meats influence cancer risk. The increased risk may be explained by the iron and fat content in red meat, and/or the salt and nitrates/nitrites in processed meats.

National Cancer Institute (USA)

This is because all studies of the red meat-cancer link are observational, that is, they can detect association not but not prove causation. There are also nutrients in red meat like protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, that are hard to find in similar concentrations elsewhere, so eating ‘unprocessed’ red meat does have benefit.

Conversely, there’s much evidence of harm from the chemicals and methods used to process meat into salami, sausages and hamburgers. Maybe the answer is, as the Cancer Council says, to eat less red meat, eat the least processed meat and cook it minimally, rather than cutting it out altogether. (That’s what Tracey and I have done; see below.)

Killing The Goose

After 30 years of examining sheep entrails, there isn’t a clear decision about red meat other than ‘don’t eat too much of it’. As in most things, maybe it comes down to moderation.

Red meat - red flag or red herring - broiler chickens

On the other hand, we know that 80% of chickens are grown in cages, in some in the worst conditions you can imagine.

Their beaks are clipped, their legs are stunted, they’re fed growth accelerators and antibiotics, and they’re raised in cages too small to fit an A4 page lying flat. The headline of the article sums it up: ‘If consumers knew how farmed chickens were raised, they might never eat their meat again.’ What about the nutritional quality of the meat, I say.

This is how broiler (non-laying) chickens are raised, the article says: ‘By day nine, the broiler’s legs can barely keep its oversized breast off the ground. By day 11, it is puffed up to double the size of its (egg-laying) cousin. It looks like an obese nine-year-old standing on the legs of a five-year-old. By day 35 it looks more like a weightlifter on steroids and dwarfs the egg-laying hen.’ Broiler chickens live to 38 days before being slaughtered.

If consumers knew how farmed chickens were raised, they might never eat their meat again.

The Guardian

Turkey farming is just as bad. The bird taking pride of place at many a Christmas dinner table bears no resemblance to its wild American original. That bird can fly, at speeds up to 80 kilometres an hour. Farmed turkeys are nothing like that; they’re twice the weight with such abnormally-sized breasts, they can’t fly, they can’t mate and they can hardly walk.

Pigs are raised in cages and overcrowded concrete pens. They’re treated much the same as battery chickens. You can buy ‘free range’ pork at supermarkets but I wonder if it’s as free range as the chickens and eggs they sell from major national producers.

By comparison, beef production is less concentrated, at least for most of a beast’s life. The MLA (Meat & Livestock Association) says that nearly half of all beef cattle goes through feedlots, where they’re fed grain for their last 35-120 days, to increase their weight and meat uniformity. At any one time, 5% of the national herd is in one feedlot or another.

Red meat - red flag or red herring - cattle feedlot

Although the period is relatively short, there is potential harm: taking cattle from open paddocks eating grass into crowded feedlots eating grain can cause Bovine Respiratory Disease, acidosis and heat stress, says the RSPCA.

I guess that means that the cattle ranging over tropical North Australia are likely the healthiest, but many of them end up being exported live to foreign countries with questionable slaughtering practices. It’s hard to know which beasts are better off.

By day nine, the broiler’s legs can barely keep its oversized breast off the ground. By day 11, it is puffed up to double the size of its cousin.

The Guardian

In Australia, the healthiest choice meat might end up being lamb, because most sheep are grazed on pasture, with only a small proportion (10%) finished in feedlots. (That figure is quite old but there is no recent figure for lamb feedlot numbers.)

In feedlots though, losses are higher for sheep (than for cattle) due to their nervous temperament, and they end up up with the same illnesses as cattle when moved from large to small enclosures. Apart from lower feedlot rates, another key benefit of lamb is its fat: there’s more of it and it contains healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

The other healthy choices are likely farmed venison, goat or kangaroo. Being produced at boutique scale, their owners might still care about their animals, as do many producers of truly free range chickens and egg-laying hens.

Poisoning the Oceans

Many of us jumped up with joy when farmed salmon became available.

Apart from getting away from red or white meat, salmon is one of the oily fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, so our health experts urged us to eat lots of it and we did.

