Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

Vegan BurgerAmericans love their meat. In 2018 we averaged over 200 pounds of meat per person. If we just focus on beef, we eat about 54 pounds per year. That’s equivalent to four quarter pounders a week!

But we are also getting the message that too much meat, especially red meat, may be bad for us. Nearly 40% of us are trying to eat a more plant-based diet.

The problem is that we love the convenience of fast food restaurants, and we love our burgers. Plus, in the past the meatless burgers on the market were, in a word, disappointing. Their taste and texture left something to be desired. You really needed to be committed to a plant-based diet to eat them in place of a regular burger.

That all changed a few years ago with the introduction of the and new generation of meatless burgers – the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. They had the taste and texture of a real burger, but they were completely plant-based. What wasn’t to like?

  • Both companies claimed that their meatless burgers were healthier for the planet than regular burgers. For example, Impossible Food’s mission statement is: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems. So, we’re doing something about it: We’re making meat using plants, so that we never have to use animals again”.
  • Neither company claims their burgers are healthier for you. However, because their burgers are plant-based, the almost universal assumption has been that they are healthier than regular burgers.

Since their introduction they have taken the world by storm. You can find them in almost every supermarket and in many of your favorite fast food restaurants. Now that they are omnipresent, it is perhaps time to step back and take a closer look at this new generation of meatless burgers. In this article, I will ask two questions:

  • Are they healthier for you than regular burgers?
  • Are they healthier for the planet than regular burgers?

For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the Impossible Burger with occasional comparisons with the Beyond Burger. It is beyond the scope of this article to compare these burgers with the many other meatless burgers that are now starting to flood the marketplace.

What’s In The Impossible Burger?

  • When we think of a burger, the first thing we think of is protein. The Impossible Burger gets its protein from soy, while the Beyond Burger gets its protein from peas.

Coconut OilHowever, soy and pea protein don’t give you the mouth feel, flavor, red color, and texture of a beef burger.

  • The mouth feel of a burger comes from its saturated fat. Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger use coconut oil as their source of saturated fat.
    • Coconut oil has gained a reputation as a “healthier” saturated fat. However, as I have discussed in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, we have no long term studies on the health effects of diets high in coconut oil. We don’t really know whether it is healthier than other saturated fats.
  • The taste and color of a beef burger come from its heme content. Heme does not occur in the parts of plants we eat. However, heme is involved in nitrogen fixation, so it is found in the roots of some legumes.
    • The Impossible Burger has genetically engineered yeast to produce a type of heme called leghemoglobin that is found in soy roots. The Beyond Burger uses beet juice extract and annatto for the color and unspecified “natural flavor” for the flavor.
  • To get the texture of a beef burger, both the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger use maltodextrin, modified food starch, and a variety of other ingredients. They are both highly processed foods.
  • Iron is another important nutrient you expect to get from a beef burger. The Impossible Burger contains 4.5 mg of iron and the Beyond Burger contains 5.4 mg of iron.
    • However, that is only part of the story. When iron is attached to a heme molecule, it is more efficiently absorbed by our bodies. Beef burgers and the Impossible Burger contain heme iron. The Beyond Burger does not.
  • In addition, the Impossible Burger adds in the vitamins, including B12, that we would expect to get from a beef burger. The Beyond Burger does not.

What Are The Pluses Of The Impossible Burger?

thumbs upThere are some definite pluses for the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger:

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are made from plant-based ingredients rather than from meat.
  • Both are cholesterol free.
  • Both contain modest amounts of fiber (3 grams for the Impossible Burger and 2 grams for the Beyond Burger), while a meat burger contains none.
  • Both are good sources of iron, and the iron in the Impossible Burger is heme-iron, which is efficiently absorbed by our bodies.

What Are The Minuses of the Impossible Burger?

thumbs downThere are, however, some definite minuses as well.

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are high in saturated fat. The Impossible Burger is higher in saturated fat and the Beyond Burger contains the same amount of saturated fat as a real burger. That’s important because the latest advisory of the American Heart Association warns that saturated fat increases our risk of heart disease (I have discussed this finding in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”).
    • The saturated fat in both burgers comes from coconut oil. However, as I discussed above, we don’t know whether coconut oil is better or worse for us than other saturated fats. The relevant studies have not been done.
  • Both the Impossible and Beyond burgers are high in sodium. They have almost 5-times more sodium than a beef burger.
  • The heme in red meat catalyzes the formation of N-nitroso compounds in our gut which increase the risk of colon cancer. We do not know whether the form of heme added to Impossible Burgers catalyzes the same reaction, but it is likely.
  • Both plant-based burgers are low in protein compared to a beef burger (~20 grams versus 27 grams). On the other hand, 20 grams of protein is reasonable for a single meal.
  • The plant proteins used for these burgers (soy for the Impossible Burger and pea for the Beyond Burger) are highly processed. They lack the phytonutrients found in the unprocessed proteins.
    • The isoflavones found in soy are thought to decrease the risk of cancer and osteoporosis.
    • The phytonutrients found in peas have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. They are also thought to decrease the risk of certain cancers.
  • The Impossible Burger is GMO. The leghemoglobin is produced by genetically engineered yeast, and the soy is also GMO.
  • Neither the Impossible Burger nor Beyond Burger are certified organic. Organic certification refers to how the plant was grown. Both burgers are highly processed. Many of the ingredients in both burgers came from factories, not farms.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Eating Impossible BurgerNow, it is time to return to the original question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for you?” Since it is plant-based, it would be easy to assume that it is healthier than a burger made from beef. However, when you look more closely, it is not clear that it is healthier.

