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Unpacking the Beef with Red Meats

By Claire Yuan

Graphic by Elaine Zhang

Though a staple of many diets, red meats might just be the most controversial foods in the history of nutrition. Scientists have long held the claim that red meats — meat from mammals, which typically appears red when raw — are unhealthy, but those claims have recently been challenged. So, what’s the truth about red meats? As it turns out, the answer is rather complicated.

Red meat contains many nutrients that are good for the human body, including protein, vitamin B-12, iron, zinc, and potassium. These components of red meat are all critical factors in building muscle, tissue, and red blood cells within the human body. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also lists some red meats as good sources of heme iron, which are only available in meat, poultry, and seafood. Heme iron, according to the NIH, is more bioavailable or easily used by the body.

However, studies have also shown that there may be negative health effects related to red meats as well, such as an increased risk of developing certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and kidney problems. The most prominent of these concerns have to do with heart disease.

Experts have long believed that eating red meat can lead to higher risk of heart disease, and this phenomenon is often attributed to the saturated fat present in the meat. According to the American Heart Association, red meats generally have more saturated fat than other sources of protein like fish, legumes, or chicken. As a result, there are concerns that eating high amounts of red meat may lead to an increase in a person’s cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease. On the other hand, cardiologists Aseem Malhotra, Rita Redberg, and Pascal Meier wrote an article in 2017 claiming that consuming saturated fats does not cause clogged arteries. Their argument was supported by other researchers who believe that the link between saturated fats and heart disease is exaggerated.

To complicate the issue further, research has shown that the type of red meat consumed may also play a factor in its health effects. While it is true that mankind has been eating red meats throughout its history, the meat our ancestors were consuming is not equivalent to that which is being sold on store shelves today. In earlier times, people ate meat from animals that spent their days freely roaming and grazing, while much of the meat we eat today is highly processed. As such, it’s important to distinguish between the various types of meat that exist today.

First are processed meats like sausages. Processed meats come from conventionally raised animals and then undergo processing, which could introduce chemicals such as sodium nitride, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heterocyclic amines, and sodium chloride. Added to retain the red color of the meat, prevent rancidification, prevent the growth of bacteria, or otherwise boost shelf life, several of these additives have caused cancer when given to animals.

Then there’s conventional red meat, which still comes from factory-farmed cows, but the meat is largely unprocessed.

Last — and commonly perceived as best — is grass-fed, organic meat, which is sourced from animals that have been raised without hormones, drugs, or other chemicals. Currently, it seems that when organically-raised meats are chosen over processed meats, health benefits are compounded and risks decreased.

Even as research into this topic continues, the general consensus among the scientific community is that red and processed meats do indeed increase health risks. Still, as Dr. Frank Hu of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health pointed out, many of these health risks arise as a result of “high” intake of red meats, the exact amount of which is up for debate. Ultimately, Dr. Hu said, “The evidence shows that people with a relatively low intake have lower health risks.” He recommended that “people should stick to no more than two to three servings per week.”

Despite the uncertainty that pervades this topic, red meats are not an essential part of a balanced diet, so it is worth reducing the amount of red meat you consume. The potential health risks associated with red meats are serious, and the benefits of potentially avoiding an increased risk of these health issues vastly outweigh personal inconvenience or preference.


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