Is Meat good for you? A questionable study

The revelation of links of interest between researchers and the agri-food industry calls into question a vast and resounding nutritional study claiming that meat consumption should not be reduced

Preamble: Whatever the field, be it fundamental physics, applied chemistry or archaeology, a scientific study must comply with an essential principle: to declare where it is talking about. And this is totally logical because it can be assumed that a student researcher, for example, oil pollution, will not have the same discourse, nor indeed the same research direction, depending on whether he or she is employed, and therefore funded, by Total or by a public agency of the coastal conservatory.

Research work in any publication must therefore be accompanied by a warning stating the conflicts of interest that researchers have with the subject of their study and any private partners.

And that is precisely what is being criticized by the group of scientists who issued a recommendation on 30 September 2019. Six articles published by the scientific journal Annals of Internal Medicine and signed by a group of researchers called NutriRecs, recommend continuing to eat meat for health reasons!

Undisclosed links of interest

To reach this conclusion, which contradicts all experts on the issue and global health recommendations, the researchers carried out a meta-analysis. That is, they reviewed existing studies in order to draw a new conclusion. Thus, about 100 observational studies linking meat consumption and various diseases were examined. While they note the health benefits that can result from a reduction in meat consumption, they consider them insufficient to motivate a change in dietary behaviour: "The panel suggests that adults maintain their current meat consumption," the team concludes.

"This is not just another study on red meat," says first author Bradley Johnston (Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada),"but a series of high quality analyses resulting in a series of recommendations that we believe are much more robust, reliable and transparent. So be it. On the other hand, what is far from transparent are the links of interest between researchers and the agri-food industry, totally ignored in the series of articles. The NutriRECS consortium to which the researchers belong has a partnership with a Texas university partially funded by the beef industry. One of the authors Patrick Stover, vice-chancellor and dean of the Texas Agency for Agriculture and Life Sciences (Agrilife), defends this partnership, claiming that of the $170 million in research carried out by its structure in 2019, $4.5 million, "a small part of our portfolio" comes from industrial groups. But did it justify ignoring this contribution?

Funding received in December 2016 by the lead author

One can also wonder about the modest veil placed on the funding received in December 2016 by lead author Bradley Johnston for sugar. Trying to discredit health recommendations aimed at reducing consumption, this study was funded by the International Institute of Life Sciences (ILSI), whose members include McDonald, Coca-Cola or Pepsi... "This money was received in 2015, he pleads today, outside the three-year period for declaring conflicts of interest". Finally, beyond these moral questions, the methodology used by NutriRecs is pointed out, in particular a tool called Grade.

Mainly used to measure the quality of clinical drug trials, Grade would be incompetent to evaluate nutritional studies.

Controversial meat study: "Le Monde" reveals links between authors and the agri-food sector

Researchers who have derived favourable recommendations for meat consumption from their work have reportedly failed to report links with the agri-food industry. This is what the newspaper "Le Monde" reveals.

Four researchers from seven countries - some from the Canadian universities of McMaster and Dalhousie - have recently reported that reducing their consumption of red meat and processed meat has a low impact on their health. Based on their research, they wrote a series of recommendations published on October 1 in the American journal Annals of Internal Medicine, advising adults in particular to continue their current consumption of red meat, namely three to four weekly portions in North America and Europe.

This position is contrary to the recommendations of the French National Nutrition and Health Programme and the WHO. However, according to the newspaper Le Monde of 15 October 2019, several of these scientists have failed to declare their relations with the agri-food sector.

Ethical requirements

Le Monde cites nutritionist Patrick Stover in particular, pointing out that his Texas university would benefit from several million dollars in funding from the meat and livestock sector. Funding that the researcher would not have communicated to the journal Annals of Internal Medicine when, as the French daily reminds us, the mention of such information is part of the journal's ethical requirements.

Also cited by Le Monde, the coordinator of the work, Bradley Johnson, a professor at a Canadian university: he did not mention a payment received in 2015 from a scientific lobbying organization in the agri-food sector.

Criticisms from experts in nutrition and epidemiology

As soon as the study and its recommendations were published, criticism was raised among experts in nutrition and epidemiology. For example, in the person of its research director, the Word Cancer Research Fund stated that it did not reverse its instructions. "We maintain our confidence in the rigorous research conducted over the past 30 years," said Giota Mitrou.

"This is not just another study on red meat and processed meat, but a series of high quality systematic reviews, leading to recommendations that we find much more transparent, robust and reliable," said Bradley Johnston, Associate Professor at Dalhousie University.


Food: pork and poultry, meat preferred by the French

Pork ranks first among the most popular meats in France.

A study published on Tuesday, October 15, tells us a lot about French meat consumption, especially that pork remains the most consumed meat. "It is the most consumed meat in the country with 32 kg per year and per person," explains Julien Duponchel on stage. "Pork is still particularly popular, even if we eat a little less than before, -7% over a year. In second place is poultry, with 30 kg per year. It's a market that's exploding," he says.