The manufacturers of the Impossible Burger and similar burgers have gone to the laboratory and have been successful at creating meatless burgers with the taste, mouth feel, and texture of real burgers. However, these improvements have come with a price.

  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are higher in saturated fat than a beef burger. This means they may be just as likely to increase the risk of heart disease as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger contains as much heme as a beef burger, which means it may be just as likely to increase the risk of cancer as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are highly processed. That means:
    • The plant proteins no longer contain the phytonutrients thought to be responsible for some of their health benefits.
    • They also don’t contain the vitamins you would expect to find associated with the plant proteins.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are not organic. Even worse, the Impossible Burger is GMO.

On balance, we can’t really assume the Impossible Burger is any healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. Plus, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

For example, I looked up the Organic Sunshine brand South West Black Bean burgers. It only provides half as much protein as an Impossible Burger, but all the ingredients are organic, non-GMO, and minimally processed. Note: I am not recommending a particular brand. However, with a little research I am confident you can find a healthy meatless burger with a taste you will enjoy.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

impossible burger good for planetNow, let’s look at the second question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for the planet?” The answer to this question seems obvious. As the Impossible Burger company states in their mission statement: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems”. It seems logical that any meatless burger would be an improvement.

If we are talking about a minimally processed black bean burger, like the one I described above, the answer is a clear yes. It is healthier for the planet. However, when you look more closely at the Impossible Burger, the answer isn’t as clear.

  • As coconut oil has increased in popularity massive areas of untouched, forested land have been cleared for coconut plantations.
    • These forested areas provide an essential ecosystem for animals and provide natural storm protection by absorbing rainwater. Therefore, coconut oil, like beef, also destroys our ecosystems.
    • In addition, many of the coconut plantations use large amounts of chemical fertilizers which contribute to phosphate pollution and algae overgrowth in lakes, rivers, and coastal ocean areas. This also degrades our environment.
  • The Impossible Burgers and similar meatless burgers contain many highly processed ingredients. Each of these ingredients imposes its own environmental burden. For example:
    • Coconut oil is often processed with hexane, which is categorized as a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.
    • In addition, coconut oil is primarily grown in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. Transporting it to this country generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.
    • And, of course, coconut oil represents only one of the many highly processed ingredients in the Impossible Burger and similar meatless burgers.

In short, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

The Bottom Line

Two weeks ago, I wrote about recent headlines claiming that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much red meat as they like. I looked at the study behind the headlines and pointed out the many flaws in that study.

Last week I wrote about headlines claiming that red meat was just as heart healthy as white meat. I looked at the study behind the headlines and showed it was an excellent example of how the beef industry influences the design of clinical trials to minimize the health risks of red meat. It is also an example of how the media misleads and confuses the public about the effect of nutrition on their health.

What the studies I reviewed the last two weeks really showed was that very small amounts (2-3 ounces) of very lean red meat is probably OK as part of a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet. Larger servings of fattier cuts of red meat as part of the typical American diet is problematic.

However, if you love your burgers, what are you to do? Are the meatless burgers like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger that are showing up in your favorite fast food restaurants the answer? Specifically, you are probably asking:

  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for you?
  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for the planet?

I looked at the composition, pluses, and minuses of this new generation of meatless burgers in this article. The bottom line is:

  • On balance, the Impossible Burger is only slightly healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. And, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that are organic, non-GMO, and use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

  • Similarly, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Is Red Meat As Healthy As White Meat?

The Lies of the Beef Industry

Eating Red MeatLast week I wrote about a recent review claiming that the evidence for the health risks of red meat consumption was so weak that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much of it as they like. I pointed out the many flaws in that study.

  • One of the flaws was that the review discounted dozens of association studies showing a link between red meat consumption and disease and relied instead on randomized controlled trials. Normally, that would be a good thing, but…
  • The association studies looked at health outcomes and had hundreds of thousands of participants. They found clear links between red meat consumption and increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
  • The randomized controlled trials looked at blood parameters like LDL cholesterol and averaged less than 500 participants. These studies were too small to provide meaningful results, and, not surprisingly, the results were conflicting. Some linked red meat consumption to increased risk, while others did not.

Because they had discounted evidence from association studies, the authors of the review concluded that the overall evidence was weak.

This week I want to address why the evidence from randomized controlled trials for health risks of red meat is so weak. More importantly, I want to highlight the role of the beef industry in making sure the evidence on the health risks of red meat consumption is weak.

I will also point out the role of the media in this process because they are equally complicit in spreading misleading information about the health risks of red meat consumption.

You might be asking: “How does the beef industry influence clinical trials to produce outcomes supporting their message that red meat is perfectly healthy?” “Surely they can’t convince reputable scientists to falsify their results.”

  • The answer is they don’t need to convince scientists to falsify their results. They just need to influence the design of the experiments so the results will be to their liking.” I will give two examples of that in this article.

Next you might be wondering: “What is the role of the media in this? Surely they just report what the scientific publication says.” Don’t be deceived. The media isn’t interested in accuracy. They are interested in generating the largest possible audience. They know controversy attracts an audience. They are looking for “man bites dog” headlines even if it isn’t true.

  • If you actually read the studies, you discover that reputable scientists always discuss the weaknesses and flaws in their study. The media either doesn’t read the publication or ignores the weaknesses. Instead they focus on the most controversial headline they can craft. I will give some examples of that as well.

