A.M.I. questions reliability of research on meat consumption

by Bryan Salvage
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ROCKVILLE, MD. — Responding to research published by the American Medical Association linking red and processed meat consumption to "modest increases" in mortality, American Meat Institute officials discounted the findings because they were based on "unreliable" methodology.

A report on the research, which was published in the March 23 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, concludes that people who eat more red meat and processed meat appear to have somewhat higher risk of death over a 10-year period. The report’s findings were based on the responses of approximately 500,000 people between the ages of 50 and 71 who self reported their health status and food intake over the previous year. Contrasting the links to consumption of red and processed meats, the study concluded that higher intake of white meat was associated with a slightly decreased risk of mortality overall or cancer-related death.

"Meat intake varies substantially around the world, but the impact of consuming higher levels of meat in relation to chronic disease mortality [death] is ambiguous," the authors wrote.

Researchers asked people to recall what they had eaten over the previous 12 months and to record it as part of a 35-page, questionnaire. A.M.I. points out that the front page of the questionnaire states: "Answer each question as best you can. Estimate if you are not sure. A guess is better than leaving a blank."

"Health conclusions and public policy recommendations should not be based on mere guesses," said James Hodges, A.M.I. executive vice-president.

The A.M.I argues, among other things, the study tries to predict the future risk of death by relying on what it calls "notoriously unreliable" self-reporting about the food eaten by respondents over prolonged periods of time.

"Single studies cannot be used to draw major conclusions, yet that’s what these authors seem to be doing by releasing this study with a major national press release," Mr. Hodges said.

A.M.I. also points out the merits of research that reach far different conclusions about the role of meat in the diet, which the authors did not acknowledge in their discussion of their own interpretations of the study data. A paper published in the March 11 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vegetarians had higher risk of colon cancer than meat eaters did. Additionally, a Harvard study involving 725,000 people that examined red and processed meat and colon cancer — the largest of its kind on this topic — concluded that there was no link between the two. Still another report from the same research group, failed to find a protective effect of fruit and vegetables against colorectal cancer in this same population group.

Clearly there is a great deal of inconsistency in this type of research, Mr. Hodges said.

"Consumers should set this latest ‘study of the week’ aside or they may experience another case of nutrition whiplash."

Dr. Shalene McNeill, PhD., R.D., executive director, Human Nutrition Research, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Centennial, Colo., pointed out that consumption of any particular food is less likely a contributing factor to disease or death than are lifestyle factors.

"This latest research is complicated by the fact that study participants exhibited unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, lack of physical activity and maintaining a higher body mass index, which are known risk factors for chronic disease," she added.

What can be concluded from this study is that a balanced diet and overall healthy lifestyle can make a difference in helping prevent chronic disease, she said. "The science is clear about the important steps we can all take to help decrease risk: Avoid smoking, use alcohol responsibly, eat a balanced diet, be physically active, maintain a healthy weight and eat a nutrient-rich, balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low- and nonfat dairy and lean meats," she added. "U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend the average adult eat 5.5 ounces from the meat group each day, and nothing about this latest research suggest any changes in that advice."

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