NewsletterRed Meat

Red meat: Human and planet health

There was a fresh three-pronged attack on red meat last week – this time in the BMJ. First, there was an article entitled “Mortality from different causes associated with meat, heme iron, nitrates, and nitrites in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study: population based cohort study”. Second, there was an editorial by Professor John Potter (epidemiologist, NZ) called “Red and processed meat, and human and planetary health”. Third, there was a commentary by BMJ editor, Dr Fiona Godlee, “Red meat: another inconvenient truth”.

The main article – human health

The main article concluded that there was an increased risk of mortality associated with “both processed and unprocessed red meat.” The article proposed an explanation for this: “accounted for, in part, by heme iron and nitrate/nitrite from processed meat.”

Let’s briefly look at both of these parts of the conclusion:

1) The association with mortality and “both processed and unprocessed red meat.

As regards any claims for UNprocessed red meat, this article can be completely ignored because it did not study UNprocessed red meat.

The starting point for any article attacking red meat is to understand what the researchers defined red meat to be. I have yet to find an article that studies what real food proponents would call red meat: all parts of cows, pigs, sheep, deer, goat etc which have been living freely on pastures. (Real foodies favour ruminants particularly – which excludes pigs – the reason for this will become clear). “Nose to Tail” is a Paleo expression to indicate that the strongest health benefits accrue when the whole animal is eaten and not just the muscle meat (steak). The richest nutrition is found in organ meat (e.g. liver/kidneys) and some of the fattiest cuts are, unsurprisingly, better sources of fat soluble vitamins than relatively lean steak.

The definition of red meat in this latest article was the same as in most recent articles that I’ve studied: “Items included in the red meat intake were unprocessed red meat (beef and pork, hamburger, [my emphasis], liver, steak, and meats in foods such as chilli [hello rice/corn chips!], lasagne [hello pasta!], and stew) and processed red meat (bacon, beef cold cuts, ham, hotdogs, and sausage). White meat included unprocessed chicken, turkey, and fish, canned tuna, and processed white meat (poultry cold cuts, low fat sausages, and low fat hotdogs made from poultry).” I included the definition of white meat (which now includes fish?!) because the article tried to claim that (what they called) red meat and processed red meat were associated with higher mortality, but that unprocessed white meat was associated with lower mortality. I wonder if that could be the fish.

The data used in this study were from the US. What is the single biggest form of red meat consumption in the US? The hamburger. You can tell that the data are distorted by looking at Table 1 in the paper. Average (mean) red meat is reported for the highest intake group as 17.2 (g/1000kcal) for processed red meat vs. 50.3 (g/1000kcal) for UNprocessed red meat. Americans eat three times as much UNprocessed as processed red meat? Really?!

Hamburgers should not meet any valid definition of UNprocessed red meat. They also lead to a huge dietary confounder, which has not been adjusted for in this study. Someone here has gone to the trouble of listing out what is in a typical hamburger (McDonalds in this case). The issue may not be the meat (which in McD’s case is free from nasty wheat-based fillers), but the white bun, ketchup/mustard, pickle and optional plastic cheese, which come with each hamburger. This is before we factor in that most burgers are eaten with fries, more ketchup and quite likely a milkshake/sugary fizzy drink. Of course it is highly likely that this entire concoction of junk is associated with increased mortality. However, it has nothing to do with the pasture-fed, nose-to-tail, nutrient-dense real meat, which real foodies are constantly having to defend.

2) Just to close off the novel contribution of this article – the hypothesis about “heme iron and nitrate/nitrite from processed meat.” This has been beautifully rebutted by George Henderson in a rapid response to the BMJ, which can be seen here: “Chicken thigh contains an equal amount of heme iron to bacon, and about half as much heme iron as a steak – processed white meats have as much nitrites and nitrite as the red, and many types of fish also supply appreciable amounts of heme iron. These components of meat thus do not explain why the associations of red and white meat tend in opposite directions in this paper…”

So much for the heme iron, nitrates and nitrites argument (more on that here for anyone interested).

What the study also failed to acknowledge is the unparalleled nutrition in nose-to-tail red meat and how these nutrients would be sourced without red meat, which researchers seem to want to drive us towards.

The editorial – planet health

The argument that deserves attention in this newsletter is the planet one. This was presented in the editorial by Professor John Potter, rather than the main paper. The editorial is on closed view, but the key part that needs addressing is here:

Livestock have colonised more than 30% of the earth’s land surface, mostly on permanent pasture, but this total also includes 33% of global arable land that is used to produce feed…

“This shift from animal protein as a modest supplement to a plant based diet to providing up to 15-20% of total energy has consequences for human health… extensive antibiotic resistance following antibiotic use to promote the growth of livestock; reduction in available human food and consequent hunger, as high value grains and legumes are fed to cattle (more than 97% of global soymeal production is fed to livestock); and higher risks of infected food from animals raised using inappropriate feeding practices or in concentrated animal feeding operations using inappropriate feeding practices.

