Thursday 17 October 2019

The great bacon debate: Is red meat back on the menu?

Expert: Dietitian Aveen Bannon advises eating meat in moderation.
Photo: Brian McEvoy
Expert: Dietitian Aveen Bannon advises eating meat in moderation. Photo: Brian McEvoy

Alex Meehan

For many years, Irish consumers have been warned against eating too much red meat and in particular processed meats such as sausages, rashers and burgers.

In the past, excessive consumption of these foods have been linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease and almost universally around the world health bodies and organisations recommend that people keep consumption of them to a minimum.

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For people hooked on fried breakfasts, sausage rolls or the odd steak with pepper sauce, that means these mainstays of the Irish diet have come served with a side order of guilt. However, a series of four new studies published in US medical journal the Annals of Internal Medicine have cast doubt on this guidance.

An international group of researchers produced a series of analyses that concluded that the advice not to eat these foods is not backed by good scientific evidence. The studies go as far as to say that there is no compelling evidence that reducing consumption of red meat or processed meats will be beneficial to an individual.

So, what's the consumer to take from this controversial advice? Last week it was unhealthy to tuck into a sausage sandwich, this week it's not? With dietary advice seemly changing regularly, how are we meant to know what is good for us, and what isn't?

"Headlines like this make it very hard for consumers to know what to do. You'll find that a research study like this comes out and is controversial because it contradicts something we thought we knew so it makes headlines around the world," said Aveen Bannon, a consultant dietitian working at the Dublin Nutrition Centre.

"But the reality is that when health bodies make official recommendations about diet, they don't do it based off the results of one study, or even one group of studies. They do it based off hundreds and hundreds of studies."

The current advice from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) on consumption of red meat and processed meat products made from beef, pork and lamb comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organisation.

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Experts urged people to enjoy their sausages and bacon

It stipulates that these foods can be eaten safely as long as it's in moderation. Earlier this year, the FSAI published an updated healthy eating guide and as part of that, it recommended that consumers limit themselves to 50g to 75g of red meat a day, around half the size of the palm of one hand, or one sausage or one and a half rasher of bacon. It says it currently has no plans to update its advice.

"As a science-based organisation, we are always monitoring, assessing and responding to developments within the scientific literature. Consumption of processed meats should be limited because they are high in salt, preservatives and often they are high in fat," said Nuala Collins, Public Health Nutrition Manager, FSAI.

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"Processed meats are cured meats such as ham, sausages, chorizo, luncheon meats and Italian meats such as prosciutto, salami or pancetta. We published a healthy eating, food safety and food legislation guide for health professionals earlier this year and it's available from our website."

The problem for the ordinary consumer, according to Aveen Bannon, is that there's nothing particularly new or exciting about mainstream nutritional advice - eat meat in moderation, try not to eat fattening foods too often and make vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds a larger part of your diet.

"The take-away many people will have from these headlines is that avoiding these foods was 'bad advice' but actually it wasn't bad advice," she said.

If people ate less red meat as a result of the official dietary guidelines, that was a good thing according to Bannon, regardless of this new research. The reason is that when people ate less red meat, they didn't eat less overall, they just made up the balance of their food intake with things like vegetables, fruit and fibre.

"It's a nuanced issue. Take the advice on eggs - at one point we were told you could only eat three eggs a week but now you can have seven. That can prompt people to ask, are eggs good or bad for you? But they were never bad for you, it was all about the amount of them you eat," she said.

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Bannon says she can't see the public dietary guidelines being changed on the back of this new research. It's far too early for it to be considered conclusive.

"There are many reasons why we should promote the limiting of consumption of red meat such as issues to do with sustainability and the environment. I would be surprised if any of the official advice given out is changed because in particular those meats with high levels of fat and salt have been associated with bowel cancer in the past, but it's important to note that this was coupled with low intake of fruit and vegetables," she said.

Irish Independent

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