For all of the reporters, writers and bloggers who flood the internet every day with an overload of information, a specific definition ought to be required reading. The word is “spectrum.”

Yes, it refers to the colors in a beam of light — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet — but it also refers to a complete range of different opinions, people or items that may be broadly grouped into a single category, but in fact are very different if one compares either end of the spectrum.

Why is that important? Here’s why.

Media coverage of so many research studies, dietary analyses and comparative studies of lifestyle variables almost always refer to “meat” versus “plants.”

Case in point: A new retrospective study of diets and mortality just published in the Journal of the American Medical Society Internal Medicine purports to show data supporting longer lives for people consuming more non-animal foods. The study, titled, “Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake with All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality,” involved a retrospective analysis of the dietary habits of more than 131,342 participants from the famous Nurses’ Health Study that tracked health professionals from 1980 to 2012.

The study’s conclusions were reported by numerous news sources with headlines such as these:

  • “Meat-eaters have a higher risk of death, but plants are the answer.” (CNN)
  • “Lots of Red Meat, an Earlier Grave?” (U.S. News & World Report)
  • “Ditch red meat for plant protein to live longer, say experts” (The Sun newspaper)

There’s many like those, but you get the point, which is that the term “meat” is simply used without any explanation or qualification.

And by the way, the study itself, which few reporters appear to have read, relying instead on a news release issued by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Massachusetts General Hospital, the institutions where the senior authors of the study are based, noted upfront the following observation:

“Defining what represents a macronutritionally balanced diet remains an open question and a high priority in nutrition research.”

Yes, it does remain an open question. Furthermore, the authors noted that, “After adjusting for major lifestyle and dietary risk factors, animal protein intake was weakly associated with higher mortality, particularly cardiovascular mortality, whereas plant protein was associated with lower mortality.”

Most reporters appear to have stopped right there and launched into their “risk of death/earlier grave” conclusions, but consider the next sentence in the study: “These associations were confined to participants with at least one unhealthy lifestyle factor based on smoking, heavy alcohol intake, overweight or obesity, and physical inactivity, but not evident among those without any of these risk factors.”

So if a study participant was a smoker, a heavy drinker, overweight or obese, or sedentary — or all of the above — then eating “meat” was associated with a shorter lifespan.

Not exactly a revelation from on high, is it?

Defining Differences

But back to the other issue here. It takes some time, and some serious wading through a swamp of scientific data, but eventually the study gets around to explaining that the “meat” that (allegedly) leads to higher mortality — if you’re an obese smoker and/or a sedentary alcoholic — is referring not to beef, pork or lamb, but instead to “processed meat,” ie, sausage, hot dogs and deli meats.

The issue with those products, according to the JAMA authors, is excessive salt, saturated fat and nitrates. That in itself is controversial, but those substances are not an issue with the variety of fresh meat products consumers purchase and cook themselves.

You’d never know that detail from skimming through the media reports of the study. That’s because those stories make no differentiation among the many types of “meat,” even though there are substantial differences in nutritional content when comparing hot dogs and pork chops, or summer sausage and pot roast.

Look, there have been mountains of analyses explaining why a study based on self-reported dietary questionnaires compiled weeks and months after the fact are highly suspect, but even granting that an analysis of tens of thousands of such questionnaires lends some credibility to this study’s conclusions, the screaming headlines about “Meat Will Kill You” are seriously inaccurate.

Without explaining that the “meat” being referenced is, in fact, a small subset of what the public imagines when they hear that word, those morbid summaries provided as “news” are false and misleading.

There is a spectrum of products in the category of meat, and there is a spectrum of credibility among modern media members.

Unfortunately, the latter appear to be clustered at one end of said spectrum.

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