Once again a new study focusing on meat and health has hit the media headlines in the last week. Processed meat was linked to a risk of early death from cancer and heart disease in a University of Zurich epidemiological study. However, the headlines have outweighed the evidence yet again, says nutritionist Fiona Carruthers.
Processed meat and cancer are inextricably linked in many people’s minds nowadays, based on a belief resulting from repetition rather than truth. For those of us involved in the meat industry, this ongoing myth is the source of much frustration.
This latest study is one of the many published as part of a large, on-going investigation into cancer and nutrition in countries across Europe. Epidemiology studies, such as this, examine the pattern of disease, the effects of exposures (such as meat) on outcomes (for example, cancer) and determining the presence and extent of associations between the two. The effect of dietary factors on health outcomes is often studied this way but fraught with difficulties due to the complex nature of our diet, making it almost impossible to tease out the effects of just one food.
In summary, all the current studies investigating links between red and processed meat and health outcomes, such as cancer, fail to show any convincing link. Results are continually over-stated, and the reporting of this latest study is no exception. No single study should be considered in isolation – it’s just one more piece in the jigsaw. In fact, if anything, results from large population group studies, such as this European investigation, show any ‘apparent’ risk between red meat and cancer to be lessening over time.
The evidence continues to show obesity as the greatest risk factor for a number of the most common cancers and health outcomes. So, as boring as it may sound to those looking for a striking headline, maintaining a healthy body weight and staying physically active are still the key factors in cancer prevention and promotion of optimum health.
So we can stand firm; red and processed meat remains a valid and important contributor to a healthy, balanced diet for all New Zealanders.
Nutritionist Fiona Carruthers is current chair of the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation. She is also nutrition manager for Beef + Lamb NZ Inc.