Significant price variations

Historically the most consumed, red meat is falling apart with only 23 kg of beef per year per person. The change is mainly due to price. "There are significant variations between different meats. The average price per kilo of beef is 16 euros, pork 8.60 euros and poultry 5.4 euros. The calculation is quick," he says.

Vegetarianism: a rather feminine, young, urban and marginal profile

Vegetarianism, veganism or veganism fill social networks. On the lookout for changes in consumer habits, the major food companies (Nestlé, Danone, Cargill...) are investing and the start-up is flourishing with the support of the Gafa. And yet "the phenomenon, by its still marginal nature, remains difficult to measure, precisely and comparably over time and between countries, due to the lack of large-scale systematic surveys in different countries", say France-Agrimer and the Observatory of Eating Habits, which asked Credoc to carry out an exploratory study on vegetarianism in four European countries.

The words themselves are poorly, if not unknown to the public. Thus, some respondents consider themselves vegetarians because they no longer eat meat very regularly, adds France-Agrimer.

Non-financial reasons

In any case, and given the partial nature of the data, "only 6% of respondents in France, Spain, the United Kingdom and Germany declare themselves vegetarians, vegans or vegans". This figure may be "overestimated" given that some declared vegetarians consume meat on an occasional basis or more regularly.

Even if "vegetarians remain a very small minority", trends are emerging such as those of people who limit their meat consumption "for non-financial reasons without taking the step of vegetarianism".

They represent between 20% and 25% of the populations of the four countries studied: France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Total stop, animal cause

The study shows that there are many reasons why people decide to eat less meat or no longer eat it. They vary by country and respondent.  Health is most frequently cited by those who have decided to eat less meat. The total cessation, on the other hand, results from ethical considerations, including the animal cause. Concern for animal welfare seems to mark a change in attitude towards meat, especially among young people, who are more receptive to ethical arguments than their elders.

Even if it is difficult to establish a vegetarian profile in each country because of the small number of people identified, France-Agrimer continues, the phenomenon seems to attract more women, people under 35, urban populations, executives or highly educated. More widespread, flexitarism would respond to slightly different logics as part of a "consume less but better" trend.


The greenback. Do you have to become a vegetarian to save the planet?

Nearly 800 French university restaurants have just participated in the Green Monday operation to serve a vegetarian meal, and fast food chains are putting one after the other on meatless burgers.

Alternatives to help us reduce our meat consumption.

Buffalo Grill will be featuring steaks from the Californian brand "Beyond meat", made from peas, rapeseed and seasonings, on its menu from Wednesday 16 October. Together with the other company "Impossible food", they share the vegetable steak market. "Impossible food" even makes his steaks bleed with a GMO substance, soya haemoglobin. It looks like steak, it may taste like steak but it's not a steak.

Beyond meat claims that its products emit 90% less greenhouse gases than a meat steak. But researchers are more doubtful about the impact on soils and water consumption. Cows emit methane by ruminant, but soy monoculture, for example, also requires nitrogen fertilizers. Several research institutes are already warning that one greenhouse gas problem should not be replaced by another soil and water pollution problem, not to mention the plastic packaging created by these highly processed products. Let's be honest, vegetable meat is still very confidential. It represents only 0.5% of the beef market. So it is not the one that poses a problem to the planet.

What is certain is that in France and Europe, we must reduce our consumption of meat, without no longer eating it at all, unless we are motivated by the fact that we do not want to kill animals. But even for vegans, it is necessary to supplement with vitamin B12.  For our health, for the health of the planet, it is therefore better to avoid ultra-processed products, eat a balanced, local and seasonal diet while avoiding food waste. To help us get a clearer picture this year, 37 experts from 16 different countries have established a global health regime with more vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds but also 100 g of red meat and 200 g of white meat or fish per week. Today, the French consume more than one kilo per week. How about a homemade carrot provolone steak? In Europe, we need to reduce our meat consumption by 77% to achieve this regime. Researchers estimate that this would reduce adult mortality by 20% without losing the pleasure of eating. Then let's all go to the kitchen!

Japanese children champions health through school lunch

Japan achieves the feat for a developed country to have excellent indicators for the nutrition and health of its children while maintaining a very low incidence of obesity. His secret? School lunch.

A United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report released on Tuesday places Japan at the top of the list for child health, with low mortality rates and a very small number of underweight children.

But it also manages to have the lowest childhood obesity rate among 41 developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union.
According to the experts, several factors come into play, including the special attention paid by the Japanese to health, regular medical checks organized for children, and above all the key role of school lunch.

"Lunches whose menus are decided by nutritionists are served in all primary schools and in the majority of colleges throughout Japan," Mitsuhiko Hara, a pediatrician and professor at Tokyo Kasei Gakuin University, told AFP.

