From ZOË HARCOMBE
[Complete article here with the science and the data. See also Science, Pseudoscience, Nutritional Epidemiology, and Meat]
The BBC were among the first to pick up the story and the story was featured extensively on BBC Breakfast TV and Radio 4 on Tuesday 13th March. Interestingly, John Humphries asked the pertinent question of science reporter Tom Feilden “We’re all going to die – let’s accept that. So what does this lower risk mean?” Tom couldn’t answer the question. He replied “It’s very difficult to unpick these statistics – these numbers are used as bald headlines.” Quite so!
So let us try to unpick the data and see what this article is all about:
At the outset we must highlight the error that this, and every similar study, makes. All that a study like this can even hope to achieve is to suggest a relationship between two things. To then leap from an observed association to causation or risk is ignorant and erroneous. This article makes this mistake – as has every other study I have reviewed demonising red or processed meat over the past year such as this or this…
There are numerous key problems with this study – I’ll share seven:
1) This study can at best suggest an observed relationship, or association. To make allegations about causation and risk is ignorant and erroneous.
2) The numbers are very small. The overall risk of dying was not even one person in a hundred over a 28 year study. If the death rate is very small, a possible slightly higher death rate in certain circumstances is still very small. It does not warrant a scare-tactic, 13% greater risk of dying headline – this is ‘science’ at its worst.
3) Several other critical variables showed correlation with death rates – lack of activity, low cholesterol, BMI, smoking, diabetes, calorie intake and alcohol intake. These have not been excluded to isolate meat consumption alone. The raw data actually shows deaths rates falling with increased meat consumption up to the third or fourth quintile – and this is before all the other variables have been allowed for. This would suggest that meat consumption has a protective effect while weight, alcohol, calorie intake, lack of exercise and so on are all taking their toll.
4) Several other critical variables were not measured, which would logically correlate with certain meat consumption. Unprocessed meat inexplicably included sandwiches, curries, hamburgers (which come in buns) – has the correlation with bread, margarine, white rice, egg fried rice, poppadoms, burger buns, ketchup, relish or even fizzy drinks been correlated with the death rates? Indeed, Frank Hu, one of the authors of this meat study, is also quoted in today’s paper saying that one soft drink a day raises the risk of heart attacks. It doesn’t of course – it is association at best, just as the meat article is – but one does wonder if that harmful soft drink was the one that just happened to be consumed with the hamburger or the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich ‘meal deal’?!
5) Hamburgers and pork sandwiches or lamb curries have been included as unprocessed meat. This is not a study of what real food devotees would consider unprocessed meat therefore. May I suggest that a study of consumers of grass fed ruminants would not deliver the desired headline? The lamb and beef grazing in the fields around me in Wales could not be further in health benefits from the hamburgers in buns and hot dogs in white rolls in fast food America.
6) We are all going to die. We have 100% risk of it in fact. We are not going to increase this risk by 13% or 20% if we have a hamburger and certainly not if we have a grass fed nutrient rich steak. This is headline grabbing egotistical academics doing their worst.
7) As I always consider conflict of interest, it would be remiss of me to end without noting that one of the authors (if not more) is known to be vegetarian and speaks at vegetarian conferences and the invited ‘peer’ review of the article has been done by none other than the man who claims the credit for having turned ex-President Clinton into a vegan – Dean Ornish.
All of this nonsense has given me an appetite, so I’m off to get my complete protein and essential fats plus the full range of B vitamins, ample fat soluble vitamins and lashings of iron, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc – also known as grass fed steak!