Is Red Meat As Healthy As White Meat?

Red Meat Vs White MeatFor years we have been told that red meat increases our risk of heart disease because it is high in saturated fats. We’ve been told that white meat and plant proteins are better alternatives.

But the latest headlines claim that red meat is just as heart healthy as white meat. You are probably wondering what to believe. Let’s examine the study behind the headline and ask two important questions?

  1. Did the beef industry influence the study?
  2. Did the media distort the study in their reporting?

I will start by reporting the study design and the results of the studies without comment. Then I will discuss how the beef industry influenced the design of the study to produce misleading results.

The Headlines Said: “Red Meat and White Meat Are Equally Heart Healthy.” The study behind the headlines was a 4-week study (N Bergeron et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 110: 24-33, 2019) comparing equivalent amounts of red meat, white meat, and non-meat protein on LDL levels. It did report that red meat and white meat raised LDL cholesterol levels to the same extent, but here is what the headlines didn’t tell you:

  • The authors of this study are heavily funded by the dairy and beef industries. I will point out the implications of this funding below.
  • 4 weeks is a very short time. This study provides no information on the long-term effects of red meat versus white meat consumption.
  • The study only measured LDL and related lipoproteins. It did not measure heart disease outcomes. LDL and lipoprotein levels are only one indicator of heart disease risk. Thus, they are imperfect predictors of heart disease risk. I will point out why that is important below as well.
  • The study was performed at two levels of saturated fat – low (7% of calories) and high (14% of calories).

At the low level of saturated fat, only the leanest cuts of red meat (top round and top sirloin) were used to keep saturated fat low in the red meat group. High fat dairy foods were added to the non-meat protein group to increase saturated fat content. Thus, all 3 groups consumed the same amount of saturated fat.

At the high level of saturated fat, butter and high-fat dairy foods were added to the white meat and non-meat protein groups to increase saturated fat content. Once again, saturated fat content was identical in all 3 groups.

Here were the results:High Cholesterol

  • LDL and related lipoproteins were higher for the high saturated fat group than the low saturated fat group. Nothing new here. This is consistent with dozens of previous studies. We know that saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol levels when other aspects of the diet are kept constant.
  • In both the low and high saturated fat groups, red and white meat raised LDL cholesterol to the same extent. In other words, when saturated fat levels are held constant, red meat and white meat raise cholesterol levels to the same extent.

In interpreting that statement, you need to remember the study design.

    • In the low saturated fat group, only two cuts of red meat were low enough in saturated fat for a direct comparison to white meat.
    • In the high saturated fat group, butter and high fat dairy had to be added to white meat so it could be compared to red meat.

Obviously, this is not the real world. 95% of the red meat the average American consumes is higher in saturated fat than most white meat.

The authors concluded “The findings…based on lipid and lipoprotein effects, do not provide evidence for choosing white over red meat for reducing heart disease risk”. That conclusion is clearly inaccurate.

  • The study did not measure heart disease outcomes. It measured only LDL cholesterol and related lipoprotein levels. That is just one factor in determining heart disease risk. The significance of that statement will be explained below.
  • Red meat and white meat raised LDL cholesterol levels to the same extent only when saturated fat is held constant. We know that most red meat is higher in saturated fat than white meat and saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol levels. In fact, the study confirmed that the high-fat red meats most people consume raised LDL cholesterol more than white meats.
  • The accurate conclusion to this study would have been: “Most red meat raises LDL cholesterol more than white meat, which suggests red meat may increase heart disease risk compared to white meat.”
  • Did I mention that the authors are heavily funded by the beef industry?

What About TMAO And Heart Disease Risk?

heart diseaseInterestingly, the authors also looked at another risk factor for heart disease in the same study, something called TMAO. I have discussed the relationship between red meat, TMAO, and heart disease risk in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”).

Let me summarize briefly here:

  • Red meat has 10-50-fold higher concentrations of a compound called L-carnitine than white meat.
  • Meat eaters have a very different population of gut bacteria than people who eat a primarily plant-based diet. It is not clear whether that is due to the meat or the loss of plant foods that meat displaces from the diet.
  • The gut bacteria of meat eaters convert L-carnitine to trimethylamine (TMA), which the liver then converts to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).
  • The gut bacteria of people consuming a primarily plant-based do not convert L-carnitine to TMA, so no TMAO is formed. For example, in one study investigators fed an 8-ounce sirloin steak to meat eaters and to vegetarians. The meat eaters ended up with high levels of TMAO in their blood. The vegetarians had little or no TMAO in their blood.
  • High levels of TMAO are associated with atherosclerosis, increased risk of heart attacks, and death. Therefore, TMAO is considered an independent risk factor for heart disease.

The authors of the study comparing red meat and white meat also found that blood TMAO levels were two-fold higher in the red meat group than in the other two groups and this was independent of dietary saturated fat. However, rather than publishing this in the same paper where it might have interfered with their message that red and white meat affect heart disease risk to the same extent, the authors chose to publish these data in a separate paper (Z.Wang, European Heart Journal, 40: 7: 583-594, 2018).

Did I mention the authors are heavily funded by the beef industry?

Is Red Meat Healthy As Part Of A Mediterranean Diet?

Mediterranean Diet FoodsLet me briefly touch on one other study funded by the beef industry. The headlines said: “You may not have to give up red meat. It is healthy as part of a Mediterranean diet.”

