How much red meat should we eat according to science?

Since, a little over a week ago, the Minister of Consumption of the Government of Spain, Alberto Garzón, presented the campaign “Less meat, more life”, the controversy regarding the consumption of meat has been the order of the day.

In this short period of time, the different estates Those involved in the controversy –producers, consumers and even politicians– have made clear their opinion regarding the suitability of consuming meat. The arguments that each one has used to defend their position have been based on different factors, starting with health and ending with environmental impact. But what does the scientific evidence say about it?

Meat consumption and health

From the point of nutritional view, there is no doubt that meat is a very interesting food. Among other things because it is a source of protein of high biological value, of vitamins of group B and it is especially rich in iron (especially red meat). It also provides fat, mainly saturated in ruminant meat, and with a higher degree of unsaturation in the case of pork.

The contribution of these nutrients may vary depending on the breed or age of the animal from which the meat comes, as well as the diet it has received.

According to the Mediterranean Diet, it should be noted that the recommendation for meat consumption is moderate for white meat (chicken) and infrequent for red meat (larger beef, game and organ meats)

These nutritional characteristics mean that meat is included in eating patterns considered healthy, such as Mediterranean diet. In fact, the “presence” of meat within the Mediterranean Diet is one of the arguments that has been used the most to defend its consumption.

However, and put to deepen what is the Mediterranean diet, it should be noted that the recommendation for meat consumption is moderate for the white (chicken) and infrequent for the red (beef, game and organ meats).

Not only that: Harvard Medical School recommends that when meat (especially red) is consumed, it be done in small portions (85 to 115 g) and accompanied by abundant vegetables. In the case of processed meat (sausages, salted meat and patés), its consumption is not even recommended.

It is recommended that when meat (especially red) is consumed, it be done in small portions (85 to 115 g) and accompanied by abundant vegetables

As for the main reasons for advising to reduce the consumption of meat, especially red meat, its potential stands out carcinogenic. Thus, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published an article in 2015 in the journal Lancet Oncology where red meat was classified in category 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans).

In this report, the scientific evidence published up to that date (more than 800 epidemiological studies) was analyzed. Numerous studies highlighted a relationship between the consumption of meat and colon cancer risk.

On the other hand, it should be remembered that the consumption of meat is also related to the risk of suffering from diseases cardiovascular. A recent study carried out in the United States with a cohort of almost 30,000 people indicates that higher consumption of unprocessed red meat and processed meat significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular incidents.

Recommendations and current consumption

The worrying thing about the matter is that, according to the latest consumption report published by the government of Spain, the per capita consumption of meat has increased by 10.5% in the last year, being 36.2 kg of fresh meat per year per person.

This supposes a consumption per person of around 700 g of meat per week, an amount that is above the recommendations of the Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition (AESAN). Namely: 200-500 g of meat a week, preferably white (chicken or rabbit).

Regarding the consumption of red meat, the same Agency recommends that its consumption does not exceed 2 servings (200-250 g) per week.

In view of these data, it is evident that currently the consumption of meat in Spain exceeds what for science would be a recommended consumption.

The “overcooked” meat problem

Beyond the amount of meat that is consumed, the way in which we prepare said food (“recipe” and type of culinary technique used) is also a factor to take into account.

In general, it can be said that the very high temperature application over long periods of time favors the generation of toxic compounds with potential carcinogenicity, such as heterocyclic amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (mainly during grilling) or even acrylamide (especially if the meat is battered or breaded).

In order to reduce the intake of these compounds, it would be advisable to avoid a excessive consumption of fried or grilled meat. Or at least, adequately control the process variables that influence the generation of said substances that are harmful to health.

It would be advisable to avoid excessive consumption of fried or grilled meat

Finally, we must not forget the environmental impact of the production of animal protein due to the production and emission of greenhouse gases and the high consumption of water that it entails. Therefore, it would be necessary to also include these aspects when discussing meat consumption in order to address this issue holistically.

Although up to now the arguments on which the recommendation to moderate meat consumption is based have been presented, it is also important to take into account the economic dimension of this productive sector and its impact on the gross domestic product.

So, what to do?

The controversy generated by the aforementioned campaign, aimed at reducing meat consumption, makes it clear that this is an issue unpopular in Spain.

However, no one can escape that given the implications that the consumption of meat can have on health and the planet, control / moderate their consumption it is something we must do sooner rather than later. For this, it will be essential to have all the parties involved, in order to make decisions that are the most beneficial for all.

That in other countries measures have already been taken in this regard shows that it is not a “mission impossible.”

Iñaki Milton Laskibar. Postdoctoral Researcher at Cardiometabolic Nutrition Group, IMDEA Food. Researcher at the Center for Biomedical Research Network on the Physiopathology of Obesity and Nutrition (CiberObn), University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

Maria Puy Portillo. Professor of Nutrition. Center for Biomedical Research Network on the Physiopathology of Obesity and Nutrition (CIBERobn), University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea. Originally published on THE CONVERSATION