“Damage to planetary health includes depletion of aquifers (producing 1 kg of meat protein requires more than 110 000 L of water); production of 37% of anthropogenic methane (with 23 times the global warming potential of CO2)… The combination of rainforest destruction for livestock and the production of greenhouse gases by livestock contributes more to climate change than do fossil fuels used for transport.”

(Potter declared no interests, by the way. I would have thought that having been vegetarian since the mid 1970s was relevant.)

Let’s start with a fundamental issue, which advocates of plant diets constantly ignore: soil. If you follow the excellent work of The Soil Association, you will be aware that global soil erosion is a critical issue and saving our soil requires careful balance of animal and plant rotation. As this video (which I helped to make) shows, grazing ruminants give back to the soil with their unique stomach structure. These animals host and regurgitate billions of micro organisms, continually rejuvenating top soil as they do this. By rotating land use between vegetables and ruminants the following occurs: i) vegetables largely take minerals and nutrients from the soil (which we then benefit from by consuming them), but plants usefully provide vegetation cover to minimise soil erosion; and ii) the ruminants give back nutrition to the soil (which is the essence of all real food on this planet) and we also benefit from the nutrition by consuming those grazing animals. This is the symbiosis of real food.

Real foodies would share the outrage expressed by Potter in the extracts from his editorial, but we need to point out where he is completely misguided:

1) It is an outrage that 33% of global arable land is being used to produce animal feed (we’ll assume this figure is correct). Not one square inch of land should be wasted in the production of animal feed. Animals should be grazing freely on the food that the planet needs them to consume – pastures. This is the only way in which ruminants can do their job for us and preserve the stuff of life: soil.

2) It is an outrage that animals are treated so badly that they ever need antibiotics, let alone routinely. Animals should be kept in their natural environment – on pastures, in the rain and shine – and then they rarely get sick and rarely need antibiotics. Antibiotics are needed when ruminants are kept in the horrific environment of concrete floors and sheds and when they are fed grains and soybeans – substances that they can no more easily digest than humans can.

3) It is an outrage that more than 97% of global soymeal production is fed to livestock (again, assuming this figure is correct). Animals (ruminants specifically) are not designed to digest such stuff. Ruminants need to graze and the planet needs them to graze.

4) It would be outrageous to waste 110,000 L of water to produce 1kg of meat. However, this is completely unnecessary. The cows and sheep that I pass on the dog walk every day are getting all the water they need from rain and the grasses upon which the rain has fallen. Again – let ruminants graze.

5) As for the methane argument, which was raised by the Potter editorial…

The ‘farting (burping actually) cows are destroying the planet’ belief has been refuted by Graham Harvey – agricultural advisor to the British Broadcasting Corporation radio programme “The Archers” and author of a number of books about farming and ecological agriculture.

The source for Potter’s claim that “Damage to planetary health includes production of 37% of anthropogenic methane (with 23 times the global warming potential of CO2)…” is Steinfeld et al. “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental issues and options.” FAO, 2006.

Harvey covered this in his most recent book “Grass Fed Nation” as follows: “If you enjoy meat or dairy foods you probably experience the odd pang of guilt. After all, ruminant animals like cattle and sheep burp the greenhouse gas methane, which is known to be 23 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. The reason so many of us hold these views is mainly down to a 2006 report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization  called ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’” [ZH – we know we’re talking about the same report at this point]. Harvey goes on to say: “A few years later the UN moderated its claim. Grazing animals, apparently, can now be blamed for only 14% of global emissions. But it’s going to have to go a great deal further. The climate campaigners have ignored a huge environmental benefit of grazing animals. Their calculations were based on faulty carbon accounting.”

Over the next few pages of this beautifully written book, Harvey goes on to explain: “Pre-Christopher Columbus the American plains were home to an estimated 60 million bison – with each adult animal weighing a tonne – along with 40 million pronghorns, 10 million elk, 10 million mule deer and perhaps 2 million mountain sheep (Charles Mann “1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus”, Knopf, 2005, p318). All these ruminant animals were pumping out methane, yet there was no global warming. Through natural processes the carbon in the methane was finding its way back to the soilHealthy soils contain a group of microbes known as methanotrophs, which use methane as their sole carbon and energy source. In some soils they are able to significantly reduce methane concentrations, though nitrate fertilisers, pesticides and other farm inputs reduce their activity.” [My emphasis – we must stop agri-chemical impairment of this vital process].

