Until yesterday this post was going to be the usual recipe with some nutrition facts thrown in. But today’s BBC headline story, “Processed Meat Early Death Link,” has rather shifted my focus. I won’t dwell too long on this issue (by my definition at least), but as many of you – including myself – eat some meat, the most recent large-scale research findings may prick up your ears.
This is a bit Groundhog Day for me as I was present at the 2007 conference that initially ‘broke’ the story of processed meat’s link with cancer – the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) “Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer Prevention: Current Challenges, New Horizons” conference (snappy title, I know). Many issues were discussed, but the one that made headlines then was a press release from the WCRF urging the general population to cut back on red meat and completely cut out processed meat. Well, you would have thought from some of the newspapers that this eminent assemblage of scientists had asked that we all stop breathing.
An amusing but wholly wrong-headed article in The Sun, “Save Our Bacon: Butty Battle” quoted a celebrity chef dismissing the advice as “just another scare.” Even then some very good researchers were defending processed meat. But today’s news from the WHO- and IARC-funded European Perspective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition Project (EPIC) more than confirms the ‘less is more’ findings of 2007 (this is a massive pdf document) and 2011. But, and this is a big but, modest amounts of red meat – its highly useful first-class protein, its iron – can be beneficial.
Sometimes this message gets lost in the shuffle for eye-catching headlines and polarising, entertaining radio and TV debates. Even today as I listened to a very sensible doctor on the radio as she correctly interpreted today’s findings for the listeners, people were phoning in slamming the experts and accusing scientists of wanting to shut down the farming industry (!) and for us all to be vegetarians. They didn’t hear her say that small amounts of red meat can be very healthy for most people, and that the occasional bacon sandwich is fine. They didn’t see this high-quality, 13-year, 10-country study of over half a million people as applying to them. Or worse, that it was from ‘the usual bunch of meddling do-gooders’. Astonishing.
To summarise the findings of this study would take more than a blog post and might bore some of you who are here for the recipe, so I direct you to the The Independent’s precis. The bottom line is that this study reiterates the all-things-in-moderation approach that has been advocated for quite a while, and chimes with the advice born from the 2007 WCRF report: eat less red meat, and especially processed meat, to lower your risk of death from heart disease and certain cancers, including colorectal, oesophageal, lung, pancreatic and endometrial cancer.
Which leaves us with the questions: What is red meat? What is processed meat? How much is too much? And why does higher meat consumption increase the risk of dying from heart disease and some cancers? This is where it gets a bit tricky and leads some of us to just throw up our hands in exasperation. Or pull out the frying pan.
The EPIC study defined red meat as pork, horse and goat as well as beef and lamb, while white meat incorporated chicken, turkey, duck and rabbit. There is no universal definition for processed meat, but it is usually seen as any meat preserved or flavoured by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives or colourings. Ham, bacon, deli-style meats, pastrami, salt beef, salami, hotdogs, sausages, bratwursts and frankfurters all fall under the category of processed meat. Even the likes of parma ham, with its high price tag, is also processed. But, generally the higher quality meats will have the minimum of preservatives, flavourings and additives. And the higher price and 8-slice packaging usually puts people off scoffing down too much at one time anyway. Meats preserved only by refrigeration, no matter how we end up cooking them, is not considered processed meat.
Beef mince can be a tricky one however as sometimes salts are added for preservation and for flavour. This especially applies to prepared burgers and meals with minced meat in them.
White meat did not seem to raise risk for either cancer or heart disease. Nor did fish and seafood. Foods with fibre such as beans, peas, fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts helped to lower overall risk.
So why is meat eating associated with risk of disease and death?
Well, the short answer is that the scientists in this and other studies are not quite sure. It may be due to a combination of some of these factors: eating low quality, high fat meat generally; the much higher saturated fat content of processed meat; the way we cook meat; nitrite and nitrate used in preservation (they kill bacteria); excess haem iron from eating more meat than we require for our iron needs. There may even be an interaction with the plastic packaging that covers supermarket meat. All of these questions are still to be answered.
In the meantime, what amount of meat do the research scientists consider ‘safe’?
This study defined too much as 160g a day – just over 5 1/2 ounces, equivalent to a cooked steak, or a few slices of beef and a couple of rashers of bacon. The latest evidence from the UK Department of Health reports that most Britons eat less than that per day – men consuming about 70 grams, and women,about 52 grams. The UK Department of Health has previously advised that we eat not more than 70 grams total of red and processed meat. So it seems, in the UK at least, that the latest alarm bell will apply mainly for the one-third who routinely eat more than 100 grams of red meat per day.
