Red Meat Versus Processed Meat And Disease

A lot of articles in the general news blame meat for causing disease. More and more of these articles imply that meat leads to heart disease, strokes and other chronic diseases. These articles cite medical publications that conclude that meat is associated with these diseases.

Problem With Articles Condemning Meat

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Red Meat

However, the studies showing these results do not separate the various types of meats. Frequently, the studies lump all meats together. A few separate red meat from other meat, such as poultry or fish, but they lump red meat with processed meat. The real culprit does not appear until researchers separate the various types of meat more finely.

Processed Meat Versus Other Meat

The studies finding problems with red meat, or meat in general, all lump together processed meat with fresh meat. However, when researchers separate processed meat from other meats, processed meat is the culprit associated with health problems. Unprocessed meats have a low association, or none at all. This is true even if the meat has a high percentage of saturated fat, such as domestic beef.

Injected Meat

Separating processed meat from other meat is a step in the right direction. However, the studies require one more step. Many meats that are not considered processed meats are still injected with sodium nitrite or sodium chloride (salt) to prolong shelf life. Researchers need to separate consumers of injected meat from consumers of fresh meat. Otherwise, we will never know the true culprit in meat.

In the studies showing an association of meat with various diseases, the studies need to report the potassium sodium ratio of the meats reported on. Injected meat will appear the same to the consumer as fresh meat. But injected meat will have a much worse ratio than uninjected meat. The consumer/research participant eating injected meat will not know the difference. They will consider the meat to be fresh, unprocessed meat.

Generally, injected meats are not as bad as fully processed meats, such as sausages, bacon and luncheon meat. But their ratio is worse than fresh meat. Fresh meats, including red meat, generally have favorable potassium sodium ratios. Many have ratios above 3. People consuming meats with favorable ratios should have lower blood pressure, less heart disease, and fewer strokes compared to people consuming fully processed meats.

Processed meats almost universally have highly unfavorable ratios, with only a few having ratios above 0.5. Studies should show an association of processed meat consumption with higher blood pressure, more heart disease and more strokes.

A Recent Analysis

One recent analysis (1) showed that red meat is not a problem, but processed meat is. The study reviewed multiple prior studies. It found no association of cardiovascular disease with unprocessed red meat, but did with processed meat. This paper joins an increasing number of studies separating processed meat from other meats.

In this paper, the researchers included large groups from the United States and Europe for analysis. The total number of people studied was over half a million. The researchers have a nice, under 2 minute video explaining their results here.

The Next Step

The next step for researchers is to separate the consumption of fresh meat from the consumption of injected meat. This will be more difficult since most consumers are unaware of the difference. The usual food frequency questionnaires will not provide reliable results. A more creative approach will be needed to determine the potassium sodium ratio of the meat consumed by research participants.

Until studies begin to include the potassium and sodium content of the diet given to their research participants, studies about meat will have a difficult time to discover the true culprit in meat contributing to hypertension, cardiovascular disease and stroke. They will not succeed in determining if one of the other additives in meat also contributes, or if only the potassium sodium ratio of the meat contributes to the problems attributed to meat.

Where To Find Tables Of Potassium Sodium Ratios In Beef And Processed Meats

You can find tables with potassium sodium ratios of meats, processed and unprocessed, as well as other foods by clicking the “Links to Food Potassium Tables” tab at the top of this page. Then click the link to the food group you are interested in.

1. Processing of meats and cardiovascular risk: time to focus on preservatives. Micha R, Michas G, Lajous M, Mozaffarian D. BMC Med. 2013 May 23;11:136. doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-136.

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