Clearing up the confusion over red meat recommendations

By | November 11, 2019

GAZETTE: The panel didn’t consider environmental impact when forming their guidelines. You and Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment Director Gina McCarthy recently noted in a Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Viewpoint that increased sustainability is a potential benefit of the new plant-based meat alternatives. Why is it so important to be concerned about environmental sustainability when making dietary recommendations?

HU: This was certainly a missed opportunity. From a planetary health perspective, already our current production of red meat, particularly beef, stands out for its disproportionate greenhouse-gas emissions in comparison to other foods, especially plant-based foods. Beyond emissions, there is concern that industrial meat production can contaminate our water resources with runoff from animal-waste lagoons. Concerns have also been noted about the welfare of animals raised in these industrial conditions. For those concerned with human health and the health of the planet, these multifaceted issues are alarming in light of projections that the global demand for meat will continue to increase in the coming decades.

GAZETTE: Let’s shift gears to the other “meats” making headlines — the new wave of plant-based alternatives, which promise real meat flavor to those who can’t give up burgers. What did you think when you first heard of them? Good dietary development or bad?

HU: My first thought is that these are an interesting application of innovative food technology that may be useful for individuals looking to reduce their intake of red meat and move toward a more plant-based diet. Of course, this is a hypothetical as we have no research as to whether this is a shift consumers will make, and whether such a shift will be transitional or long-term. Furthermore, like any new technology, we must be watchful to ensure that these new products are beneficial to human health as well as the health of the planet, and to understand and consider any unintended consequences.

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GAZETTE: For products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat to make a difference on global sustainability, they’d have to translate an expensive, high-tech solution to developing and middle-income countries on a massive scale. Is that likely?

HU: We are faced with the unprecedented challenge of feeding a global population slated to reach 10 billion by 2050. When the EAT-Lancet Commission looked at this from both a human and planetary health perspective, they came up with a planetary health diet that would meet nutritional requirements while staying within the confines of our planet’s natural resources. While this shift would require total global consumption of foods such as red meat to decrease by half, all nations are not on an even playing field. North American countries are consuming over six times the amount of red meat recommended by the planetary health diet, while South Asian countries are eating only half the recommended amount. So, while these plant-based analogues may play some role in helping to satisfy the projected desire for burgers and other red meat worldwide, we should be cautious in viewing them — or any single innovation — as a silver bullet. Likewise, we must ensure that they do not distract from necessary efforts to shift our global agricultural system to produce more healthy and sustainable foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.

GAZETTE:  Does a better strategy exist by encouraging people in developing nations to embrace healthy aspects of their traditional diets rather than Western diets?

HU: The research we have on healthy dietary patterns points to an abundance of minimally processed plant foods — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts; moderate amounts of dairy products, seafood, and poultry; and lower amounts of processed and red meat, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and refined grains. While there are many traditional diets that fit this profile — which should certainly be encouraged — it’s not the case everywhere. Undernutrition and food insecurity remain a burden for those living in many developing countries, so again, it’s important to not only make recommendations for a healthy diet but to create a global food system where it can be achieved.

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GAZETTE: You point out in the JAMA article on meat alternatives that the plant protein in them is highly processed and that we don’t know if the salutary effects of eating plants is maintained after processing. Why is processing a concern and are there possible analogies to highly processed carbs, which play a role in the obesity and diabetes epidemics?

HU: Indeed, we can’t directly extrapolate existing findings on minimally processed plant-based foods to these products. Food processing is a broad spectrum, but when a food is highly processed it leads to the loss of some nutrients and phytochemicals naturally present in plant foods. It may also lead to the creation of highly-palatable products with high amounts of added sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats, which can result in excess caloric intake and weight gain. Many highly processed foods are loaded with refined carbs, and others also contain protein isolates and other purified ingredients.

GAZETTE: In recent years, we’ve become aware of the potentially major influence of our microbiome on health. Is there concern that there may be unrecognized impacts of these new food products there?

HU: Research is needed to understand how consumption of these novel meat alternatives impact our microbiome. Similar to other highly processed foods, these products rely on purified plant ingredients, and therefore lack much of the fiber and polyphenols found in intact plant foods, which are favored by our healthy gut bacteria. This raises the question as to whether regular consumption of these products could lead to the reduction of healthy bacteria, and as a result, an increase in unhealthy bacteria.

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GAZETTE: What is the most important thing for the public to know about these products?

HU: I think it’s important to know that although these plant-based products may have less environmental impact than their animal-based counterparts, there is no evidence that these products are also beneficial to human health. Clearly, there is no evidence to suggest that they can substitute for healthy diets focused on minimally processed plant foods.

Health & Medicine – Harvard Gazette