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Balance and brainpower

Few gatherings of the meat industry take place these days without some reference to an ‘anti-meat industry’ bias in the media.

Is this evidence of a state of acute paranoia or do we have a reasoned case to make?

Even an impartial observer might recently have tended to a view that, if eating meat is not responsible for every conceivable human ailment, then at least our overly carnivorous ways will soon spell the end of the planet as we know it.

Last October, the publication of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluation of the ‘carcinogenicity’ of red and processed meat lead to a tsunami of media headlines such as the 'Banger out of order' front page of the Sun talking about “the killer in the kitchen”.

In the weeks after the launch of the report, the Daily Mail alerted us to three further pieces of academic research which appeared to endorse the IARC view. An Oxford University study linked moderate meat consumption to a higher risk of bowel cancer. A report from the University of Texas said that the the risk of kidney cancer was doubled with consumption of fried, grilled or barbecued meat. And the University of Wurzburg suggested that meat consumption was linked to a higher risk of strokes.

More recently we learned from the University of Glasgow that meat consumption is linked to premature ageing and the Mayo Clinic in Arizona told us that a carnivorous lifestyle leads to an increase in mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The headlines make grim reading, but let’s take some comfort from the the fact that the views of the Meat Advisory Panel are now being more frequently heard, often challenging headlines which are presented as irrefutable evidence that there is a causal link between eating meat and cancer and other diseases, and that meat consumption is, by definition, unhealthy. In many surveys, the data on how lifestyles are documented is poor and the conclusions often fail to account for many other lifestyle factors, such as levels of alcohol consumption, smoking and general lack of exercise. The considered view of the majority of dieticians remains that moderate consumption of meat, within a healthy lifestyle, provides a valuable source of essential nutrients.

We may still be a long way off from shrieking headlines proclaiming the valuable nutritional contribution of meat, but we must continue to strive to bring context and balance to a highly complex debate, which can easily be distorted by some of the racier headlines we’ve recently witnessed. Indeed, in the wake of the IARC report, a number of commentators queried the validity and usefulness of their research, which placed bacon and sausages in a category alongside asbestos, plutonium et alia.

And, lastly, a cheering thought….

Nature magazine recently published research from Harvard University, suggesting that in Paleolithic times our ancestors started using stone tools to cut up their foraged meat. This enabled them to digest meat more efficiently and this may ultimately have been a vital factor in the brain development of early Homo Sapiens…. not only that, but the Daily Express saw fit to run an article on the Harvard study.

22nd April 2016