Before going on to share his admiration of Allan Savory’s Ted Talk, Harvey closed with: “Grazing animals play a key role in regulating the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere through the use of soil as a carbon sink. It’s a natural process that has been going on for millions of years. Yet unaccountably we have decided that livestock should be imprisoned in sheds and yards, while we ruin the life of our soils to feed them.”

The commentary – planet health

Dr Fiona Godlee’s commentary was supportive of both the article and the editorial. Her commentary closed with the words: “What can doctors do? We can lobby for more and better research to support clearer evidence based dietary guidelines. And we can lead by example, as our predecessors did with smoking cessation, by reducing our own red meat consumption. Your own suggestions are welcome.”

Here are my suggestions:

1) Stop publishing any article that claims to study UNprocessed red meat until one actually does study UNprocessed red meat. Include the unbeatable nutritional value of nose-to-tail red meat in every article on the subject.

2) Let us stop being merchansiders for fake food companies (cereals and crops) and for agri-chemical companies (fertilisers and pesticides) and, instead support the people who should be revered for their occupations: farmers.

3) Let us all unite (vegans too) to stop the abhorrent captivity of ruminants and to stop the insane feeding of indigestible grains and soymeal to ruminants. Human and planet health needs ruminants grazing the land, or we face the irreversible and catastrophic destruction of soil and, with it, the means of ever producing food again.

It would not surprise me, by the way, if the destruction of top soil is the end game for Monsanto and co. This would give agri-chemical companies complete control of world food production. This is not the plot for the next James Bond movie – it’s happening right in front of our eyes and the BMJ three-pronged attack has just played its part.

31 thoughts on “Red meat: Human and planet health

  • I would very much like to know your views on the Overcoming MS diet which is essentially vegetarian with or without seafood. I have MS, have been a veggie for most of my life and am now 63 and reasonably well. As a former GP I find the lack of agreement about a brain healthy diet rather disappointing, and as a former farm worker, I, like Graham Palmer, find the lack of healthy meat a major problem and a big motivation for being a veggie. I understand the vast majority of meat is now produced intensively and is very low quality. I know a few life long vegetarians, the same age as me, who are in rude health without ever having supplemented. I give talks about MS and a brain healthy lifestyle, and do discuss healthy meats and milk, though see the sense of vegetarianism as these are to say the least, scarce and beyond many peoples budget.

    • Hi Colin
      I vaguely recall getting a question about this diet a while back. I haven’t looked at it in any detail and don’t plan to. It’s for the diet proponent to make the case for the diet and – if this is the sum total of the evidence for the diet – it is extremely weak:(

      With or without MS, or any other condition, these are the nutrients that we need and this is where we find them.

      A diet without meat – but including eggs and fish – can be healthy. It is easier to get iron and zinc, for example, if red meat is included, but you might get all that you need depending on precise intake.

      It is relatively easy to find good quality meat in the UK. The US is not so good. People who eat meat need to get to know their local butcher and where the cows and sheep graze and buy only from such sources. Ruminants in such circumstances protect top soil, without which all of our food will be grown upside down in greenhouses!

      It sounds like you’re doing OK and that’s as important as anything in the world of diet and health. You may like to enter a typical day’s food in one of the many nutrient assessment tools that exists nowadays and then you’ll get the facts about the quality of your diet from a nutritional perspective. Depending on fish intake, you may well be deficient in omega-3 (in the right form – DHA and EPA) and you may find benefit supplementing with this. Fish intake can also help with vitamin D – which is important for MS (Munger KL. Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels and risk of multiple sclerosis. JAMA. 296(23):2832–8. 10.1001/jama.296.23.2832)

      You’re also still young (as are your peers doing similarly) in terms of life expectancy and the key years are ahead of you. If this were me, I would definitely be checking my nutrients intake and adjusting diet/supplements accordingly and then researching proper evidence (pubmed) to see if there are any proven ways to optimise management of MS.

      Best wishes – Zoe

  • Whats with all the Vegan bashing guys. We are killing our planet ith our obsession with captivating and toturing animals for the sake of a few nutrients which can be gathered elsewhere. I know madness when I see it. whilst you feed your cows about 33% or lands food sources, imagine if you fed that same grain to starving population.

    Maybe you should all stop being so inhumane and think about the consequences of your actions.

