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Are red and processed meats bad for health? Maybe not say 23 scientists

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

If you've read anything about red and processed meat and the link to cancer you already know experts say we should limit our intake. But scientists say maybe studies suggesting red meat leads to cancer of the gut should have a second look.

Does red meat cause cancer or are studies skewed?

Dietary recommendations include limiting our intake of red and processed meat. But a recent paper published in the journal Meat Science highlights the uncertainty of studies that should be resolved. Specifically, scientists say we don't know that red and processed meat raises the risk of colorectal cancer.

The paper that included contributions from 23 scientists is the result of a workshop held in Oslo, Norway, November, 2013.

The scientists came together to take a closer look at red and processed meat and how they really might be contributing to colorectal cancer, food synergy, the studies themselves and how they were conducted and ways to make meat healthier.

The authors write: "There is a need for further studies on both the epidemiological relation between red meat and health and the underlying physiological mechanisms."

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For instance mice given a high protein diet that consists mainly of meat and no other cancer protective foods such as fiber, dairy or vegetables might not be comparable to what happens in humans.

The scientists say it's possible that other foods balance gut bacteria that protect from the effects of red meat that might (or might not) promote cancer.

That doesn't mean eating meat isn't dangerous and it still may pose a public health threat, the authors admit. But another consensus is that studies don't generally include how much meat people eat, when and and how much. Meat research related to cancer also relies on self-reporting that could skew results.

Possibilities raised about why meat might lead to cancer that should be explored include:

  • How people cook meat that produces advanced glycation. Burned and grilled meat is already associated with a higher risk of cancer.
  • Lack of knowledge about what's in our meat. For example, the authors note "breed/genetics, trimming, animal feed processing and choices, geographic feed origin, age at slaughtering" could be variables that should be studied relative to meat consumption's impact on human health.
  • Lack of information about some nutrients and environmental toxins in meat that could also have health implications

Maybe it isn't red meat that is the culprit for colorectal cancer. Adding phytochemicals to improve meat processing and eating healthier diets overall might be a better option for colon cancer prevention than just avoiding red and processed meats altogether, the scientists suggest in the report, published in the journal Science.

Eliminating red meat might be a mistake because it would deprive us of essential vitamins, the scientists add - not to mention people enjoy the taste.

The conclusion of the 23 scientists is that more studies are needed before nutritional guidelines for meat consumption change.