Salmon farming made that possible, transforming a rare, expensive treat into a weekly supermarket purchase. No wonder we grabbed it with both hands. (Tracey and me included; it was a weekly ritual we absolutely loved). Sadly, these days we know that farmed salmon are ‘the battery hens of the ocean’ due to the industrial, crowded, waste-ridden practices used to produce them. More details in this article, this one. and this one.

Red meat - red flag or red herring - salmon farm

Tasmania’s toxic secret offers the most detailed insights on what author Richard Flanagan, calls ‘The rotting underbelly of the salmon industry.’ He goes on: ‘Grown in “gigantic floating feedlots”, the fish are condemned to circulate in “a soup of shit and ammonia”, fed pellets that include “synthetic dye”,  antibiotics and “the macerated remains of battery hen beaks, skulls, claws, guts and feathers once destined for abattoir waste streams”.

..the fish are condemned to circulate in “a soup of shit and ammonia”, fed pellets that include “synthetic dye”,  antibiotics and “the macerated remains of battery hen beaks, skulls, claws, guts and feathers

The Monthly

It seems that no animal-based foods are free from interference; some of them have been rendered positively toxic. I scratch my head and ask, why are the big questions not being asked, let alone answered?

  1. What difference does it make if we eat red meat or white meat or seafood, if most of it is produced from unhealthy, high-intensity, industrial practices?
  2. Why are governments doing nothing to stop our food chain being turned into this toxic cauldron?

Are Plant-based Foods The Answer?

Yes, when they’re fresh and minimally-processed. No, if they’re processed into meat look-alikes, made by the same processing of unhealthy ingredients as fast food.

Those consuming a greater proportion of processed forms of plant-based foods are unlikely to benefit from the health benefits attributed to non-processed plant-based foods.

LiveKindly

The horror stories that are red and white meat and seafood production have caused many to switch to vegetarian and vegan options, believing they’re healthier. Food manufacturers have caught this trend, but even vegan sites say: ‘Processed plant-based meat isn’t the healthiest food out there, but it is a healthier alternative to animal meat. Vegan meat provides a way for people to enjoy the flavors they love while sidestepping some of the disease risks’.

Another study found: ‘vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians consumed greater quantities of both healthy and unhealthy plant-based products… Those consuming a greater proportion of processed forms of plant-based foods are unlikely to benefit from the health benefits attributed to non-processed plant-based foods’. In other words, the processing knocks out most of the perceived benefits of not eating meat.

So, subjecting healthy plant-based ingredients to industrial scale processing is likely to reduce or even eliminate, the health benefit. I shake my head and wonder: is no food source immune to this approach?

What difference does it make what we choose if most of it is industrially processed?

Why are governments doing nothing about this?

Kim Brebach; questions I’d like answered.

A Bit of Balance?

When I moved to Australia in 1966, I lived in the Northern Territory on a buffalo farm. Red meat was the only fare, three times a day. Tracey ate slabs of red meat, too. Her excuse was her parents owned a beef cattle property.

Over the years, we both moved away from red meat, but didn’t cut it out or go down the vegan or vegetarian path. Over 20 years, we’ve mixed up our protein sources to balance flavour, variety and nutrition.

These days, our way of eating is mostly pescetarian (vegetarian plus seafood) with less frequent servings of (free-range) poultry and pork or (grass-fed) lamb and beef. The way we eat has always been about flavour and enjoyment. The unexpected spinoffs were weight loss (we each lost and kept off roughly 10 kilos) and prevention or control of chronic illness (in my case, psoriasis; read the story here).

How we eat is based on the healthy Mediterranean diet with some extras for satiety, variety and gut health. It also includes scrumptious gourmet food, which is why I call it the ‘MMM! Anti-diet‘. Another clue is that it includes a glass of red wine, full of healthy flavonoids and polyphenols and resveratrol.

Click below to find out more.

Lose Weight

MMM! LOSE WEIGHT THE FOOD LOVER’S WAY

Discover The Muscles & Marbles Mediterranean Anti-diet

Kim Brebach

Kim Brebach

Hi, I’m Kim Brebach, boomer, information researcher, technical writer and Joiner of Dots at M&M. In my spare time, I review wines and love to cook.

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