Should we really give red meat the chop?

Neil Perry's spicy skirt steak and potatoes.
Neil Perry's spicy skirt steak and potatoes. Photo: William Meppem

The timing could hardly have been worse. Just as every cook in the land was kicking off preparations for their Easter family feast, we were presented with another frankly terrifying report about red meat and cancer.

Oxford University research on half a million people found that eating red meat just once a day increased the risk of bowel cancer by a fifth. Even those who kept to the Government's current recommended limit of 70g a day - equivalent to a rather paltry third of a 220g steak or two rashers of bacon - still had a 20 per cent higher chance of developing colon cancer than those who ate about 20g a day.

For those of us who enjoy a weekend fry-up or traditional roast, it's enough to make you choke on your hot cross bun. 

The link between meat and cancer is not a new one - in 2015, the World Health Organisation classified processed meats as a group 1 carcinogen, alongside arsenic, alcohol and asbestos. Though much of the evidence so far has been based on association rather than a proven cause, scientists believe the link is down to a compound in red meat called haem, which reacts with cells in the gut causing DNA damage.

In processed meat such as bacon, ham and sausages, the preservatives used to extend shelf life and enhance taste have been shown to be cancer-causing and, here, the evidence is stronger. And, of course, it's not just bowel cancer: a 2017 study in the British Medical Journal linked meat eating with a raised risk of dying from a range of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

[Red meat] is not the devil's food, and I certainly eat it.

Helen Bond, dietitian

Like many, the bombardment of health and environmental warnings have prompted me to cut down and eat more vegetarian dinners, but I'd struggle to give up steaks completely. That's not just because of meat's taste, but its unparalleled ability to fill me up. Yet the amount that's considered safe to eat appears to be shrinking.

So is it still possible to enjoy the pleasures of a carnivorous diet without dooming oneself to an early grave? Meat-eating is a great British tradition. But will we one day look back on the traditional Sunday roast in the same way we do smoking on planes?

It's worth remembering, in this age of the vegan sausage roll, that red meat - that's beef, lamb, pork, veal, venison and goat - is a highly nutritious food. Along with protein and vitamin D, it's a particularly good source of iron and vitamin B12, important for energy and a healthy nervous system. Studies show that a worrying number of girls and young women are deficient in iron and B12. "That's due in part to the movement towards vegetarianism and veganism, and red meat becoming unpopular," says Helen Bond, dietitian and spokesman for the British Dietetic Association.

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Bond says there's no need to go completely vegetarian if you don't want to, but we should all be aiming to make two thirds of our diet plant-based, and stick to the recommended 70g meat a day. (Studies such as the National Diet and Nutrition Survey suggest the average woman abides by this recommended limit, but men continue to exceed it, with those aged 64 and over the worst offenders, and showing no signs of cutting down.) 

"It's not the devil's food, and I certainly eat it," Bond says. "It's important to look at the bigger picture: what else is going on in the person's diet? If you're having meat every now and then, along with lots of fibre and fruit and veg and wholegrains, then that will be a lot better for you than a wholly plant-based diet with lots of cheese and processed foods."

Lauren Wiggins, director of services at charity Bowel Cancer UK, agrees: "Studies like this week's don't suggest we need to stop eating meat altogether. It's moderation, really: we recommend no more than 500g of cooked red meat per week. Meat is just one factor influencing the risk of bowel cancer, along with alcohol and smoking, for example."

If you want to keep eating meat, the advice is to choose high-quality, lean cuts to reduce the amount of saturated fat, and cook from scratch as much as possible, making your own burgers and meatballs, for example. "The problem with supermarket mince is you can't see what's gone into it," says Bond. "I ask my butcher to mince a beef steak for me instead."

Other ways to minimise the health risks include avoiding cooking at high temperatures - such as barbecuing - as some studies show this increases the rate of cancer-causing compounds. Bond says roasting meat at a low temperature is "fine, and if you can use a rack to reduce the fat content, even better".

Others, though, are more sceptical about the recent demonisation of meat. Food writer Joanna Blythman, author of Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry's Darkest Secrets, has long believed the true culprit behind many modern health problems is processed food. "We've been eating meat for millennia with no problem," she says. "My feeling is the dangers of depriving yourself of red meat are actually much higher than of eating it.

"It's a highly, highly nutritious food - it's hyper-satisfying, which means it's actually hard to overeat it. Liver, for example, is, along with mackerel, eggs and oily fish, among the most nutritional foods you can find. If you think a bowl of cereal or avocado on toast could ever match something like that, dream on."

Blythman says studies linking meat with adverse health outcomes are often based on crude questionnaires that don't take into account the type or source of the meat being consumed.

"As I understand it, when it comes to good, hard science and randomised trials, there is no evidence against red meat - the only possible evidence is against processed red meat because of all the additives. So there's this generic idea that all meat is bad, without looking at the differences between meat from animals on a local farm that has been reared wholly on grass and the very industrialised stuff."

Rather than cutting out whole food groups, her mantra is simply to eat food as close to its natural form as possible, and to eat local and seasonal. 

How to eat less red meat

Expensive cuts aren't the best when you're cutting down. Fillet steak may be tender, but it has little flavour so is less satisfying. Opt for a small piece of a cheaper cut like rib eye or rump instead. The same goes for other "posh" cuts. Brown off the meat you do use really well - it should be a proper teak colour - for maximum flavour.

Mince is perfect for stretching. Try swapping half the mince in a bolognese sauce for finely chopped mushrooms. Fry them really well to drive off the liquid and brown them, then carry on with your recipe.

Coating thin pieces of meat with egg and breadcrumbs makes them seem twice the size, and once it's baked to a crisp crust, it's delicious.

Spiced sausages such as chorizo give heaps of flavour to bean, lentil and vegetable one-pot dishes.

Don't cut back on the gravy: vegetables doused in meaty juices are fabulous.

Save the fat and juices from the Sunday roast, and use for cooking in the week: fat is a brilliant carrier of flavour so it'll add a savoury punch to veg.

A good side dish can be the main attraction, especially if there's a bit of meat in there. Think of cauliflower cheese with a few chopped rashers of smoked streaky bacon added to the sauce.

Forget what the industry calls "meat analogues". Use slices of aubergine, or chunks of roast cauliflower, or sweet potato instead. Tofu is fine, as long as you stick to oriental recipes.

Xanthe Clay

The Telegraph, London