New studies on red and processed meat consumption challenges NHS and WHO recommendations

Public health bodies have advised the public that consumption of red meats (beef, veal, pork, lamb and venison) and processed meats (everything from hotdogs and bacon to cooked, sliced meats) should be significantly reduced in our diets after a range of studies found evidence for potential long-term risks to health, including connections to cancer. However, a recent report published by a panel of international scientists have recommended that most adults could continue to eat their current levels of red and processed meats.

What are processed meats?

Processing is a common part of food preparation and is often used for safety and palatability to give consumers access to affordable, convenient and shelf stable choices, packaged for protection during distribution. They may contain approved food additives to keep food in a good condition, thus reducing waste, whilst preserving the nutritional quality.

What does the latest research say?

An international panel of researchers, led by Dalhousie University and McMaster University in Canada, conducted four systematic reviews focused on randomised controlled trials and observational studies looking at the impact of red meat and processed meat consumption on cardiometabolic and cancer outcomes. They also produced a fifth systematic review looking at people's attitudes and health-related values around eating red and processed meats. This research was published in Annals of Internal Medicine.

The researchers concluded that all the previously published literature provided “weak evidence” that red and processed meats pose a significant risk to human health. They also suggested that it’s not essential for most people to reduce or exclude red and processed meats from their diets. It is important to note that this study only focused on the direct health implications of consuming red and processed meats and did not consider environmental or other concerns.

The National Health Service (NHS), recommend that people should try to limit their intake of red and processed meats, including products such as sausages, salami, pâté and beefburgers, because these are generally high in salt and fat. Public Health England (PHE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) both recommend that everyone should try to limit their intake of red and processed meats whilst maintaining a healthy balanced diet.

Diets which involve eating less meat or eliminating it all together such as flexitarian and vegan, are becoming more popular, which is why IFST’s Food Science & Nutrition Special Interest Group have organised the 'Flexitarian to vegan: nutritional impacts of lifestyle choices' interactive event on 23 October. Book your place to take part in the event.