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Red meat: another inconvenient truth

BMJ 2017; 357 doi: (Published 11 May 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;357:j2278

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Re: Red meat: another inconvenient truth

Perhaps an inconvenient truth, but largely in America.

There, animal protein largely comprises 'lot fed' beef and pork, laced with antibiotics and fed largely on soy protein and other concentrates with restriction of movement for most of the life cycle of the animal. And, as you point out a large proportion is barbecued and/or smoked to produce considerable toxins from charring and overheating.

This is not comparable with UK and many Continental sources (yet) which also have higher fat, proportionate to protein as well as being wholly or partly grass fed or 'grass finished'. So the differences are pronounced and do not reflect the diet of those of us (me included) who eat meat in reasonable amounts interspersed with fish and white meat; low carbohydrate vegetables; fermented dairy (cheese) and eggs.

Our ancestors ate many things in the move from the equatorial plains into northern climes over thousands of years and yet even when we commenced down the agricultural route we were largely herders of animals, which still persists today in the far north and parts of Africa and yet according to Weston Price these peoples displayed stellar health on diets largely comprising animals; birds; fish and dairy, and fell extremely ill when introduced to western diets of rice; flour and sugar.

Our largest problem is the industrialisation of agriculture and the production of meat through inappropriate breed choices, favouring high yield milk cattle and meat animals that add weight rapidly in confined spaces on diets that could in no way resemble what one could term 'natural'. When hardy slow growing sheep and cattle can be raised on poor land not conducive to crops, we instead raise heather and game birds as well as that Highland 'pest' breed, the Red Deer. We forget that we could ameliorate our carbon footprint by replanting the trees we removed and at the same time reduce the flooding synonymous with bare hill sides.

This use of diets that do not mimic any previous grazing habitat input produces meats that are much higher in polyunsaturated fats that are mainly n-6, rather than fully saturated and monounsaturated, which in essence makes this meat much more unhealthy and more conducive to producing toxins in cooking because of the fragility of the n-6 molecules.

This is the diet of the study cohort along with the higher content of processed meat products that form a large elements of the American diet. These also have a proportion of preservatives, much higher than one would expect to see in European products especially those termed as 'artisan'. In addition, the US always list hamburger meat (an American staple) as being 'unprocessed' when it clearly is nothing of the sort being often laced with sodium or potassium nitrite (@0.6%). This undoubtedly distorts the study conclusions.

These nitrites form nitrosamines when cooked and even when introduced to stomach acid. It is however, a legal requirement to add these to prevent botulism. Nitrosamines are carcinogenic so a healthy addition of Ascorbic Acid is needed to combat this propensity but it will only ameliorate it.

So, let's all eat vegetables and save the planet some may say but the very nitrites used in meat preservation are very high in natural root and green leafy vegetables, the very things the vegetarian lobby exhorts us to eat. Well, I simply cannot accept that. We ate mammals; birds and fish for millennia with no ill effects, such that our colons shrank to a small proportion of that of our primate ancestors. So we are now adapted to eating meat however distasteful this is to the squeamish, because we are a predator species ourselves, no matter how much we sanitise our method of hunting it.

Competing interests: No competing interests

11 May 2017
Ernest T Berry
Security Systems Engineer and Consultant. Human Biologist and Biochemist (failed).Patient Reviewer.