Lunches are mandatory, dishes or snacks brought are not allowed. Most of them are not free, but they are heavily subsidized.

Each meal is calibrated to have about 600-700 kilocalories distributed in a balanced way between carbohydrates, meat and vegetables.

A school meal in the Gunma region (centre) gives you an idea: rice with grilled fish and a dish of spinach and soya sprouts, served with a pork miso soup, all served with milk and prunes.

"School lunch is designed to provide the nutritional elements that tend to be missing in meals eaten at home," explains Mayumi Ueda, an official from the Ministry of Education, to AFP.

"I think it contributes to the dietary balance necessary for children."

- Eat and learn to eat -

And these lunches are not only used to feed the children but also to educate them.

"There is also a daily audio announcement broadcast at school to explain the nutrients contained in the day's lunch and this is a good way to educate children," says Mr. Hara.

In elementary schools, students use magnets with food images that they place in different categories on a whiteboard, learning to distinguish between proteins and carbohydrates, for example.

"The law stipulates that school lunch must be an integral part of education," says Ms. Ueda. "It's not just about eating: children also learn to serve food and clear the table themselves.

Every year, the government studies nutrition and eating habits and uses the results of these surveys to adapt school lunches, she adds.

The practice of school lunch dates back to 1889 in Japan, when rice balls and grilled fish were distributed to poor children in Yamagata Prefecture in the northern part of the archipelago.

The programme was extended to the rest of the country after the Second World War to combat child malnutrition at a time of severe food shortages.


- Medical controls -

Other factors also play a role," adds Hara.
"Many Japanese people are attentive to their health, so they try to eat a variety of foods, which is good," he says.

"And we are taught to eat seasonal produce, which also contributes to good health. Japan is one of the few countries that pays such attention to foods that refer to each season," he notes.

The results are clear in the statistics: Japan has one of the lowest infant mortality rates and the proportion of overweight or obese children aged 5 to 19 years is 14.42%, much lower than in most developed countries.

On the latter criterion, the United States ranks first in Unicef's ranking with 41.86%, Italy has a rate of 36.87% and France 30.09%.

Mr. Hara also explains that a regular medical check-up completes the entire system. Parents and children receive reminders from the authorities in their place of residence, while children have a medical examination at school, including weight and height measurements.

However, Japan is not immune to the trend of an increasing number of overweight or obese children, a phenomenon that affects poor families more often than not.

"Children from poor backgrounds are more likely to be overweight because their families are trying to reduce costs, they eat less protein and more carbohydrates," he explains.

"A large part of the food shortages is compensated by school lunch, which is also used to save children living in poverty.

Can we say that a steak is vegan?" It's a lack of respect for the breeders.

More and more supermarkets and restaurants are offering their customers "vegan steaks", i.e. meatless steaks. Often made from a soya base or lentils, they are actually patties, but the name "steak" bothers some meat lovers.

This is the case of the Toulouse general practitioner Jérôme Marty, who appeared in Les Grandes Gueules on Tuesday. He believes that given the rigorous work of farmers to provide the real meat steaks, it is disrespectful to call these vegetable patties "steaks".

"Misnaming an object is adding to the misfortune of this world, as Camus said. They call it steak to attract people to this kind of thing you never really know what's in it. When you see what herders are required to do in terms of standards, surveillance, supervision, calling this thing a steak is a complete denial of the work of farmers."

"Between meat raised on grass growing on my land and a soy steak produced in South America..."
Farmer Didier Giraud is all the more concerned as he is himself a cattle farmer and sees that the vegan movement is growing more and more. He is "revolted" by these vegan steaks which are a counterproductive deception for the good of the planet according to him.

"Soybeans, lentils, they don't taste like beef. A steak is a steak! Let us have the debate on health security. I am at war with my livestock, whereas for my animals, I archive for five years every millilitre of medicine, of vaccine that has been injected into them. And now we're going to serve something with flavour enhancers, preservatives and we're going to call it steak. It's something that revolts me. Between meat raised on grass growing on my land and a soy steak produced in South America, accelerating deforestation and using pesticides..."

"If it's the result of ultra-processed food, it can be just as harmful as an animal product."

An auditor intervened at 3216 to testify of his experience at the level, and he is not necessarily convinced. "It's definitely not good. And I asked two waiters they didn't even know what was inside," said Christophe, a sports instructor in Loire-Atlantique.

Anthony Berthou, nutritionist, also intervened in this debate: "It depends on what's in it. If it's the result of ultra-transformed food, it can be just as harmful as an animal product." The food specialist warns those who would like to follow a vegan diet: "The danger is people who want to follow a vegan diet without paying attention to the nutritional aspect. In particular, vitamin B12 deficiencies must be closely monitored.