The study (LE O’Connor et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108: 33-40, 2018) behind the headlines did report that lean beef and pork did not raise LDL cholesterol levels when they were included in a Mediterranean diet. However, it is important to look at what the headlines didn’t tell you.

  • The red meat group consumed only 2.4 ounces of red meat a day. We aren’t talking about 8-ounce steaks or a rack of pork ribs here.
  • The red meat group ate only the very leanest (tenderloin) cuts of beef or pork.
  • On a positive note, while it wasn’t measured in this study, it is likely that TMAO levels would be relatively low because the subjects were consuming a primarily plant-based diet. They were consuming 7 servings of vegetables, 4 servings of fruit, and 4 servings of whole grains each day.
  • Similarly, red meat has several components that appear to increase cancer risk. However, they can be largely neutralized by various plant foods. This is something I have discussed in more detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths”.

In summary, it would have been more accurate to conclude that very small, very lean servings of red meat may be healthy as part of a primarily plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet.

The Lies Of The Beef Industry

LiesBoth these studies utilized the very leanest cuts of red meat so they could conclude that red meat is healthy. This is a common design of studies funded by the beef industry. Rather than looking at the health effects of the high fat red meats most people consume, the studies focus only on the leanest cuts of meat.

The studies appear to be designed to purposely mislead the American public. Let’s look at how that happens. When studies like these are incorporated into larger meta-analyses or reviews, investigators often look at the conclusions, not at the experimental design.

Meta-analyses and reviews are only as good as the studies they include, a concept referred to as “Garbage in – Garbage Out”. That is what happened with the review and recommendations I discussed last week. The review relied heavily on short-term randomized controlled trials.

However, this is problematic. Because of the way they are designed, industry funded studies tend to find no adverse effects of consuming red meat. Independently funded studies tend to find adverse health effects from red meat. If you throw them all together without considering how the experiments were designed, the studies cancel each other out.

On that basis the authors of the review concluded that the evidence for red meat adversely affecting health outcomes was weak and recommended that everyone could continue consuming red meat. (That is a recommendation that virtually every health organization and top expert in the field have rejected for the reasons I summarized last week).

The beef industry doesn’t have to influence the design of every study, just enough studies to confuse the science and confuse the media.

The Complicity Of The Media

newspaper heallinesUnfortunately, the media is equally guilty of misleading the public. As I said above, the media is interested in attracting an audience, not in accuracy. For example:

  • The headlines describing the first study should have said: “Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol levels”. But everyone knows that. Headlines like that are non-controversial. They don’t attract readers.
  • The headlines describing that study could have said: “Very lean cuts of red meat don’t raise LDL levels any more than white meat”. That would have been accurate, but that wouldn’t attract readers either. Most Americans prefer high fat cuts of red meat. They aren’t interested in reading articles suggesting they should change what they are eating.
  • Similarly, the headlines describing the second study should have said: “Very small amounts of very lean red meat may be healthy as part of a Mediterranean diet.”
  • In fact, the authors of both studies admitted in their discussions that they could not extrapolate their findings to the effects of higher-fat red meats. The media ignored those statements. Presumably, they decided the American public didn’t want to hear that message.
  • The first study also found that LDL and related lipoprotein levels were lower for the non-meat protein group than the red and white meat groups at both saturated fat levels. In fact, the main conclusion of the authors was: “The findings are in keeping with recommendations promoting diets with a high proportion of plant foods.” Somehow the media completely ignored that finding.

When the media consistently misleads the public about what constitutes a healthy diet, it leads to confusion. Confusion leads to inaction. At a time when so many Americans are suffering from preventable diseases, this is inexcusable.

Is Red Meat Healthy?

red meat heart healthyLet’s return to the question I posed last week: “Is red meat healthy?” Most of what I say below is identical to what I said last week. However, with the information I provided in the article above it may be easier to understand.

  • The saturated fat in red meat is associated with increased heart disease risk.
  • Red meat increases blood levels of TMAO, which is associated with increased heart disease risk.
  • The heme iron in red meat can be converted in the gut to N-nitroso compounds, which are associated with increased risk of cancer.
  • Benzopyrene and heterocyclic amines are formed when red meat is cooked. And they are associated with increased risk of cancer.

As I said last week, “There are too many studies that show a strong association between red meat consumption and disease risk to give red meat a clean bill of health. We can’t say red meat is healthy with any confidence.”

However, that doesn’t mean we need to eliminate red meat from our diet. As described above, the health risks of red meat are determined by the type of red meat consumed, the amount of red meat consumed, and the overall composition of our diet. For example:

  • Very lean cuts of red meat contain no more saturated fat than white meat.
  • Primarily plant-based diets alter our gut bacteria in such a way that production of TMAO and N-nitroso compounds are decreased.
  • Diets high in plant fiber sweep benzopyrene and heterocyclic amines out of our intestine before they can cause much damage.

So, what does that mean to you?

  • If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat may increase your risk of disease.
  • However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of very lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat is probably OK.
  • If you are thinking about the very leanest cuts of red meat, they are probably just as healthy as white meat.

What About Grass Fed Beef?

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is: “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” Grass fed beef does have a slightly healthier fat profile. It is modestly lower in saturated fat and modestly higher in omega-3 fats. However, grass feeding doesn’t affect TMAO, N-Nitroso, benzopyrene, and heterocyclic amine formation.

  • That means the 8-ounce steak is only slightly less unhealthy and the 2-3 ounces of steak in a green salad only slightly healthier when you substitute grass-fed for conventionally raised beef. It’s probably not worth the extra cost.

