Recapping red meat’s role in a healthy diet

Fiona Greig, B+LNZ Inc's nutrition manager.
Fiona Greig

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)’s full monograph supporting its 2015 classifications of red meat and processed meat as carcinogens is expected out soon. This has prompted Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) Inc to recap the situation and evidence for New Zealanders, writes its head of nutrition Fiona Greig. 

In 2015, the IARC classified red meat as a Group 2a carcinogen and processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen based on existing evidence, not new research. The IARC is an agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO), whose role it is to assess cancer hazards based on reviewing the existing research.  Based on their assessment, they classify a substance or activity, which they term agents, into a classification group.

Infographic showing role of red meat in a healthy diet
B+LNZ Inc has produced a handy infographic to show the role of red meat in a healthy diet.

The classification system is not designed to specify the level of risk, therefore does not take into consideration real life circumstances or any benefits the agent provides, nor makes recommendations, but health agencies consider the IARC evaluations in interventions to reduce cancer risk.

As there was much confusion about the classification, particularly around processed meat being in the same category as smoking, the WHO released a statement after the announcement to clarify what it actually meant: that was, we do not need to stop eating meat, rather moderating consumption can reduce the risk of getting colorectal (bowel) cancer.

A theoretical risk for every 50g of processed meat and 100g red meat eaten was provided. This equated to an overall increase in risk of one percent if everyone ate that amount every day. In other words, based on average consumption taken from B+LNZ’s Economic Service working estimates of 12 kg beef, 4.8 kg lamb and 0.8 kg mutton per capita and the last national nutrition survey 10 years ago (which showed an average of 22g/day processed meat), New Zealanders would all need to be eating over twice that amount to be at any risk.

So, what does this mean when someone asks you about how much meat they should be eating? New Zealand’s Ministry of Health Eating and Activity Guidelines align with the World Cancer Research Fund, which indicates up to 500g cooked red meat (equivalent to 750g raw) per week as part of a healthy lifestyle and dietary pattern, that is, plenty of veges and whole-

grains, not smoking, moderating sun exposure and alcohol, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. Health authorities and the nutrition community recognise red meat contributes essential and well absorbed nutrients to the diet from conception to older adults. In essence, it’s not just about the meat, it’s the company it keeps.

B+LNZ will be producing resources to explain the above nearer the time of the monograph release, once they know that date. The recommendation will be that the general public seek individual dietary advice from their local dietitian or registered nutritionist and to seek more information on reducing cancer risk from the Cancer Society of New Zealand’s website.

This article appeared in Food NZ magazine (April/May 2018) and is reproduced here with permission.

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