Plant-based proteins and meat alternatives are becoming more mainstream.1–3 A 2021 survey showed that most Americans have consumed plant-based meat alternatives in the past year, and the global market for plant-based foods could see five-fold growth by 2030.2,3 Religious beliefs, environmental concerns, and health issues may all lead an individual to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. However, some individuals may simply choose to cut back on certain meats, particularly red and processed meats, due to their known negative impact on health. As new research continues to emerge, here’s what you need to know to make informed decisions on your selected protein sources.
LEADING EXPERTS’ OPINIONS
In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that red meat and processed meat had been classified as “probably carcinogenic“ and “carcinogenic” to humans, respectively.4,5 A carcinogen is any substance that causes cancer.6 These products and their relationship to cancer risk had been a focus of the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, and, that same year, both organizations specifically identified colon cancer as a potential outcome of eating too much of these types of meats.3–6,8
According to the WHO, red meat includes “all types of mammalian muscle meat,” such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, horse, and goat. This type of meat is fresh, unprocessed, and may be frozen or cooked. Processed meat, on the other hand, has a narrower definition. It refers to meat that has been transformed through “salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes” to enhance flavor or improve preservation and color.1 These meats include ham, sausage, beef jerky, salami, pepperoni, among others. While most processed meats contain pork or beef, they may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products, such as blood.1,2
CURRENT STATE OF THE DEBATE
Research around the dangers of these meats is a topical point of discussion for medical personnel, public health professionals, nutrition specialists, and dietitians.4–6 While some experts and organizations argue that red and processed meats should be completely removed from peoples’ diets, others argue that moderate amounts are safe.4–7 Some institutions have taken greater action than others.
In July 2022, the French government told their citizens to prepare to make extra cuts to their charcuterie boards. Based on findings from a 2018 WHO report, policymakers announced they would work to reduce nitrites’ use to “strictly necessary.”3,8,9 While nitrites are deemed to be safe food additives under current French and European legislation, these chemical compounds have the potential to react with other compounds to form carcinogens.8,10 Still, they are widely and liberally used in processed meats to increase shelf life and decrease the risk of bacterial infection.8
In the United States (US), red and processed meats are widely available. Whether it’s hot dogs at baseball games, bacon on the weekends, Christmas and Easter ham, or cold cut sandwiches, processed meat have become a staple in the American diet.5 There’s no reason to shelf these items for good, though. Red meat can be a valuable source of nutrients, in particular protein, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.5,6,11–13 Furthermore, nutrition research is complex, and drawing absolute or definite conclusions about dietary patterns is rarely possible.
NUTRITION RESEARCH CONUNDRUM
A series of four studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2019 made nutrition experts and lead health organizations turn their heads.4,14,15,18 The analyses concluded that this keystone advice—limiting the consumption of red meat and processed meats—was not backed by sound, rigorous scientific evidence.12–15 Notably, these conclusions received quick and intense backlash from nutrition experts and several major medical institutions, including the American Heart Association, the Harvard University T.H. School of Public Health, and the American Cancer Society, that maintained their dietary recommendations.12–14
These groups point toward resounding evidence from studies that show the negative effects of over-consuming red and processed meats. However, it is important to note the caveats in conducting clinical nutrition research that can create conflict in the conclusions yielded from study results. Many studies concerning diet and specific health outcomes are more challenged in meeting many of the rigorous and scientific standards than other types of health research.15–18
For example, most nutrition studies are observational. This means that researchers observe the effect of a risk factor or intervention without changing who is or isn’t exposed to it.19 It’s extremely difficult to know what someone is or is not eating, and participants may struggle to accurately report their diets.16 Even in the best of circumstances, observational studies cannot prove cause and effect; they only suggest correlations. Similarly, investigators are often looking to draw narrow conclusions about one variable but are unable to control for factors that could influence results.19,20 These factors include age, sex, exercise and dietary patterns, nutritional status prior to the study, to name a few. Finally, nutrition studies may report results that are small and, thus, difficult to generalize to the rest of the population.
SHADES OF HEALTH: RED MEAT VS. PROCESSED MEAT
Most evidence points toward the positive health benefits of limiting your red and processed meat consumption. The World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRFI) recommends eating little, if any, processed meat, and limiting red meat to about three portions (or about 12 to 18 ounces) per week.8–10 It’s especially important to limit intake of red meat that is also processed, such as beef jerky and pepperoni. Still, even when it’s not processed, red meat has also been tied to cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and overall mortality.15,18,21 There are another variety of factors that can determine these meats’ nutritional values. This suggests there is a lot of room for interpretation when it comes to determining which of these meats is healthiest?