Next week I will return with the answer to another question I get a lot. “If plant protein is good for me, what about all those meatless burgers that are popping up in my favorite fast food restaurants. Are they healthy?”

The Bottom Line

Last week I wrote about a recent review claiming that the evidence for the health risks of red meat consumption was so weak that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much of it as they like. I pointed out the many flaws in that study.

This week I provided two examples of how the beef industry influences the design of clinical trials to minimize the health risks of red meat and the media misleads the public about what the studies showed.

The bottom line is that red meat likely has no adverse health effects only if you are consuming very small amounts of very lean red meat in the context of a primarily plant-based diet. Unfortunately, this is not the message you are getting from the media and from Dr. Strangelove’s health blog.

As for grass-fed beef, it is only modestly healthier than conventionally raised beef for reasons I have given in the article above. It’s probably not worth the extra cost.

Next week I will return with the answer to another question I get a lot. “If plant protein is good for me, what about all those plant-based burgers that are popping up in my favorite fast food restaurants. Are they healthy?” Stay tuned.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

 

 

Is Red Meat Healthy For You?

Why Is Red Meat So Controversial?

fatty steakThe American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization and other organizations have been telling us for years that diets high in red meat are likely to increase our risk of chronic diseases. If you are like most Americans, you have been trying to cut back on red meat.

However, the latest headlines are saying things like: “Red meat is actually good for you” and “Most adults don’t need to cut back on red meat for their health”. Where did those headlines come from?

A group calling itself the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium (NutriRECS) has reviewed the scientific literature and said: “The evidence is too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less beef and pork.” They have issued guidelines (BC Johnston et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, 171: 756-764, 2019) saying that adults really don’t need to change the amounts of red meat they are eating.

As you can imagine, that has proven to be a controversial recommendation. Many of the top experts in the field have questioned the validity of the study and have condemned the guidelines as misleading.

However, most of you don’t care about arguments between the experts. Your questions are: “What does this study mean to me?” Is everything I have been told about red meat wrong?” “Is red meat healthy after all? Can I really eat as much as I want?”

Why Is Red Meat So Controversial?

ArgumentIf you are confused by the latest headlines, it’s not your fault. Over the past few decades you have been bombarded by conflicting headlines about red meat. One month it is bad for you. The next month it is good for you. It is fair to ask: “Why is red meat so controversial? Why is it so confusing?”

Perhaps the best way to answer those questions is to review the scientific critique of the latest guidelines saying we can eat as much red meat as we want and then look at the authors’ rebuttal.

The best summary of the scientific critique of these guidelines is a WebMD Health News report. Let me cover a few of the most important criticisms:

#1: The NutriRECS group was not backed by any major health, government, or scientific organizations. The members of this group self-nominated themselves as gurus of nutritional recommendations. In an earlier publication they concluded that the evidence was too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less sugar. But in that review they stopped short of recommending that adults could eat as much sugar as they wanted.

#2: The review left out 15 important studies showing that diets high in red meat are associated with increased disease risk. If those studies had been included in the analysis, the link between meat consumption and disease would have been much stronger. Even worse, the omitted studies met the author’s stated criteria for inclusion in their analysis. No reason was given for omitting those studies. This suggests author bias.

#3: The authors used an assessment method that prioritizes evidence from randomized controlled trials and downgrades evidence from association studies. As a result, multiple association studies showing red and processed meat consumption increases disease risk were discounted, and a few randomized controlled clinical trials giving inconsistent results dominated their analysis.

Let me state for the record that my research career was devoted to cancer drug development. I am a big proponent of the value of randomized controlled trials when they are appropriate.

·       Randomized controlled trial are perfect for determining the effectiveness of new drugs. In this context it is appropriate. In a drug trial it is easy to design a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. In addition, every participant already has the disease. If a drug has a benefit, it is apparent in a very short time.

·       However, randomized controlled trials are not optimal for dietary studies. In the first place, it is impossible to design a placebo or have a “blinded study”. People know what they are eating. In addition, diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes take decades to develop. You can’t keep people on specific diets for decades.

·       In addition, because randomized controlled trials are short, they can only measure the effect of diet on disease markers like LDL cholesterol. These disease markers are imperfect predictors of disease outcomes. I will discuss this in more detail next week.

·       Consequently, most of the major studies in nutrition research are “association studies” where the investigators ask people what they customarily eat and look at the association of those dietary practices with disease outcomes. These studies aren’t perfect, but they represent the best tool we have for determining the influence of diet on disease outcomes.

confusion#4: The authors included people’s attitudes about eating meat in their analysis. Because many meat eaters stated they would be unwilling to give up meat, the authors downgraded the association between meat consumption and disease risk.

·       That really had the outside experts scratching their heads. They agreed that people’s attitudes should be considered in discussions about how to implement health guidelines. However, they were unanimously opposed to the idea that people’s opinions should be a factor in crafting health guidelines.

#5: The authors ignored the environmental impact of meat consumption. As I indicated in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, this should be a major consideration when choosing your diet.

#6: The authors may have been influenced by the beef industry. The NutriRECS group stated that the Agriculture and Life Sciences (AgriLife) program at Texas A&M provided generous support for their study. While that sound innocuous, the AgriLife program receives financial support from the “Texas Beef Checkoff Program”, which is a meat industry marketing program paid for by cattle ranchers.

