Niamh Horan: After cancer claims, will our love affair with meat come to an end?
The World Health Organisation has warned meat causes cancer but do we love it too much to give up, asks Niamh Horan
Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30
Becoming a vegetarian is a big missed steak. So reads a sign outside a popular Dublin butchers.
The quirky post was in response to the growing number of health experts advising against the amount and type- of meat we are eating.
They say it is sending more and more of us to the cancer wards. We can't say we didn't know. We were first warned seven years ago by the World Research Cancer Fund.
Over 2,000 cuts of meat later (that's only if you've been eating it once a day), and we're only starting to get uncomfortable as the World Health Organisation sounds the siren again this week.
We have always had a terrible track record when it comes to putting health before pleasure. In 1950 we were warned off cigarettes. It took 30 years to see a decline in smoking and - as recently as the noughties - we were still sitting in plumes of smoke on airplanes, bars and restaurants.
Sugar has played out in the same way. In 1972 a British professor, John Yudkin, released a book Pure, white and deadly, the first definitive work linking sugar to obesity, heart attack, stroke and cancer.
He was widely ridiculed. His work, described as "flimsy", his conferences cancelled under pressure from food giants and the papers he produced attacking sugar omitted from publications.
One obesity epidemic later and it's just about starting to sink in. It will take years for junk food vending machines to disappear from schools and hospitals and governments to implement a sugar tax.
So what's the future of meat? And is the risk really confined to processed food or, as with smoking, will the full extent only become clear in time?
Our attitudes have dramatically changed since our grandparents time. While they sourced meat locally, serving it in a recognisable cut beside a potato and two veg, we have become indifferent to what goes in our mouths.
'Spice bags' - a mystery mix of crispy chicken balls, chips and spices at the local Chinese - have become one of the most popular fast food take outs in Ireland. In children's lunch boxes, shiny pink ham is pressed into the shape of teddy bears or put in a fun pack to 'build' between crackers and cheese. On their dinner plates, chicken nuggets appear in the shape of crispy dinosaurs.
It is all traced back to the 1980s when 'fat' became a by-word for cholesterol and sales of red meat plummeted.
Food giants called in focus groups of mothers. They were the ones charged with the weekly grocery shop. They heard the same complaint repeatedly: as the female population went out to work, they had little time and needed to make food fun and easy to eat.
It gave rise to an explosion of quick fix, packaged meals.
Lately many have sworn off processed meals. For health conscious adults trying to keep it as natural as possible, the paleo diet is the new religion; the holy grail of rock hard abs.
Some diehard followers eat several cuts of meat a day as experts urge us to chomp on meat, veg and nuts - the 'hunter gatherer' way of our ancestors.
But even the most fearsome of our early humans didn't catch and kill meat once or twice a day. For the most part they were sustained by plants, berries and vegetables.
If you look at the way our bodies are designed, we aren't physically built for a meat heavy diet. Our hands are flat with long fingers for pulling down fruit; most of our teeth are flat for grinding plant matter; our intestines are 12 times as long as our trunk to aid absorption of nutrients over long periods; our stomach and liver have a low concentrate and tolerance of acid-needed to digest animal protein.
Compare that then to the carnivorous tigers with sharp claws to rip apart prey; pointed fangs and sharp back molars to tear the meat; intestines only three times as long as their trunk, designed to take in and expel meat waste quickly, while their liver and stomach have high concentrates of uric acid to break down animal protein.
Anyone who tells you that a more vegetarian approach to living will deprive you of the protein you need to build muscle need only look to the gorilla. Pound for pound, the strongest animal on earth. You can get strength from alternative sources - you've just got to know the right diet.
Unfortunately it's become too easy to be fooled by food manufacturers if we're trying to stick to meat in it's most basic form.
Even if you pick up a basic steak, chicken or turkey in supermarket chains, turn over the packet and you'll see it's doused in salt.
And what about the source? Kerry Group, owners of the two best-known Irish breakfast brands, Denny and Galtee, will only say "the vast majority" of their pig meat products are sourced in Ireland.
Likewise a small percentage of imported beef blood from the Netherlands goes into famous Clonakilty black pudding.
Manage to cut out packaged meat and you're still up against the fact that some Irish livestock are fed a mixed grain to augment a mostly grass diet.
And that's before you even consider the injections the animals get in the journey to your plate.
Mike Magan, farmer and chairman of Animal Health Ireland says there are "residue checks" at the processing point of meat to ensure the proper withdrawal period has been adhered to.
Asked what injections cattle get he says 'best gold standard best practice' would mean the cattle are injected for three or four different diseases each year in addition to being treated for parasites three or four times a year.
More food for thought is in the environment: our meat eating is the single biggest human activity to wreak havoc on the planet. A total of 40pc of the world's land surface is used for the purposes of feeding the world's 7 billion population - and the vast majority supports chickens, pigs and cattle for our fork. It all takes one-third of the world's fresh water to maintain.
Scary when you think that as soon as 2025, large parts of the world could experience water shortages.
Indeed experts predict the next world war will be over water. Even Goldman Sachs has described it as "the petroleum of the next century". But hey, no one likes giving up something they love.
The assumption in every public health warning is that we want to live as long as possible. Even if it means cutting out life's simple pleasures. And the truth is many people don't. Change will happen slowly but it will take future generations to look back at us and ask 'what the hell were they thinking?'