  • Interestingly, there was a similar attack on gluten free diet in people without coeliac disease this month in BMJ. The study by Lebwohl, et al reported that while long-term dietary gluten consumption in people without coeliac disease may not be related to heart disease risk, “the avoidance of gluten may result in reduced consumption of beneficial whole grains, which may affect cardiovascular risk.” In our rapid response we pointed out that their statements, which have led to a rapid spread of misinformation on social media, can be challenged from several perspectives.

    Read more:

  • Farmers and large animal vets have made the point that grains are fed to animals specifically to fatten them, and that overfeeding grains, especially wheat, makes them ill. What makes us so different?

    I was recently walking on a marsh which is flooded in winter and attracts flocks of geese, ducks and other birds, after which they let the water out and graze beautiful tasty Suffolk Red Poll cattle. You could no more grow Holy Heath Grains there than on the hills and mountains where you can take off crops of sheep and maintain the habitat for hordes of other species with minimal inputs and no chemicals.

    It appears that small mammal populations are highest on sheep pastures. What have the vegans got against voles? – let alone the human health consequences of their agenda.

  • Thanks for the article. I especially liked the planet health discussions. I’m an avid follower of Allan Savory and Elaine Ingham. I had not heard of Graham Harvey nor The Soil Association, but I plan to check them out soon.

  • When Americans buy a pound of hamburger for a family meal, they use it as a component in a carb laden dish. Whether hamburgers with buns and ketchup, or pastas with sugary tomato sauces, or even meatloaf that calls for breadcrumbs in the recipe. Eating plain hamburger meat is not on a typical American’s menu. Even Dr Salisbury’s miracle minced meat cure has been bastardized by starch thickened gravy and fillers.

    Such a tragedy because many people who eat a carnivorous zero carb diet eat plain 80/20 hamburger meat as a staple. Carnivory deserves recognition as a legitimate way of eating.

  • Well said Zoe – the case for following a real and sustainable omnivorous diet has been succinctly and comprehensively argued – keep up the good words!!

  • Hi Zoe, thanks for the HT and the great discussion of planetary health. I always end up with the feeling that deep down, vegans don’t really like animals that much and want to get rid of most of them so they can populate the planet with themselves, their vegetable overlords, and of course the Monsanto Corp robots they’ll need to keep them happy.
    Just one correction – the BMJ editorial wasn’t by Fiona Godlee, but by Zosia Kmietowicz.
    While the cat’s away, perhaps.

    • Apologies – I see now that Fiona did write an editorial too, Zosia wrote a BMJ news item, making this even more over-exposed than it needed to be!

  • MacDonald’s ‘pink slime’ meat filler, derived from various cheap meaty sources and preserved to within an inch of food safety, is a significant proportion of their ground beef patties. I suggest that manipulation like this removes this stuff and much other processed crap from the classification ‘Food ‘.

  • Zoe…
    Can you give us your opinion specifically or whether or not you think heme iron in red meat may or may not cause heart disease, not to mention cancer?
    Thanks in advance!

    • While you wait for Zoe’s opinion, I will give you mine –
      Yes, heme iron from any source can be a causal factor in heart disease and cancer, because it can interact with superoxide radical to form the more damaging hydroxyl radical.
      Yes, heme iron from any source can be a protective factor in cancer and heart disease, because it is required for the catalase enzyme which reduces the peroxide radical and makes it harmless, and is also required for many other essential functions of enzymes and mitochondria that if running smoothly keep the body free from disease, including the CYP450 enzymes which detoxify many of the carcinogenic chemicals we are exposed to.

      It appears that, at a population level, these effects cancel each other out almost completely. At the end of the day, it’s about nutrition, and meat is a good source of nutrients that protect against disease, but like anything else can be made less salubrious by processing and overcooking.

    • Hi Sky
      I like George’s reply! Plus – heme iron is the form most absorb-able by the body – it’s like retinol vs carotene, D3 vs D2, K2 vs K1 – the body needs nutrients in the animal form. It makes no sense to me that anything in animals (free-living), which we will have eaten at any opportunity for millennia, are logically responsible for any modern disease.
      That’s effectively what Surgeon Captain Peter Cleave said.
      Best wishes – Zoe
      p.s. All bets are off when you start keeping ruminants in sheds, feeding them stuff they can’t digest and pumping them full of anti-biotics.
      p.p.s for evidence on any topic, pubmed is always a good start – here’s heme iron and mortality ( (Add the condition “human” in the left hand column) Not much!

  • Great article, but see typo “increased morality”. Not that there’s anything wrong with morality, in moderation.

