You may have heard about or read news coverage of a “huge” European research study published in BMC Medicine earlier this month that (allegedly) demonstrated—yet again—that eating red meat, nutritionally speaking, is about as safe as playing catch with containers of nitroglycerin.

The European Prospective Investigation in Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), as the study was titled, was certainly large—it examined the dietary habits of nearly 450,000 healthy adults between the ages of 35 and 69—and tightly focused: In the author’s own words, “The aim of this study was to examine the association of red meat, processed meat, and poultry consumption with the risk of early death.”

Predictably, the authors concluded—surprise!—that eating red meat and processed meats was very, very bad. “We estimated that 3.3% of deaths could be prevented if all participants had a processed meat consumption of less than 20 grams a day” (that’s about 5 ounces a week, by the way).

Similar studies, notably a recent large-scale, retrospective dietary analysis done by Harvard University School of Public Health researchers, confirmed that hypothesis: Adding just one serving of red meat a day increased the risk of earlier death by 13% (20% higher if they were eating processed meats).

Most of the major media covering such studies stop right there and simply conclude that eating red meat—or, God forbid, processed meat—will put you in an early grave. End of story.

Now—who wants pepperoni on their pizza?

An unlikely ally

However, a couple of media sources didn’t take the bait. One of them, of all places to find such an article, was the left-leaning Mother Jones magazine online. What writer Stephanie Mencimer reported was eye-opening. She wrote:

“What news outlets downplayed about the [EPIC] study is that despite their best efforts, the EU researchers couldn’t find any evidence that red meat will kill you. In fact, the study shows that not eating red meat is a risk factor for an early demise.”

How’s that for shock value?

After correcting some measurement errors, Mencimer noted that the Euro-researchers were forced to conclude that not only was red meat intake “no longer associated with mortality” but “all-cause mortality was higher among participants with very low or no red meat consumption.”

How could that be true, when government, medical and public health officials—not to mention the very vocal leaders of the American Heart Association—have always claimed that eating too much red meat is a direct cause of heart disease, stroke and other health problems?

Two reasons.

For one, the Harvard data showed that eating meat appeared to have a protective effect for a lot of people. As Mencimer phrased it, “Up to a certain point, people who ate more [meat] fared better than those who ate little or none. The source of some of this confusion is simple: People who eat junk food [as opposed to red meat] are unhealthy in myriad ways that make it nearly impossible to zero in on a single food item as the source of their health woes.”

For another, although the EPIC study adjusted for a number of variables—age, weight, education, overall diets, and whether they’d ever smoked—a closer look at the data showed that people eating lots of processed meat were also more likely to be smokers, less likely to eat fruits and vegetables and had lower levels of education. In fact, out of some 127,000 male participants in the study, only 619 were heavy processed-meat eaters who had never smoked.

“[These meat-eaters] were much fatter and exercised less than the rest of the sample,” Mencimer wrote. “And men in this category were also serious boozers.”

In other words, the “heavier” meat-eaters also tended to have a lot of other unhealthy habits, making the idea that red meat alone was the problem much less plausible.

Here’s an even more interesting conclusion: The people in the EPIC study who ate the most processed meat (more than 160 grams a day, which is about six ounces, a pretty hefty serving)—didn’t die only from cardiovascular disease and cancer, which could logically be associated with a bad diet, they also died from car crashes, accidents and non-food-related causes.

And despite the large numbers of overall participants in the study, the researchers also ended up with very few people left in certain categories. For example, that Zoe Harcombe, a British obesity researcher and an EPIC participant, pointed out that so few women were in the high processed-meat category that any association between processed meat consumption and early mortality wasn’t statistically significant.

“This is like doing a survey about alcoholism and mortality,” Harcombe wrote, “and making the top group so small that it includes Billie Holiday and George Best [the former English soccer star and notorious boozer] and making headlines on that basis.”

Mencimer concluded her Mother Jones piece with a couple digs at factory farming and the nutritional quality of the meat in Lunchables, but we’ll give her credit for underscoring a fundamental truth that colors every dietary analysis, no matter how large the sample:

Chronic disease remains a multivariate, multi-causational challenge. A single factor—like eating red meat—simply cannot be tarred as the culprit.

The value of such a conclusion?


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.