#7: The beef industry influenced the studies the authors relied on in their review. The beef industry supports randomized controlled clinical trials on red meat and influences the outcome of those studies in ways that minimize the health effects of red meat consumption. I will give some examples of this next week. Unfortunately, these are the studies the NutriRECS group relied on for their recommendations.

What Did The Authors Say About Their Guidelines?

balance scaleBecause I like to provide a balanced evaluation of nutrition controversies, it is only fair that I summarize the authors argument for their recommendations. However, I will add my commentary. Here is a summary of their arguments.

#1: Nutritional recommendations should be based on sound science. In principle, this is something that everyone agrees on. However, as I noted above randomized controlled trials are not always the best scientific approach for studying the health effects of diet.

My comment: In matters of public health it is better to be safe than sorry. Simply put, it is better to warn people about probable dangers to their health rather than waiting decades for certainty. Smoking is a perfect example. The Surgeon General warned the US public about the dangers of smoking long before the evidence was conclusive.

Smoking is also an example of how industry tries to influence scientific opinion. The tobacco industry supported and influenced research on smoking. Industry funded research tended to minimize the dangers of smoking. Next week I will show how the meat industry is doing the same concerning the dangers of red meat.

#2: It is difficult to get good dietary information in association studies. That is because most association studies ask people what they have eaten over the past few decades. There are two problems with that.

1)    Most people have enough trouble remembering what they ate yesterday. Remembering what they ate 10 or 20 years ago is problematic.

2)    People listen to the news and often change their diets based on what they hear. What they are eating today may not resemble what they ate 10 years ago.

My comment: That is a legitimate point. However, in recent years the best association studies have started collection dietary information at the start, the mid-point, and the end of the study. I agree we need more of those studies.

#3: The authors claim they found no statistically significant link between meat consumption and risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer in a dozen randomized controlled trials that had enrolled about 54 000 participants.

label deceptionMy comment: That statement is highly misleading. One of those studies had 48,835 participants. That study wasn’t even designed to measure the effect of red meat consumption. It was designed to measure the health effects of low fat versus high fat diets. The difference in red meat consumption between the two groups was only 1.4 servings per day, a 20% difference. Even with that small difference in red meat consumption, there was about a 2% reduction in some heart disease outcomes, which the authors considered insignificant.

That leaves 11 studies with only 5,165 participants, which averages out to 470 participants per study. Those studies had too few participants to provide any meaningful estimate of the effect of red meat on health outcomes.

In addition, the meat industry influenced the design of some of those studies to further minimize the effect of red meat on health outcomes, something I will discuss next week.

#4: The authors found a slight effect of red meat consumption on heart disease and cancer deaths in association studies, but said the decrease was too small to recommend that people change their diet.

My comment: This represents the folly of looking at any single food or single nutrient rather than the whole diet. We need to take a holistic approach and ask questions like: “What are they replacing red meat with? What does their overall diet look like?

For example, let’s look at what happens when you reduce saturated fats, something I discussed in a previous issue (https://healthtipsfromtheprofessor.com/are-saturated-fats-bad-for-you/) of “Health Tips From the Professor”. When you replace saturated fats with:

·       Trans fats, your heart disease risk increases by 5%.

·       Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American diet), your heart disease risk increases slightly.

·       Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables), your heart disease risk decreases by 9%.

·       Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), your heart disease risk decreases by 15%.

·       Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oil & fish oil), your heart disease risk decreases by 25%.

·       Unsaturated fats in the context of a primarily plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet, your heart disease risk decreases by 47%.

While we don’t have such precise numbers for red meat, we do have enough evidence to know that the situation with red meat is similar.

·       Replacing high-fat red meat with low-fat red meat or white meat in the context of a typical American diet will probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

·       Replacing red meat with plant protein in the context of a typical American diet (think Impossible Burgers or the equivalent at your local Fast Food restaurant) will also probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

·       Replacing red meat with white meat or plant protein in the context of a primarily plant-based diet is likely to significantly reduce disease risk.

Is Red Meat Healthy For You?

Steak and PotatoesLet’s return to the question I posed at the beginning of this article: “Is red meat healthy for you?” In the context of headlines saying: “Red meat is actually good for you”, the answer is a clear No!

·       The saturated fat in red meat is associated with increased heart disease risk.

·       However, it’s not just saturated fat. Other components of red meat are associated with increased risk of heart disease and cancer. I will discuss those next week.

There are simply too many studies that show an association between red meat consumption and disease risk to give red meat a clean bill of health. We can’t say red meat is healthy with any confidence.

However, that doesn’t mean we need to eliminate red meat from our diet. The health risks of red meat are determined by the type of red meat consumed, the amount of red meat consumed, and the overall composition of our diet. So:Steak Salad

·       If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not healthy.

·       However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be healthy.

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” I will answer that question next week.

The Bottom Line

A group calling itself the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium (NutriRECS) recently reviewed the scientific literature and said: “The evidence is too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less beef and pork.” They then issued guidelines saying that adults really don’t need to change the amounts of red meat they are eating.

As you can imagine, that has proven to be a controversial recommendation. Many of the top experts in the field have questioned the validity of the study and have condemned the guidelines as misleading.

When you examine the pros and cons carefully, it becomes clear that the NutriRECS group:

1)    Put too little emphasis on association studies with hundreds of thousands of participants showing a link between red meat consumption and increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

2)    Put too much emphasis on very small randomized controlled trials that had no possibility of evaluating the effect of red meat consumption on disease risk. In part, that is because many of the randomized controlled trials were funded and influenced by the meat industry, something I will discuss next week.