Experts cannot definitively recommend one type of processed meat over another or compare their nutritional value. In addition to challenge in meeting rigorous study protocol, most of these studies focused on highly consumed processed meats, such as hot dogs, bacon, and sausages, or lumped several meats together instead of investigating them individually. Even in observational studies or those that involve self-reported measures, many people who tend to eat one type of processed meat also tend to eat others.8,21 These factors make it difficult to make absolute statements regarding which of these types of meat is the healthiest or disentangle the health effects of one over the other.20
While there may be a slight difference in the final verdict regarding the health drawbacks of red and processed meats, the resounding message from experts is that the evidence is quite convincing that regular consumption of processed meats is detrimental to health.4–6,8–10,14–17 Furthermore, “most health experts agree that ‘processed meats are more harmful than unprocessed meats.’”8 Still, logistical hurdles in conducting clinical nutrition research make drawing definitive conclusions about these products difficult. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust your gut, though. Whether it’s for health reasons, an ethical obligation, or simple curiosity, checking out plant-based proteins and meat alternatives the next time you’re in the grocery store can only expand your palate and boost your health.
- Food Insight Staff. IFIC survey: consumption trends, preferred names and perceptions of plant-based meat alternatives. 3 Nov 2022. Food Insight website. https://foodinsight.org/consumption-trends-plant-based-meat-alts/. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Elkin E. Plant-based food sales are expected to increase fivefold by 2030. 11 Aug 2021. Fortune website. https://fortune.com/2021/08/11/plant-based-food-sales-meat-dairy-alternatives-increase-by-2030/. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Ellis E. Vegging out: tips on switching to a meatless diet. Updated Jun 2021. EatRight website. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/vegetarian-and-special-diets/vegging-out-tips-on-switching-to-a-meatless-diet. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- World Health Organization website. Press release: IARC monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. 26 Oct 2015. https://www.iarc.who.int/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/pr240_E.pdf. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer. 2015. Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. World Health Organization website. https://www.iarc.who.int/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/pr240_E.pdf. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Red Meat and Processed Meat. Lyon (FR): International Agency for Research on Cancer; 2018.
- American Ccancer Society website. Determining if something is a carcinogen. Updated 17 May 2019. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/cancer-causes/general-info/determining-if-something-is-a-carcinogen.html. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Egan S. Are some processed meats worse for you than others? Updated 13 Jul 2022. New York Times website. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/29/well/eat/processed-meats.html. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- World Cancer Research Fund International website. Limit red and processed meat. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/limit-red-and-processed-meat/. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- World Cancer Research Fund International website. Recommendations and public health and policy implications. May 2018. https://www.wcrf.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Recommendations.pdf. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- de La Hamaide S. Updated 12 Jul 2022. France to cut nitrites in food after agency confirms cancer risk. Updated 12 Jul 2022. Reuters website. https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/france-cut-nitrites-food-after-agency-confirms-cancer-risk-2022-07-12/. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Karwowska M, Kononiuk A. Nitrates/nitrites in food-risk for nitrosative stress and benefits. Antioxidants (Basel). 2020;9(3):241.
- De Clercq G. The end of pink ham? France to cut use of nitrite in cured meats. 4 Feb 2022. Reuters website. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/end-pink-ham-france-cut-use-nitrite-cured-meats-2022-02-04/. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Zumpano J. Is red meat bad for you? Cleveland Clinic website. 22 Dec 2020. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/is-red-meat-bad-for-you/. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Harvard Health website. What’s the beef with red meat? 1 Feb 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/whats-the-beef-with-red-meat. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Kolata K. That perplexing red meat controversy: 5 things to know. Updated 2 Oct 2019. New York Times website. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/30/health/red-meat-questions-answers.html. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Kolata K. Eat less red meat, scientists said. Now some believe that was bad advice. Updated 4 Oct 2019. New York Times website. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/30/health/red-meat-heart-cancer.html. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Johnston BC, Zeraatkar D, Han MA, et al. Unprocessed red meat and processed meat consumption: dietary guideline recommendations from the nutritional recommendations (NutriRECS) consortium. Ann Intern Med. 2019;171(10):756–764.
- Institute for Work & Health website. Observational vs. experimental studies. Feb 2016. https://www.iwh.on.ca/what-researchers-mean-by/observational-vs-experimental-studies. Accessed 26 Jul 2022.
- Weaver CM, Miller JW. Challenges in conducting clinical nutrition research. Nutr Rev. 2017;75(7):491–499.
- Qian F, Riddle MC, Wylie-Rosett J, Hu FB. Red and processed meats and health risks: how strong is the evidence? Diabetes Care. 2020;43(2):265–271.