Eat Meat? Really?

Marion Nestle

Read more thoughtful reactions to the new study on author Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog.

Food writer Marion Nestle “would love to know the back story” behind why university researchers chose to do the recent study on eating meat and chose to interpret the results as they did.

I’ve got a hunch.

For those of you not following the front and center headlines, the study Nestle is talking about was actually a group of studies published this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine and finding that there is no compelling evidence to reduce consumption of red or processed meats.

“The authors could easily have interpreted their work as suggesting that eating less meat might be useful,” Nestle wrote on her Food Politics blog, which examines the food industry’s ties to nutrition science.  The researchers compared people who eat meat to people who eat less meat and actually found a small benefit for the latter,  she says.  Plus, they did not examine how carnivores fare compared to vegetarians.

Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health likewise expressed outrage. The study’s recommendations to continue eating red and processed meat at current levels of intake, it says, are flawed, not justified and “contradictory to the large body of evidence indicating higher consumption of red meat—especially processed red meat—is associated with higher risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers, and premature death.”

Is publication of this research a strategy right out of Big Tobacco’s playbook? Who’s behind the studies?  Three major universities that participated in the studies–Texas A&M and Canada’s Dalhousie and McMaster– all have one thing in common:  They come from a land of Big Animal Ag.

A decade ago, in “The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?,”  Professors Kelly D. Brownell and Kenneth E. Warner examined the tools the tobacco industry used during “decades of deceit and actions that cost millions of lives.”  Planting confusion and doubt in the minds of consumers with seemingly contradictory research was key.  “Similar concerns have been raised about the food industry,” said the authors.

As an immigrant to Canada, I have often been surprised by the cozy relationship between the food industry here and those who are supposed to be our watchdogs. Years ago, in a story for CBC’s The Fifth Estate, I reported on Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation putting its seal of approval on margarine manufactured by one of its donors.  The Dairy Farmers of Canada, a powerful entity, provide teaching resources to schools in several provinces.  And McGill University’s report on its 2006 milk symposium–the one in which Harvard’s Dr. Walter Willett stated that “the evidence that milk consumption is related to prostate cancer risk is actually very strong, specifically for aggressive and fatal prostate cancers”–disappeared from its website after after I quoted Willett a few years back. 

To what degree do agricultural and food industries financially support our universities? To what degree do those industries influence research, dietary guidelines, principles of healthy eating taught to our kids and loved ones?

Let’s hope Marion Nestle can shed some light on the back story.   

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