THE BLOG

Baloney Science On The Perils Of Meat

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

More bad news for red and processed meat. Linked to cancer again! Call in the Department of Homeland security and the nation’s top scientists.

Meat has a terrible reputation already, so why not pile on?

But the recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology Nov 1,
which found “associated risks” for prostate cancer with red and
processed meat, is stretching for a headline rather than for some truth
we can sink our teeth into.

Challenge Medical Research

To debunk the study, I turned to Dr. David H. Newman, author of
Hippocrates’ Shadow: Secrets from the House of Medicine.”
Dr. Newman breaks down complex medical concepts, treatments and research
into simple terms that any of us can understand.  His book is a
page-turner that challenges much of the medical research that is so
hyped by the media and medical profession.

Dr. Newman writes about this "terrifying" study:

“Like the ‘moderate alcohol intake and cancer in women’ study, the
researchers use huge numbers of subjects to find statistically apparent
‘associations’ that are, in fact, miniscule. Truly, laughably small: A
relative risk of 1.12 for meat-eaters developing prostate cancer and
1.31 for advanced prostate cancer when compared to non-meat eaters.

This means that the chance of advanced prostate cancer in non-meat
eaters in this study was 1 in 159, and the chance in meat eaters jumps
all the way up to… 1.3 in 159. The reference risk for non-meat eaters
would be 1.0, so this is a 12% and a 31% increased risk, respectively —
which sounds much more impressive when said this way.”

For those of you who like charts:

Prostate cancer and beef consumption

Dr. Newman continues:

“Much more importantly, note that these are associations, and they
do not even hint at causation. Causal relationships typically exhibit 
risks that are 10 to 20 times the baseline risk or higher. These risks
are 1.1 and 1.3 times the baseline risk.”

I had to check my dictionary. “Causal” means the cause of something.
You know like fundamental. Like smoking causes lung cancer. Not as in
“is associated with” but “causes” cancer.

“1.12 and 1.3 are such small associations,” Newman goes on to say,
“that they virtually prove that there can be no important or causal
relationship between meat and prostate cancer. I find this study
reassuring in that regard.”

“I realize that they try to make it sound important and scary, the
opposite of reassuring. But if meat causes any important problems
related to cancer (which is always possible), this study didn’t find
them.”

Dr. Newman focused on the numbers. I find humor, too, in how researchers stack the deck.

The lightest meat eaters were also least likely to smoke, most
likely to work out 5x per week, and had the lowest rate of diabetes.
The heaviest meat eaters were also the least educated, had the highest
body mass index, and the lowest rate of PSA testing in the past three
years.

But even with all that going against the red meat eaters (who may be
tucking into Jimmy Dean Flapsticks sausage and pancakes on a stick as
you read this post) they had only marginally higher chance of
developing prostate cancer.

I find this reassuring because the grass-fed beef farmers I have met
and respect through Friend of the Farmer may find their livelihoods on the line if even a small
percentage of their customers move away from their beef to, say,
tilapia.

There is no perfect diet for humans. People can live on everything
from the Inuit’s high-protein, high-fat diet to low-protein, high-carb
diets in Southern Africa. As we’re learning, what you eat probably
matters less than how much processing it’s been through or, in the case
of meat, how the animal has been fed.

Grass-fed Animals Produce Healthier Beef

Animals, except in the harshest conditions, do best outside on
pasture rather than in confinement.  In fact, nutritionist Jonny Brody
writing on Forbes.com called meat a health food if or ideally when it
is raised as it has been for thousands of years—on grass, free of
antibiotics and hormones.

I could quote research from nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists
cited by Consumer Reports in March 2008 that found grass-fed steak has:

  1. Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which may help reduce heart-disease risk.
  2. More conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which might improve the immune system and help fight cancer, atherosclerosis, and type 2 diabetes.

But I would prefer to appeal to your common sense, your taste buds
and a quick review of how we have raised animals for the last few
thousands years.  Then decide what’s right for you and your family.

For a complete list of grass-fed beef by state.

Sustainable farms and beef farmers I like:

Herondale Farm, Ancramdale, NY

Leahy Farm, Lee, MA

Moon on the Pond, Sheffield, MA

Whippoorwill Farm, Lakeville, Ct

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