Getting under meat’s skin
We’re hardwired to eat meat: as much as we can get. Research shows that if you give a diet of unlimited meat to omnivorous animals, whether a fly, a mouse or a chimpanzee, they will go on gorging until they are fat and ill. And that is precisely what has happened to humans.
Meat is cheaper than at any other time in history and, across the globe, we’re all tucking in. Consumers in the UAE eat 18 times more meat per capita than the global average, according to a study by the Ministry of Foreign Trade, and in the UK, most people consume more than their own body weight in animal flesh at an annual average of around 86kg per person: nearly twice as much as health guidelines recommend.
But that’s still puny compared with the meat feast going on in Australia and in the US. There, each person eats 120kg or more a year: 21,000 animals each in a lifetime. It is not doing any of us any good.
In fact, long-term studies on hundreds of thousands of people in rich countries show that the more meat – especially red and processed meat – you eat, the shorter your life will be. Bowel cancer, one of the key diseases associated with meat eating, has risen swiftly to be the second or third biggest killer in most developed countries.
Even the most conscientious carnivores can’t dodge the statistics: the new dietary killers don’t give any credit for shopping organic. The dangerous proteins in economy beefburgers are just as present in the most expensive grass-fed, rare-breed beef steak.
A survey of surveys, done last year by the Harvard School of Public Health, puts the risk into simple terms: eat an extra portion of red, cured or processed meat a day and your chances of developing diabetes, heart disease or bowel cancer soar. Your risk of dying prematurely goes up by 13 per cent. And if we all kept ourselves to an average and it is predicted that the number of cases will rise to 2.2 million by 2030.
What’s intriguing is that comparatively few people in poorer parts of the world suffer from this disease; just five people in every 100,000 get bowel cancer in Kenya (although, of course, most of those who get it there will die from it). And the more meat a population eats, the more bowel cancer there is.
So, should there be health warnings on every packet of beefburgers? Some academics think that much more must be done to publicise the new threats in light of the rise of “diabesity” and diet-related cancer. But as so often happens when food, health and big money come together, there is still enough controversy and contradictory opinion, particularly over meat and cancer, to have kept the regulators’ hands off – so far.
Professor Tim Key, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, explains the problem. “Nobody doubts that diet is important and we know that vegetarians suffer less colorectal cancer. More than that we cannot say definitively because there’s something we don’t yet understand: the direct mechanism by which meat affects the colon.” So does Professor Key eat red meat? He has, he confesses, long been a vegan – but chiefly because of animal-welfare concerns.
Today theWorld Cancer Research Fund recommends eating no more than 500g (cooked weight) per week of red meat, and avoiding processed meats all together. The Harvard study urges meaty moderation and taking a Mediterranean approach to diet, whereby red meat appears only “now and then”.
But the problem is that the research, while convincing, remains correlational – there’s clearly a link, but the cause has not been shown. Everyone in food science and public health knows that the massive changes in diet of the 20th century have – along with smoking – led to a rise in a whole range of diseases, from diabetes to cancer, that our ancestors hardly knew of. Mass population studies in 1975 first suggested a link between bowel cancer and meat eating, but no one yet has tracked down why it happens. And that is leading some scientists to doubt they ever will. On the surface meat looks pretty simple. By definition, it is muscle, made of 75 per cent water, 5 per cent fat and 20 per cent protein. But in each slice of a steak lies much complex chemistry. Science is still struggling to understand the workings of these compounds, but what is now accepted is that cooking can turn some of them