Red meat has had negative press which seemed to say that it was bad for us. But a lack of red meat comes with its own risks.
Research from the Meat Advisory Panel shows that when surveyed less than half of the respondents correctly name pork as a type of red meat. Almost half wrongly believe that spinach is a better source of iron than red meat and believe green leafy vegetables provide vitamin D (when they contain none). Women are also unaware of their greater need for iron than men. The survey reveals that misconceptions about meat may be leaving us at risk of health problems. Less than half (47%)of 2,000 respondents to the Meat Advisory Panel survey correctly named pork as a type of red meat and one in five (22%) did not realise that lamb is also classed as a red meat. But, with age comes better culinary knowledge. Almost all (98%) of those over 55 identified beef as a red meat, compared with 82% of 18 to 24-year-olds.
Professor Robert Pickard, Emeritus Professor of Neurobiology, University of Cardiff and a member of the Meat Advisory Panel commented on the survey results, saying, “Lean red meat is a valuable source of iron and vitamin D, not to mention protein, zinc and other important nutrients. But unfortunately far too many people appear to be losing sight of the importance of meat within a healthy diet. This gap in knowledge could have a detrimental impact on our health; a lack of iron can lead to anaemia, whilst a lack of vitamin D is putting people at risk of bone problems, including osteomalacia in adults. Some research suggests that not getting enough vitamin D may also be linked to heart conditions, diabetes, asthma and cognitive impairment in older adults.”
When asked about their red meat-eating habits two out of three (65%) of those surveyed believe red meat is an important part of a healthy diet; almost half (47%) tuck into a red-meat meal between one and four times a week. Twenty two per cent of men are the most likely to eat meat every day, compared with 15% of women. Beef is the most popular red meat, with 64% of respondents placing it among their top three favourite meats, followed by pork (47%). Brits also love a bacon butty, with almost three out of four (72%) enjoying bacon at least once a week.
When it comes to our health, low levels of both iron and vitamin D are common within UK population groups and can lead to a range of health-related problems. Dr Carrie Ruxton, dietitian and member of the Meat Advisory Panel comments: “Red meat is one of the best sources of easily absorbed iron and it is particularly important for women to understand the value of including beef, pork or lamb as a regular part of their diets. Low iron levels can lead to a host of niggling health problems, including tiredness, poor concentration, headaches, feeling short of breath, irritability and dizziness. Symptoms are easily overlooked, but other warning signs include pale skin, brittle nails, cracked lips, muscle pain and feeling the cold.”
D for diet
Awareness of vitamin D was also poor, with more than one in five in the survey (22%) wrongly asserting that green leafy vegetables provide some vitamin D when, in fact, they contain none and almost one in ten (7%) claimed citrus fruits, which are also devoid of D, are a source of the vitamin. However, 12% correctly listed red meat as a useful source of vitamin D.
Lack of knowledge surrounding food sources of Vitamin D is a matter of concern as there is growing evidence that vitamin D plays an important role in maintaining the immune system. Studies have linked low blood levels to an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes and auto-immune conditions, such as multiple sclerosis (and Type 1 diabetes).
Professor Pickard adds, “We are only just beginning to learn how important vitamin D is for long term health and there is now good evidence that it may have a role in protecting against common killers such as cancer and heart disease. Our climate means that we often can’t make enough from sunshine and many of us have sub-optimal levels, so it is important that we get the most from natural food sources — such as red meat.”
Too much meat?
While some studies have linked high levels of meat consumption with health issues, the evidence is inconsistent and the research varies in its quality – for instance one paper that found a link between meat and obesity included pies and pastries as well as lean cuts of meat. Other research found that lean meat consumption does not impact on risk of chronic disease. Chemicals called heterocyclic amines may be produced when meat is cooked or charred and these have been linked with an increased cancer risk. However, there is also evidence that meat contains nutrients with anticancer properties, such as LC n-3 PUFA, conjugated linoleic acids, vitamins B6, B12, D and selenium.
Older studies may not be so relevant today as the fat content of meat has reduced considerably over the past few decades as a result of changes in breeding and animal feeding practices.
Dr Carrie Ruxton says: “Meat has long played a central role in the human diet and is now recognised as an important source of high-quality protein and essential micronutrients. The research indicates that even in developed countries such as the UK, with a plentiful food supply, there is evidence of under-consumption of key vitamins and minerals that support long-term health. It is notable that many of these are present in red meat, such as iron, vitamin A, vitamin D, selenium, magnesium, potassium and zinc.”
Lean on me
So with the BBQ season heating up and summer around the corner, maybe we can slap a few burgers on the barbie and worry less about them being bad for us, but in fact enjoy the fact that we’re stoking up on some vital vitamins. Says Dr Carrie Ruxton, “Moderate amounts of lean red meat provide a wide range of important nutrients, without substantially increasing intakes of energy and saturated fat. People who eat lean meat regularly tend to eat more vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products and have a higher intake of nutrients overall, suggesting that inclusion of red meat does not displace other important foods. Meat had a central role in the diet of early man and continues to do so in modern times. When eaten as part of a balanced diet, red meat represents an important source of protein and essential nutrients, which may contribute towards improving diet quality from weaning to old age. Recommended intakes for red meat –– up to 500g cooked weight per week.”
What’s in red meat?
Red meat – defined as beef, veal, pork and lamb, which is fresh, minced or frozen – is a source of high quality protein and important micronutrients. Beef and lamb are classed as a ‘rich source’ – more than 30% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) – of vitamin B3 (niacin), B12 (cyanocobalamin) and zinc. It is also a ‘source’ – 15% or more of the RDA – of iron, potassium and phosphorous. Pork is also a ‘rich source’ of vitamin B1 (thiamin). Meat, particularly from grass-fed animals, can be a valuable source of long chain (LC) n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) such as omega 3 fatty acids. Research shows that these fatty acids support normal foetal development as well as help lower the risk of inflammatory conditions, depression and dementia in later life. Red meat is also an important source of haem iron –– a type that is readily absorbed –– and data shows that average iron intakes in the UK are inadequate, especially among females in general and during pregnancy.
This research was funded by the Meat Advisory Panel, which is supported by an unrestricted grant from the British Pork Executive (BPEX) and the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) divisions of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors alone.