When news of a fancypants, cosmopolitan European study about the imminent health dangers of using your stomach as a processed meats repository, you most likely reacted the same way you do to all breaking-news health reports: you panicked, impetuously removing all of the meat-stuffs from your fridge and tossing them into a bonfire, not realizing, of course, that the delicious smell of burning meat would send you into a carnivorous frenzy of regret. It was a dark time. You probably ate a lot of skinless chicken and tilapia.
Thankfully, science (or, rather, media outlets covering health news) has gone ahead and totally redeemed itself. In the very same study, EU researchers, after reviewing some measurement errors, admitted that they couldn't find any evidence that red and processed meats will murder you the way the meat industry murders scores of placid quadrupeds. That message got lost in the media coverage of the Euro study, leading most people to ignore the study's markedly different finding — not eating red meat could lead to an early death. Its like the the great egg yolk/egg white debate all over again.
According to Mother Jones staff reporter Stephanie Mencimer, researchers involved with the European study had to conclude that red meat intake not only was "no longer associated with mortality," but also that "all-cause mortality was higher among participants with very low or no red meat consumption" after correcting some of the study's measurement errors.
Heavy meat eaters (identified in the study as people who consumed a staggering 160 meat grams or six sausages links per day) tend to be older dudes who are very fond of their booze and cigarettes. People who eat processed meats also tend to eat way less fruits and vegetables, because nothing spoils a whiskey-soaked steak dinner like an undercooked frozen vegetable medley. Meat eaters also tend to have lower levels education, be more sedentary, and have a myriad of other health problems that may or may not stem from their carnivorous habits. They don't just die of cardiovascular ailments and cancers, either — they're killed in car accidents, injuries, and other non-food-related catastrophes.
Although the Euro researchers identified and tried to adjust for the many extra unhealthy habits of heavy meat eaters, they couldn't completely factor those habits out at the risk of reducing the pool of study participants to a shallow foot bath. Identifying the participants died who sweet, delicious bacon deaths versus the participants who died of smoking turned into a bramble-patch of confusion. Explains Mencimer:
What's more, not even 1 percent of of the people who died during the 12 years of the study were among those who ate the most processed meat. Zoe Harcombe, a British obesity researcher (and a participant in the EPIC study), points out that the researchers had to group the participants in an unusual way, so that the number of people in the high-processed-meat consumption category was very small. (There were so few women in this category that the association with processed meats and mortality wasn't statistically significant for them.) She writes, "This is like doing a survey about alcoholism and mortality and making the top group so small that it includes Billie Holiday and George Best and making headlines on this basis."
This isn't to suggest that you should mummify your heart with a daily bacon wrap, but it is a reminder to take health reports with a grain of salt. And then use that salt to cure your meat so you can live forever as an immortal meat deity.
Correction: This article originally suggested that researchers had reviewed their study and reversed their conclusions. In fact, the benefits of red meat consumption were noted in the original study. Media reports hyping the health risks of consuming too much processed meats led to subsequent confusion about the study's actual results.
Science: Beef Good, Bacon Not So Bad [Mother Jones]
Image via Juan Nel/ Shutterstock.