To reduce risk associated with eating meat the EPIC study recommends eating not more than 20g a day of processed meat. This sounds pifflingly small but if you replace some of the daily meat and most of the processed meat with fish, chicken or vegetarian options, risk reduces and you introduce benefits, especially if you have oily fish or fibre-rich beans.
For its part the WCRF recommends eating not more than 500 grams of cooked red meat per week, and to avoid processed meat altogether. If you enjoy a bacon roll or ham sandwich this view may be hard to read. Don’t shoot the messenger!
Most scientists working in cancer would say that the best things that we can do, that are within our control, are to be a healthy weight, take regular exercise, avoid sunburn, limit alcohol and not to smoke. You can be a vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan or committed omnivore and achieve all of those.
In line with many others in this field and on its periphery (that’ll be me) I don’t feel that the occasional (ie once or twice a month) bacon roll, with meat from a trustworthy butcher, or store with a butcher’s counter, will precipitate cancerous changes if it is eaten alongside a fibre-filled, largely plant-centred diet. This latest study seems to support this, albeit with a beef against bacon and its processed ilk. So, if you do enjoy the odd grill-up (please, not a fry up!), enjoy your good quality meat in moderation and be sure to mind the other really important factors of weight, activity, sun sense, alcohol and tobacco.
Hear endth the lesson. Clear as mud. If you are new to food to glow have a look around my plant food-celebrating recipe index, as well as visit some of the fabulous blogs on my blog roll. You may find a bit of meat here, and certainly some fish, but it’s mainly about the plants. I am a big proponent of Michael Pollan’s pithy summary of how we should be eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And I bet you are too.
Now for the food!
This week in 2011: Carrot and Celeriac Soup
This week in 2012: Orecchiette with Purple Sprouting Broccoli and Chili-Lemon Pangritata (the recipe is shorter than the title) and Lemony Broccoli, Leek and Tarragon Soup
Miss R’s Track of the Week: Laura Mvula’s Green Garden
Chewy, tangy and filling this colourful all-season salad makes a great take-to-work lunch. Use whatever vegetables, and indeed fruit, that look fresh, aiming for different colours and textures. But try and include the broccoli: it is a real treat with the dressing. You might even make up extra dressing and roasted broccoli as an interesting nibble for yourself and others. I know this sounds a bit odd, but if you like broccoli you should love this. I favour the milder, sweeter yellow miso, but for a stronger, punchier flavour, choose ‘hatcho’ brown miso. The ingredients I have below are ideas really, so use whatever appeals. The images shown are of two versions of this salad.
Make this really easy by seeking out precooked and dried mixed wholegrains. I like to use Pedone, which you can find in the UK in Sainsburys and Tesco, but other stores’ own brands are around, such as the Love Life label at Waitrose. These 100% wholegrain packs are great to get a variety of grains in one go without all the different cooking times. If these aren’t available just use quinoa, giant couscous or barley and cook as directed, shaving off a bit of time to keep it a bit chewy, or in the case of quinoa, so it pops in your mouth.
A handful of torn coriander/cilantro leaves
3 tbsp rapeseed/canola oil
Separately toss the broccoli and squash in a little oil and spread onto a large baking sheet (or use two separate ones). Or spray a baking tray with oil spray, lay on the squash and broccoli and spray again. Roast the broccoli in a 180C/350F oven for 12 minutes and about 20 for the squash. Remove from the oven.
While the vegetables are roasting, cook the wholegrains, or other grains, as per packet instructions, adding in the beans/peas for the last three minutes. Pedone cooks in 10 minutes. Drain in a sieve and keep warm.
Make up the dressing by putting all of the ingredients in a deep jug or bowl and whisking until completely smooth. Taste and adjust to how you like, but make it on the strong side because the warm grains suck up and rather dilute some of the taste if the salad isn’t eaten right away. Or make up extra dressing for mixing in for any leftover salad (eg, for a lunchbox).
Pop all of the ingredients into a large serving bowl and toss to mix.
Serves 4 as a light lunch. This will keep for one day in the refrigerator, but take it out and allow it to come to room temperature for best eating. A squeeze of fresh lime will perk up the flavours if eaten the following day.