3)    Did not ask what the red meat was replaced with or look at red meat consumption in the context of the overall diet.

Based on what we currently know:

1)    Replacing high-fat red meat with low-fat red meat or white meat in the context of a typical American diet will probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

2)    Replacing red meat with plant protein in the context of a typical American diet (think Impossible Burgers or the equivalent at your local Fast Food restaurant) will also probably have only a minor effect on disease risk.

3)    Replacing red meat with white meat or plant protein in the context of a primarily plant-based diet is likely to significantly reduce disease risk.

That means:

1)    If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not healthy.

2)   However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be healthy.

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” I will answer that question next week. Stay tuned.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Does Grilled Meat Increase Prostate Cancer Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 Want Cancer With That Burger?

 backyard-bbq

Its summer and you have most likely already visited a backyard bbq. One question that you probably won’t hear from your host or hostess is “Would you like some cancer with that burger?” But, perhaps that is exactly the question that they should be asking.

You probably already knew that red meat consumption may increase your risk of cancer. But, did you know that grilling that red meat may increase your risk of cancer even more?

  • You probably didn’t really want to know that when fat from the meat hits the hot coals, carcinogens form that are deposited on the meat.
  • You probably also didn’t want to know that when you cook meat to high temperatures the amino acids in the meat combine to form cancer causing substances.
  • And you really didn’t want to know that a recent study showed that people who consume well-done red meat were 60% more likely to develop advanced pancreatic cancer.

Does Grilled Meat Increase Prostate Cancer Risk?

This study compared 531 people ages 40-79 who had recently been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer with 527 matched controls. Both groups were asked about their dietary intake of meats, usual meat cooking methods and doneness of the meat.

The results were quite striking:

  • Increased consumption of hamburgers was associated with a 79% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.
  • Increased consumption of processed meat was associated with a 57% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.
  • Grilled red meat was associated with a 63% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.
  • Well done red meat was associated with a 52% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.

However, those percentages are a little bit difficult to compare, because “increased consumption” was defined relative to what the usual consumption or cooking practice was. So put another way, weekly consumption of…

  • 3 or more servings of red meat or…
  • 1.5 or more servings of processed meat or…
  • 1 or more servings of grilled or well done red meat…

…were associated with a 50% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.

In contrast, consumption of white meat was not associated with increased cancer risk, no matter what the cooking method was used.

how-you-can-reduce-cancer-risk

Is It Possible To Enjoy Your Cookouts Without Increasing Cancer Risk?

Our local newspaper recently carried some tips by Dr. Denise Snyder from the Duke University School of Nursing in Durham, NC on how you could reduce the risk of giving your guests cancer the next time you are the chef at your backyard bbq.

Here are her suggestions:

  • Grill fruits and vegetables instead of meat. That was her idea, not mine. My editorial comment would be that grilling white meat (fish or chicken) is also OK.
  • Use the lowest temperature that will cook your food thoroughly and keep the grill rack as high as possible.
  • Use a meat thermometer so that you can make sure that as soon as the meat is thoroughly cooked you remove it from the grill. We usually overcook the meat to make sure that it is done.
  • Shorten your grill time by microwaving the meat first, using thinner leaner cuts of meat or cutting up the meat and making kabobs.
  • Trim as much fat from the meat as possible before you cook it.
  • Line your grill rack with aluminum foil poked with holes. This allows the fat to drip down but minimizes the exposure of the meat to the carcinogens formed when the fat hits the coals.
  • Marinate your meats before grilling. That has been shown to reduce the formation of cancer causing chemicals.
  • And, of course, avoid processed meats like hot dogs and sausage completely because they have been shown to increase the risk of cancer and diabetes (British Journal of Cancer, 106: 603-607, 2012; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.018978, 2011) no matter how they are cooked.

So here’s to a healthier backyard bbq. Bon appétit!

The Bottom Line

1)     You already knew that red meat and processed meats may increase your risk of cancer, but how you cook your red meat also matters. Grilling your meat and/or cooking it until it is well done appear to significantly increase your risk of developing advanced prostate cancer.

2)     In contrast, consumption of white meat was not associated with increased cancer risk, no matter what the cooking method was used.

3)    I’ve included several tips on how you can reduce the cancer risk associated with grilling red meats in the article above so you can enjoy both your cookouts and your health.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Does Carnitine Increase Heart Disease Risk?

Carnitine: Dr. Jekyl or Mr. Hyde?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Heart HealthIt’s both interesting and confusing when one Journal article appears talking about the dangers of a particular supplement and just a couple of weeks later another article appears talking about the benefits of that same supplement – especially when the conclusions of both articles are misrepresented in the media.

But that’s exactly what has just occurred with the supplement L-carnitine. Media reports of the first article trumpeted the headline “Cleveland Clinic study links L-carnitine to increased risk of heart disease”. Media reports of the second article featured the headline “Mayo Clinic review links L-carnitine to multiple health heart benefits”. As you might suspect, neither headline was completely accurate. So let me help you sort out the confusion about L-carnitine and heart health

What is Carnitine?

But first let me give you a little bit of background about L-carnitine. L-Carnitine is an essential part of the transport system that allows fatty acids to enter the mitochondria where they can be oxidized and generate energy. So it is an essential nutrient for any cell that has mitochondria and utilizes fatty acids as an energy source.

L-carnitine is particularly important for muscle cells, and the hardest working muscle cells in our body are those that pump blood through our hearts. So when we think of L-carnitine we should think of heart health first.

