In a controversial move, a team of researchers branded the evidence linking red meat with serious health problems so weak that they said people should carry on as they are – enjoying three to four portions of red and processed meat a week on average.
Their guidance flies in the face of recommendations from health organisations including the World Cancer Research Fund, which tells people to avoid processed meat altogether or eat very little of it, while limiting red meat to about three portions a week.
Food Standards Scotland recommends that nobody should eat more than 90g of red or processed meat a day, and people should aim to eat 70g or less.
The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has said consumption of red meat is “probably carcinogenic” to humans, whereas processed meat is considered “carcinogenic”.
For the new study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a team of international experts assessed the quality of the available evidence on eating meat and health outcomes.
The team, which included 14 experts from seven countries, said their analysis offered the “most up-to-date evidence on the topic”.
No real benefit in cutting down
Study author Bradley Johnston, associate professor at Dalhousie University in Canada, said: “Based on the research, we cannot say with any certainty that eating red or processed meat causes cancer, diabetes or heart disease.”
The team’s conclusion that most adults should continue to eat their current level of red and processed meat, about three to four times a week, is contrary to nearly all other guidelines that exist.
Mr Johnston said the team found no real benefit from cutting down below this level.
He said: “From 12 randomised controlled trials enrolling about 54,000 individuals, we did not find a statistically significant or an important association in the risk of heart disease, cancer or diabetes for those that consumed less red or processed meat.”
Although there was some evidence for a small reduction in risk for those consuming three fewer portions a week, “the certainty of evidence was low to very low,” he added. “Our bottom line recommendation – which is a weak recommendation based on low quality evidence – is that for the majority of people, not everyone, continuing their red and processed meat consumption is the right approach.”
Dr Giota Mitrou, the World Cancer Research Fund’s director of research, said the new interpretation of the research “could be putting people at risk” by suggesting they could safely eat meat.
She said: “The message people need to hear is that we should be eating no more than three portions of red meat a week and avoiding processed meat altogether.”