Red meat study — perhaps the news isn’t really that bad

Food diary A red meat lover finds that when she does the numbers, she’s not eating enough to worry about

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Many readers have probably heard of the study recently released by Harvard School for Public Health, warning of the increased mortality risk associated with red meat. I can just imagine packers cringing as they heard the news, retail buyers adjusting their sales projections, and the feeders starting to sweat as they recalled the high prices they paid for their stock this fall.

Honestly, I didn’t want the study to be true. But we don’t always get what we want and the study seems solid. It was conducted over a long period with a very large sample size — more than 120,000 people for more than 20 years. I even talked to the department head at Harvard to ensure I understood how risk factors like smoking and obesity were removed from the results.

The participants in the study all worked in the health-care field, which would have provided a common ground with respect to education and access to health care. None had a pre-existing cardiac or cancer condition. The study determined that one daily serving of unprocessed red meat — which is only 84 grams, or almost three ounces — was associated with a 13 per cent increased mortality risk. The risk ballooned to 20 per cent with one daily serving of processed red meat.

The researchers were even able to divide the increased mortality risk by type — 18 per cent with unprocessed red meat and 21 per cent with processed for cardiovascular mortality, and 10 per cent and 16 per cent for cancer mortality.

The study had concluded that reducing red meat consumption to less than a half-serving daily (which is 1.5 ounces or 42 grams) would have prevented 9.3 per cent of the deaths in the study’s men and 7.6 per cent of the female mortalities.

I was disheartened to read all this, it just so happens that I spent my last two weekends making sausage and beef jerky, and I have a quarter of beef in my freezer. I like red meat and I adore beef — especially when it’s tender and rare. In fact, I’ll even use it as a method of judging someone’s character. I absolutely wouldn’t go on a second date with a suitor who ordered his steak cooked anything beyond medium rare. I’d rather have a salad than an overcooked steak.

So, I was a little bit frightened by the results. Because I work from home, I couldn’t even run to the desk of a co-worker to express my anxiety. Thankfully, I have a great dog, and after a frank discussion with him, we decided to figure out how much red meat we really eat around here.

I’ve become quite health conscious — we rarely eat out, I cook almost everything from whole ingredients, and I drink water and red wine almost exclusively. (Not together, of course.) For the last two months or so, I’ve even kept a precise food diary and when I analyzed it, the results were surprising. I’ve been consuming an average of 58 grams of red meat per day, or .69 of a three-ounce serving. Perhaps I’m not going to die so soon after all.

If a red meat fan such as myself was already very close to the ideal intake, then surely, this study would have very little impact on consumers, right?

That’s hard to call. Most people don’t keep food diaries, and like me, they might automatically assume they are eating too much without actually crunching the numbers. Furthermore, people who would take the study seriously are likely somewhat health conscious, and have probably been making an effort to buy the lean cuts, as well as the more expensive cuts, such as pork tenderloin and AAA roasts and steaks. As an industry, we cannot afford to lose those consumers, especially in light of record-high pricing.

McDonald’s buys an incredible amount of Alberta beef. Right now, Wendy’s is promoting its Baconator, which boasts a staggering number of fat grams and calories. I wouldn’t touch that stuff with a cattle prod, and it’s hard to believe that the mortality rates between someone whose red meat comes from a drive-through window wouldn’t be drastically higher than someone who prepares lean cuts at home.

Now, I can come out and say that, but imagine for a moment how divisive it would be for Alberta Beef Producers to say the exact same thing. From a strategic standpoint, it is almost impossible to directly counter-market against the fallout from this study without pitting the industry against itself, or creating a credibility gap with consumers.

It is said that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Perhaps the industry shouldn’t try and spin this one at all.

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