But that doesn’t mean that L-carnitine is an essential nutrient. In fact, our bodies generally make all of the L-carnitine that we need. There are some metabolic diseases that can prevent us from making L-carnitine or utilizing L-carnitine efficiently. People with those diseases benefit from L-carnitine supplementation, but those diseases are exceedingly rare.

There is some evidence that supplemental L-carnitine may be of benefit in individuals suffering from congestive heart failure and other diseases characterized by weakened heart muscles. Other than that there is little evidence that supplemental L-carnitine is beneficial for healthy individuals.

Does Carnitine Increase Heart Disease Risk?

fatty steakLet’s look at the first study (Koeth et al, Nature Medicine, doi:10.1038/nm.3145, April 7, 2013) – the one that purportedly linked L-carnitine to increase risk of heart disease. The authors were trying to gain a better understanding of the well-established link between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease risk. The classical explanation of this link has been the saturated fat and cholesterol content of the red meat.

However, several recent studies have questioned whether saturated fat and cholesterol actually increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (see last week’s article “Are Saturated Fats Good For You?”)

Since red meat is also high in L-carnitine, the authors hypothesized that it might be the L-carnitine or a metabolite of the L-carnitine that was associated with increased risk of heart disease in people consuming red meat.

The authors honed in on a metabolite of L-carnitine called trimethylamine-N-oxide or TMAO that is produced by bacteria in the intestine and had been previously shown to accelerate atherosclerosis in mice. They developed what they called an L-carnitine challenge. Basically, they gave their subjects an 8 ounce sirloin steak, which contains about 180 mg of L-carnitine, and measured levels of L-carnitine and TMAO in the blood one hour later and the urine 24 hours later. [I’m guessing they didn’t have much trouble finding volunteers for that study.]

When the subjects were omnivores (meaning meat eaters) they found a significant increase in both L-carnitine and TMAO in their blood and urine following the L-carnitine challenge. When they put the same subjects on broad-spectrum antibiotics for a week to wipe out their intestinal bacteria and repeated the L-carnitine challenge, they found an increase in L-carnitine but no increase in TMAO. This simply confirmed that the intestinal bacteria were required for the conversion of L-carnitine to TMAO.

Finally, because previous studies have shown that omnivores and vegetarians have very different populations of intestinal bacteria, they repeated their L-carnitine challenge in a group of vegans and found that consumption of the same 8 ounce sirloin steak by the vegans did not result in any significant increase in TMAO in either their blood or urine.

Armed with this information, the authors measured L-carnitine and TMAO concentrations in the fasting blood of 2595 patients undergoing cardiac evaluation in the Cleveland Clinic. They used an established protocol to assess the three-year risk for major adverse cardiac events in the patients they examined. They observed a significant association between L-carnitine levels and cardiovascular event risks, but only in subjects who also had high blood levels of TMAO.

Now it’s time to compare what the headlines said to what the study actually showed. The headlines said “L-carnitine linked to increased risk of heart disease”. What the study actually showed was that there were two things that were required to increase the risk of heart disease – L-carnitine and a population of intestinal bacteria that converted the L-carnitine to TMAO.

The major source of L-carnitine in the American diet is red meat, and habitual red meat consumption is required to support a population of intestinal bacteria that is capable of converting L-carnitine to TMAO. So the headlines should have read “red meat consumption linked to increased risk of heart disease”. But, of course, that’s old news. It doesn’t sell subscriptions.

Does Carnitine Decrease Heart Disease Risk?

Heart AttackThe second study (DiNicolantonio et al, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.02.007) was a meta-analysis. It reviewed 13 clinical studies involving 3629 people who had already had heart attacks and were given L-carnitine or a placebo after the heart attack.

In evaluating the results of this study it is useful to remember that a heart attack generally kills some of the heart muscle and weakens some of the surviving heart muscle. When the data from all of the studies was combined the authors reported a 27% reduction in all cause mortality, a 65% reduction in arrhythmias, and a 40% reduction in angina. However, there was no reduction in a second heart attack or the development of heart failure.

So perhaps the headlines describing this study were a little closer to being on target, but they failed to mention that these effects were only seen in people who had already suffered a heart attack and had weakened heart muscles. They also failed to mention that there was no decreased risk of a second heart attack or congestive heart failure.

The Bottom Line:

1)     The first study should be considered preliminary. It needs to be confirmed by other studies. If it is true, it is not ground breaking. It merely gives us a fuller understanding of why red meat consumption may be linked to increased risk of heart disease and gives you yet another reason to minimize red meat consumption.

The study does raise the possibility that use of L-carnitine supplements may increase your risk of heart disease if you eat red meat on a regular basis, and that this same risk may not be associated with L-carnitine supplementation if you are a vegan. But the study did not directly test that hypothesis, and much more research is required before I would give it any weight.

2)     The second study suggests that if you have already had a heart attack, you may want to consult with your physician about whether L-carnitine supplementation might be of benefit. Once again, this study is not ground breaking. We already knew that L-carnitine supplementation was helpful for people with weakened heart muscle. This study merely confirmed that.

Contrary to what the headlines suggested, this study provides no guidance about whether L-carnitine supplementation has any heart health benefits in people without pre-existing heart disease – and the bulk of existing literature suggests that it does not.

3)     Finally, I realize that the major use of L-carnitine in the US market is in sports supplements purported to increase strength and endurance. The literature on that is decidedly mixed, but that’s another subject for another time.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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