As happened with light products and saturated fats, meat consumption is now at the forefront of the food debate. The key to this story lies in the nuances: there are no absolute truths, and shades of grey outweigh the black and white. To help you understand this debate with the right information, we will discuss the relevant nuances.
TEXT: LAURA SÁNCHEZ IMAGES: ISTOCK
Although the controversy over meat consumption seems to have flared up again in recent months, the truth is that it began back in 2015. In that year, the WHO included red meat among the foods whose consumption increased the risk of developingcolon and rectal cancer. Previously, the WHO had already warned about the dangers of fats and sugar, with subsequent awarenessraising campaigns. The 2015 announcement marked the beginning of the meat battle.
But what exactly was the WHO claiming? The organization recommended that we reduce our consumption of meat, especially processed and red meat, because these are considered, respectively, as being confirmed as carcinogenic (group 1) or probably carcinogenic in humans (group 2A) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency affiliated to the WHO.
“In the case of processed meats the evidence is strong. With red meat, there is some controversy because the results of epidemiological studies are not very clear”, explains Oscar Picazo, head of projects in the Fundación MAPFRE Health Promotion Area. It is known that carcinogenic substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heterocyclic amines, nitrosoamines and acrylamides are produced when meat is cooked. However, the results of the studies are not as conclusive as in the case of processed meats. Moreover, the initial studies grouped the two types of meat into the same category. What has happened is that when separate analyses have been carried out, the negative effect has been upheld for processed meat, but the level of risk has been reduced for red meat.”
Another factor adds to the controversy. Óscar Picazo explains that within the epidemiological studies on which these results are based, there are also other types of not inconsiderable biases that distort the results: “For example, people who tend to consume more processed or red meats are those who tend to take less care of their health, have a poorer diet overall, drink alcohol, smoke, are sedentary, and so on. Although attempts have been made to control for these kinds of habits, it is not always possible to disentangle these effects in the results of the studies.”
So, let us look at the objective figures. How much meat is consumed in Spain? The latest data from the Food Consumption Report, produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, show that in 2020 Spanish households increased their meat consumption by 10.5%, reaching 2,305.25 million kilos. The average person ate 49.86 kilos of meat in 2020, which is 4.62 kilos more than in 2019. Fresh meat is the most commonly consumed, with a per person intake of 36.20 kilos per year, 3.43 kilos more than in the previous period. Per capita consumption of processed meat is one third that of fresh meat, at 12.39 kilos per year, and for frozen meat it was just 1.28 kilos in 2020.
The Spanish Food Safety Agency recommends eating between 200 and 500 grams of meat per week – the WHO advises that we should not exceed 500 grams – so consumption in Spain is above these recommendations. However, the 2020 figure is influenced by another important nuance: staying at home because of the pandemic led to an increase in meat consumption, breaking the downward trend that had been underway since 2012.
The data clearly show the need to reduce our meat intake to bring the figures within the official recommendations. However, it is quite another thing to say that, as has been claimed in some quarters, meat is bad for human health in general. “This is not true. In fact, the nutritional contribution of meat is important, especially in certain vital stages such as the development of children and adolescents”, explains Óscar Picazo. “In nutrition, context is important, and as part of a healthy Mediterranean-type diet, rich in vegetables, the nutritional contribution of quality meat is positive. It is paradoxical, but, for example, crisps or cereal-based baked goods (pastries, bread, etc.) have also been classified as a probable carcinogen in humans (2A) due to the presence of acrylamide, and yet no one is claiming that potatoes or bread are bad for our health. Again, there are nuances: the context, how the food is cooked or eaten, how often, and the rest of the diet, are all important factors.”
Beyond diet itself, there are other aspects to consider in the meat debate that also lend themselves to various interpretations and which therefore involve different nuances. For example, there is a widespread claim that 15,000 liters of water are required to produce one kilo of meat. The meat sector argues that 90% of the water attributed to meat production is “green water”, in other words, water from rainfall which, if the animals were to disappear, would continue to fall in the same way. They also claim that only 10% corresponds to “blue water” and “grey water”, that CO2 emissions are lower than for many vegetable crops, and that livestock meat production represents only 7.8% of total greenhouse gas emissions in Spain.
“The models for calculating the ecological food footprint are very complex, and as part of the environmental impact we must not only take into account the water or greenhouse gas footprint, but other parameters such as land use, effect on biodiversity, soil, water and air pollution, energy consumption, and a long list of other factors”, explains Picazo. “There is a lot of work to be done to improve production models, but sending the message to the population that eating less meat will save the planet is simplistic to say the least.”
Ethics and economics are not immune from controversy either. In terms of ethics, it is of course essential to improve the way we treat animals and eliminate cruelty throughout the process. Animal rights activists push for a vegan diet.
Staying at home because of the pandemic led to increased meat consumption in 2020, breaking the downward trend that had been underway since 2012
From an economic point of view, some sectors, especially related to the food industry, are promoting the production of synthetic meat. Artificial meat is created in laboratories from stem cells extracted from animal muscles: from cows, chickens and pigs, along with other elements such as fetal bovine serum, myoglobin, vitamins, amino acids, fat and connective tissue. This new form of production was unveiled in 2012, when the first hamburger made in a laboratory was presented in London. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports this type of production, which still raises many questions and sparks heated debate. Other groups such as the Eat-right commission or the World Economic Forum are openly promoting veganism, while other voices criticize them.
Professor Frédéric Leroy, a researcher in food science and biotechnology at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, is at the forefront of one current of thought suggesting that meat is now being used as a scapegoat by environmental and commercial campaigners. Leroy believes these groups base much of their conclusions on bad science. “Red meat is a valuable nutrient-rich food and a key component of our evolutionary diets. Red meat has been consumed since the dawn of humanity, sometimes in enormous quantities. One and a half million years ago, we adapted to eating meat, both anatomically and physiologically, and could not have survived without it”, writes Leroy. “Studies have shown that meat consumption is associated with a lower mortality rate and less heart disease. Red meat consumption in randomized controlled trials does not lead to a worse risk profile for inflammation, oxidative stress or heart disease.”
In short, as Óscar Picazo explains, in the meat debate we often encounter premises that are sold as absolute truths, “both in terms of health and environmental issues. But nothing is black and white in this matter. In the meat debate there are many nuances to be taken into account.”