Meat is bad for you. Wait, it’s OK

Contrary to decades of work, researchers from Dalhousie and McMaster Universities recently found that red meat, including bacon, is not harmful. It wasn’t a new study but rather a “study of studies,” a meta-analysis of existing studies.

image: Foreman Grill Recipes

It was a perfectly flawed study. Perfect because it offered a veneer of the scientific method; flawed because of what it didn’t include.

It didn’t include studies that found the opposite of their conclusion. Those well-researched studies found a link between meat consumption and coronary heart disease, heart attack, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular death and all-cause mortality. That’s quite an exclusion.

As well, the researcher’s conclusions were contrary to those of the World Health Organization, the Canadian Cancer Society, the American Institute for Cancer Research, and the American Heart Association. Their findings also diverged from Canada’s new Food Guide which suggests eating less animal protein.

Why did the researchers not include studies that concluded the opposite of their report? They weren’t funded by the cattle or pork industry. The reason that they didn’t include the studies was technical. The self-selected 14 member panel decided that these findings were not of sufficient quality.

What they did include is suspect. For example, they included one trial that dominated their analysis; a trial involved almost 49,000 women. But that trial was designed to examine dietary fat intake, not meat intake says nutritionist Leslie Beck (Globe and Mail, October 2, 2019).  It seems to me that a study purporting to investigate the relationship between meat consumption and health shouldn’t include fat consumption.

And the researcher’s findings were flawed in another way. They did not distinguish between the consumption of red meat and processed meat, despite evidence that processed meat such as bacon is more harmful.

It’s not surprising that their study should come to the conclusion that it did. Obviously, what’s included will determine the outcome.

The researchers at Dalhousie and McMaster Universities were exhaustive in a peculiar way. They were exhaustive in the number of findings: they conducted not just one review but five.

Three of the reviews analyzed more than 100 observational studies involving more than six million participants. These types of studies link associations between consumption and health by following people for decades to see if participants who became ill or died.

Another of the five reviews analyzed randomized controlled trials, studies that show cause and effect of eating more or less red meat.

The researchers were thorough enough to appear scientific but blind in excluding accepted knowledge. They couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

The authors acknowledged their lack of confidence in their data. They conceded that their recommendation was weak but judging by the headlines they received, you wouldn’t know it.

Finally, studies on groups of people don’t necessarily predict outcomes for individuals. Leslie Beck says:

“A large body of evidence suggests that a high intake of red and processed meat increases the risk of ill health. I acknowledge that the risk on an individual level may be small, and that it’s your overall diet that matters most when it comes to health, not one food.”

Big Food vs. Canada’s Food Guide

The interests of the food industry don’t always coincide with healthy eating. What’s at stake is Canada’s new Food Guide. It’s a big deal.

image: Globe and Mail

Canada’s Food Guide is widely respected. Seventy-five years after its first launch, it’s the second most requested government document after income-tax forms. It’s distributed to dieticians and doctors for patient advice and to schools and hospitals for creating meal plans. The new guide will be around for a long time, so it’s important to get it right.

Understandably, big food lobbies want the new guide to endorse their products. Even intergovernmental departments disagree on what should be recommended. One agency, Health Canada, wants the new food guide to “shift towards more plant-based foods,” less red meats, and to limit “some meats and many cheeses” high in saturated fats.

Another agency, Agri-food Canada, disagrees. They are in the business of promoting the sale of red meat and dairy industries. Last year, AAFC officials wrote a memo marked “secret” in which they worried:

“Messages that encourage a shift toward plant-based sources of protein would have negative implications for the meat and dairy industries.”

The pressure on Health Canada comes from other food manufacturers as well. Recently, the “Canadian Juice Council” surfaced. Nutritionists had never heard of them before their bright orange booth appeared at the annual conference of the Canadian Nutrition Society. Nutritional biochemist Dylan MacKay said: “I’d never seen or heard of them before and I’ve been going to CNS conferences for years (Globe and Mail, November 23, 2018).”

The origin of the Canadian Juice Council was obscure despite the presence of a web page and a Twitter account (with 2 followers). Food reporter Ann Hui isn’t surprised at the obscurity:

“And no wonder. The Juice Council doesn’t exist in the way you might expect: as an institution disseminating impartial facts and information about juice. Rather, it was created by the lobbying arm of the beverage industry – in a practice known as ‘astroturfing,’ used by lobbyists in all kinds of industries to create the appearance of a grassroots movement and a larger chorus of voices than actually exists.”

Ann Hui found that the Canadian Juice Council was an invention the Canadian Beverage Association whose members include Canada Dry Mott’s, Coca Cola Canada, and PepsiCo Canada. The industry supports 60,000 Canadians workers, 20,000 of those directly.

The Canadian Beverage Association is worried about changes in the Canada Food Guide that would remove the equivalency of whole fruit to juice. The old guide says that a half-cup of juice is a substitute for one portion of fruit.

The new guide, to be released soon, will advise Canadians to avoid drinks high in sugar. One 12-ounce bottle of orange juice contains about the same amount of sugar as 12 ounces of Coke – more sugar than the World Health Organization recommends for the average adult in a single day. Excess sugar consumption is linked with heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The government is in a hard spot –do they support an industry that employs thousands of workers in the making of an unhealthy product or the health of Canadians who consume it?