AS we settle into the barbecue season, it’s time to consider whether the meat on your grill is harming your health.
Conflicting messages in the media certainly don’t help. On the one hand there are advertisements with Sam Neill claiming red meat is the reason that humans are smarter than an orangutans.
On the other, the prestigious World Cancer Research Fund reports that red meat may cause colorectal cancer.
Who do we believe?
Some red meat does contain fats our brains need. Omega-3 fats form part of the structure of brains and eyes, and may also help reduce blood pressure and modify inflammation.
But meat isn’t the only food containing omega-3 fats. In fact, the richest sources are found in oily fish.
And if you buy grain-fed steak, you may not get any omega-3 fats at all. Grass-fed meat (and wild meats, such as kangaroo) is not only better for the environment, but better nutritionally, containing healthier fats and a lower fat content overall.
Red meat also contains decent amounts of zinc and protein, as well as iron, which is one of its big nutritional selling points.
The iron in red meat is in a form that our bodies absorb easily, namely “haem” iron.
Meat producers are fond of producing colourful ads that equate the iron content of a bucket-load of spinach with that of a small juicy-looking nugget of lean beef.
And iron deficiency is an important issue – but that same haem iron may be harmful in fatty processed meat.
As well as nutrients, meat also contains saturated fat, the kind that promotes increased cholesterol levels in blood and blocks blood vessels that the heart relies on.
The fat content of meat varies markedly with species and cut. If you buy untrimmed brisket, chuck or shoulder, or luxury marbled meat, such as wagyu or kobe beef, your meat will contain 10per cent to 20cent fat. Ribs, neck, pork belly, and the cheapest minced meat can have up to 50per cent fat.
If you trim your meat of visible fat and choose leaner cuts, such as loin, round steak, flank and shanks, you can get down to 3 or 5per cent fat.
The cancer risk associated with high consumption of red meat, particularly processed red meat, is definitely a cause for concern.
In 2007, the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) reported evidence of causal links between food, lifestyle and cancer, based on data from all studies that met quality standards.
In the report, the WCRF concluded that there was “convincing” evidence (that is, evidence of both the mechanism and the effect) for a link between colorectal cancer and high intakes of red meat. The link was strongest for processed red meat – bacon, salami, sausages and hot dogs, which contain curing agents such as nitrates and nitrites.
The studies’ data indicated that cancer risk continued to rise with higher meat intakes. This rise appears to start once red meat consumption exceeds 300 grams in a week. The WCRF’s recommendation is that people who eat red meat should consume less than 500 grams a week, including very little if any processed meat products.
There was no data to indicate that any level of processed meat intake was free of risk.
Eating fish may help reduce colorectal cancer risk, and some studies indicate that a high fibre intake, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables, are associated with reduced cancer risk.
Interestingly, marinating meat may be a good idea for health as much as for flavour. A Portuguese study found that several hours’ marinating in beer or red wine significantly reduced the production of the carcinogenic substances HCA in beef, perhaps by reducing movement of precursor substances to the surface of the meat, or by adding antioxidants that inhibit the reaction.
Other studies have successfully used garlic, rosemary, thyme and sage, and olive oil with garlic and lemon. Cooking with extra-virgin olive oil had a similar effect. But adding sugar or fruit to marinades appears to increase the risk of burning and forming more carcinogens.
So, as you wheel out your barbecue this summer, consider serving sustainable seafood or organic chicken some of the time instead of red meat; stick to smaller serves of grass-fed lean meat, marinated without sugar or salt and cooked to a juicy medium-rare, away from a bare flame; and have plenty of salad with your meal. Food for thought?
Suzie Ferrie is an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian
This article was originally published on theconversation.edu.au