Interview with Anna Vila Martí, a dietitian/nutritionist with a PhD in Nutrition, and a member of the Food, Health and Wellness Research Group and professor at the University of Vic-Universitat Central de Catalunya.
The recent report by the WHO created quite a bit of alarm, because it related red meat and processed meat consumption with different types of cancer. Is meat hazardous to peoples health?
We in the field of Health, and more specifically in the fields of Dietetics and Nutrition, have known for some time now that very high levels of meat and processed meat consumption may be harmful to peoples health, not only because of cancer. Especially when dealing with processed meats, which contain high levels of salt and fats, for instance, there may be long-term consequences in terms of problems with high blood pressure or cardiovascular risks. In any case, this is not a new warning. What is important is that meat itself is not harmful to health, but rather an excess thereof, and the eating pattern in which meat may be included can cause certain individuals to have a greater tendency to have or suffer from certain types of cancer. The type of cancer most commonly related with this warning by the WHO is colon cancer. It is closely linked not only to diets with a high amount of processed meat, but is also related to meat and processed meat consumption patterns with a low level of fruit and vegetable consumption. This causes the contents of what we eat to remain in contact with the walls of the colon longer, makes digestion occur in an insufficiently fluid manner and, as a result, the walls of the colon become irritated and damaged, which may lead to these carcinomas.
What nutritional value do these types of meats have, though?
Red meats are a very good source of blood-origin iron, which is a highly bio-available iron, and therefore eating meat may prevent anemia. On the other hand, it is also a source of vitamin B12, which is only found in products of animal origin. Its consumption is important. What is the right quantity? Normally, two to three servings of red meat per week are suggested.
What do you think the WHO based its conclusions on?
They are based on studies in which many people were involved, very important epidemiological studies in which it was found that a relationship exists between high meat consumption and the rate of colorectal cancer.
o you believe one can compare the relationship between this consumption and cancer with, for instance, the relationship between tobacco and cancer?
It is proportionally different. The evidence existing to demonstrate that smoking causes cancer is enormous, and this cancer affects a very significant part of the smoking population. In the case of meat consumption, however, the rate has been found to be much lower. People became so alarmed because, if you do not smoke, you have the sensation that this news has nothing to do with you, whereas meat consumption is something more commonplace that affects many people. Many people feel affected, because meat and processed meat form part of our everyday lives.
There are consumers who do not feel at ease with the increasingly industrialized food model that we live with. Others say the food industry is one of the safest. What do you think?
It is difficult to describe in such a simple way. Obviously, the food industry is essential, because today it would be very difficult to continue living life at the current pace if we did not have all these foods available in the conditions in which they are put within our reach now. It is also true that, throughout history, some important cases of fraud have occurred, and the food industry is in some peoples crosshairs, but it is the industry itself which is trying to regulate this and avoid any other situations. At the same time, one of the guarantees which the food industry provides is the food safety with which it can provide us. Sometimes we must bear in mind that we want food which is beneficial to our body but also one which causes no harm to our bodies. In this case, the food industry does play a very important role. And it is the responsibility of our industrys structure to be able to ensure this.
What recommendations can we give to meat consumers?
The main recommendation from the field of Dietetics and Nutrition is that people should be able to eat meat, but in the proper amounts, and this meat must form part of an overall diet which also includes full grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as olive oil, dairy products and, more or less sporadically, processed meats.
And what message should we pass on to meat producers?
This is somewhat more difficult, but I believe that producers must seek to ensure food safety, which is the part most within their reach. Above all, the red meat industry must seek to ensure that the products it sells are not harmful. And as for the processed meats industry, it should also seek to ensure food safety. I believe that, with these foods that have high salt content, with the understanding that salt has traditionally been used as a preservative, there should be a tendency towards seeking strategies to reduce salt content and to find other mechanisms to guarantee food flavor and safety. I understand that this is the way we should be heading to improve the nutritional profile of these types of products. Not just because of the potential for cancer, but also in order to prevent cardiovascular diseases.