For a few years, we’ve been force-fed the notion that red meat and processed meat products threaten our health. But the protein war between the livestock industry and plant-based supporters has taken an interesting twist.
In 2015, the World Health Organization went as far as to say that processed meats were carcinogenic, adding them to the same category as asbestos. That’s when everything went sideways for animal proteins.
Since then, the conventional wisdom on proteins has suggested that we go plant-based as far as possible. And Canada’s Food Guide, released earlier this year, was the exclamation mark the plant-based movement had been looking for.
But a group of 14 scholars from seven countries has published a report in the Annals of Internal Medicine, one of the most cited journals in the world. It suggests that the consequences of eating meat vary from person to person.
The report states that health effects of red meat consumption are detectable only in the largest groups, and advice to individuals to cut back may not be justified by the available data. The group claims that the findings of many studies may have been generalized and, to some extent, scientifically alarmist.
This meta-analysis looked at 54 studies with high methodological standards, published over about 20 years. It’s an interesting read. The disclosure section where conflicts of interest are listed takes up almost half of the report. The journal editors knew the findings were going to be controversial.
But if the report is controversial, it’s only because many of us have been led to believe that red meat should be avoided at all costs. We were repeatedly reminded that red meat and, worse, processed meats, were evil and that we should be ashamed to eat them. Proteins were on everyone’s mind and everyone had an opinion, whether based on facts or not.
But like any study, this report should be taken with a grain of salt. There’s no such thing as a perfect study, since scientific research is not absolute. It’s a journey of discoveries with the intent to better society by helping us make better choices as individuals, and in business and government. This latest installment on the consumption of proteins only adds to the breadth of knowledge we have on the subject.
At the same time, the study’s judgment-free stance on scientific findings is refreshing, since it didn’t attempt to condemn alternative choices. The group clearly doesn’t want the report to become a weapon. This is perhaps the reason they didn’t discuss environmental or ethical aspects of meat consumption, which carry their own share of confusion and controversies.
When it comes to food research, we should remind ourselves that there’s no right or wrong, even if the overpowering plant-based narrative has us all thinking that way. Some diets are more desirable than others, health-wise, but the way we assess risks related to food should be individualized, as the report pointed out.
Many health professionals forgot that we’re all individuals, with a past, a future and our own dietary biases. Choices around food are intrinsically human and as we look to science to address some of the ambiguities, we tend to forget that.
The study by the group of scholars reminds us that generalizations are dangerously limiting in terms of giving choices to consumers.
The protein war isn’t about how much meat we should eat but more about how scientific findings on the subject should be interpreted. It’s a mess, created by academic factions with the agenda of curing the world of its dietary ills.
Many are to blame for this one-sided dialogue, academia most of all. Some scholars almost see the protein issue as a cause, which often makes them blind and unreceptive to opposite views. Panels on university campuses are often dull, idealistic and predictable. Scholars tend to state what we want to hear, not going beyond what we know or should know.
Academic research in agri-food lost its way when it stopped valuing protein plurality. And media went along for the ride. Science is not a buffet where anyone can pick what’s preferred.
In the end, consumers are the real victims, since such information generates more confusion than anything. The public deserves better.
Scientific research on food can’t afford deceptive conclusions or repressed public debate. And it shouldn’t present only one side of such important issues.
We should never stop questioning. And we should dare to let the public think critically about their food choices, which is what the authors of this study have done.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.