  • Articles like the ones in the BMJ are completely garbage, where the people writing them set out to prove a point (that “processed” “red” meat is bad) and manipulate data until that point is “proven”. It also ignores that many countries around the world eat “processed” “red” meat with little to no ill effects. Germany is a case in point: what’s their breakfast (sliced “lunch” meat — or that’s what we call it in America, cheese) is America’s lunch, though there’s little bread for breakfast in Germany; and they have sausages/bratwurst, etc. for lunch and dinner. I LOVE the meals I can get in Germany. And they don’t appear to be experiencing ill effects.

    Personally, I eat all kinds of “red”, “processed” meat: pork, beef, veal, etc. I eat them “whole” (really, some amount of processing has to be done to them even to get them into steaks) and in sausage. And I even — oh my goodness!!!!! — eat cured meats, such as many different types of cured beef/pork products.

    Now, I’ve been moving to eating more offal, such as beef heart (my current favorite), but I usually keep some type of cured meat product on hand in case I get hungry in the evening. Sometimes I’m hungry, sometimes I’m not, but I don’t get concerned about some “processed” meat.

    And I sous vide many meats then sear them in hot animal fat, such as bacon fat, lard, tallow, or goose fat. That’s enough to make any vegan’s head explode.

  • There are burgers and there are burgers. I make my own from ground beef I get from a cooperative that sources all its meats from reliable sources of grass-fed/pastured animals. It comes frozen, but otherwise is no more processed than if I’d bought a slab of cow direct from the farm and ground it myself. (And I don’t eat buns, fries, plastic cheese, ketchup, or “special sauce” with mine. Maybe a salad. Maybe a (real) pickle or 2. )

    I think that burgers should be considered separately from both processed and unprocessed red meat. If only for the way burgers tend to be eaten. Eight ounces of ribeye with a salad, baked potato and a glass of wine is a very different meal from an 8-ounce burger with a bun, ketchup, fries, and shake/fizzy sugar drink. It’s not the meat that’s the issue (other than its ‘growing’ conditions) as much as what’s eaten with it.

    • Hugh
      The trouble with a lot of epidemiological studies is, in my opinion, they have an opinion and they set out to collect data that proves it. So most anti meat anti alcohol studies are done by convinced teetotallers or vegetarians. Yes, this is a circular argument, because they have seen the light etc. Is it any wonder that people are sceptical about science?

      • You’re absolutely correct. Bias in science makes a lot of things other than nutritional science pretty dodgy.

        In additional to the personal agendas or crusades of the researchers themselves, there’s also the biases and agendas of the people who’re paying the researchers. If Monsanto is paying your salary, you’re more likely to be in favour of GMO (or you wouldn’t be taking Monsanto’s money to begin with) and more likely to find few harmful consequences of GMO foods. The same applies if you’re working for the American Diabetic Association which receives a lot of its funding from food manufacturers — you’re likely to recommend a higher carbohydrate diet than is good for diabetics because you want to keep your sponsors happy.

        And then there’s climate science, where an almost religious belief in man-made global warming is pretty much a prerequisite for employment. Also, any field of research that depends mainly on computer modeling is suspect. Models are almost invariably over-simplified, which is a huge source of inaccuracy to begin with. Then they reflect their designers biases and assumptions in the way the different factors are weighted.

  • Hi Zoë – been waiting for this since the BMJ article! I believe you have misunderstood the concept of “hamburger” in the US though, it is a tightly controlled product description that is only one step down from 100% ground beef in that it allows additional beef fat to be included. We think of hamburgers as being in buns with plastic cheese etc but they use the term very specifically and in doing so the meat is considered unprocessed (as chopping/mincing does not count as processing). Ok, the beef could be grain & antibiotic fed but it still counts the same way as raw steak with beef fat. Otherwise, well done!


    • Hi Pete
      Many thanks for this – I suspect we both know where that ground beef mostly ends up – along with the bun in 50 BILLION burgers!
      The UNprocessed chicken is also mostly going to be in KFCs I suspect – hence the confidence that fish helped! It’s just relentless!
      Best wishes – Zoe

    • Hi CreakyPete,
      If the study was from FFQs mailed in, how did the authors know whether the “hamburger” recorded in the FFQs was the regulated product you describe? The subject doesn’t have that information – they just know that they had burgers for dinner, and if it looks like a burger and is sold as a burger, won’t they enter it as one?

      • Hi George – yes, and the meat component should still be “unprocessed” even after cooking, and this would explain the ratio of unprocessed to processed – lots of hamburger meals compared to bacon sandwiches..

        • Dear Zoe – i am currently out in hives after watching ‘What the Health’. I am so hoping to see a review from you on this so-called ‘documentary’; perhaps you’ve done one and I can’t see it?
          We need you to apply your usual razor-sharp logic to this new manifestation of the insanity.
          Thanks for all you do !!!! Best, Andrea

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