Updated: Jun 15, 2022
With WHO (World Health Organization) categorizing processed meat as human carcinogen, and with meat industry having undeniable, negative impact on the environment and increasing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria, as well as the ethical issues of conventional cattle raising in the US, it is no wonder that more and more health and environment conscious consumers are turning their back to meat and looking for healthier and delicious veggie alternatives instead.
In an effort to create a comprehensive review of issues that surround meat eating and meat industry, we take a deep dive into the question of how high are the steaks with steak.
In October 2015 The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of WHO, classified red meat as probable human carcinogen and processed meat as human carcinogen, based on sufficient scientific evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer. According to American Cancer Society, excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is now the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the US. This in itself should be alarming enough for you to drop that crunchy breakfast bacon you're nibbling on, and continue reading.
So what exactly is beef with beef? Well actually, there are a few...
ISSUE NO 1. Nitrates and Nitrites
Nitrates and nitrites are chemicals added to meat during processing, like curing. They can be found in bacon, ham, sausages, hot dogs, etc. and they are used to preserve the meat and prolong its shelf life, to add salty flavor, and to enhance the sought-after red/pinkish color in meat. Nitrate by itself is not dangerous, it is naturally present in some vegetables, like spinach and beetroot juice. However, when nitrate interacts with meat it converts into N-nitroso compound, like nitrosamine, which is a known carcinogen and has been proven to cause liver, stomach, bladder, brain, and lung cancer, when used even in small, repeated doses. To illustrate the point, nitrosamines are the same chemicals also found in tobacco products and tobacco smoke (yikes!).
What about organic processed meat, it must be better, right? Well, kind of but not exactly... Organic processed meats do not contain synthetic nitrates, which is great news! But naturally occurring nitrates (like those found in beets, or spinach) can still be added. This is why organic processed meat will often have the following statement on their packaging “No nitrates or nitrites added, other than those which naturally occur in celery powder.” While natural nitrates from vegetables are better than chemical ones (especially since organic vegetables have lower level of nitrates, as synthetic nitrate fertilizers are not used), the conversion from nitrates to nitrosamine will still happen. So not even buying organic, in this case, will prevent you from being exposed to these carcinogenic chemicals.
But can meat be processed and cured without nitrates and nitrites, you might wonder? Yes, it can! However, adding nitrates and nitrites unfortunately still remains industry standard for majority of processed meat. Some notable exceptions are Parma ham and prosciutto. I was pretty amused by this discovery, considering that I don't eat any meat except for occasional prosciutto (fun fact: my husband calls me a prosciutto--tarian, which is like a pescatarian who eats prosciutto).
LIVING PUR Recommendation: To avoid carcinogenic nitrosamines accumulating in your body, stop eating processed meat. The only exception would be: Parma ham, prosciutto, and meat cured without nitrates and nitrites (if you find any commercially available meat like this, we would love to know). And if you absolutely must eat processed meat, at least stick to organic, whenever possible.
ISSUE NO. 2. PAH
PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) are carcinogenic chemicals, linked to skin, lung, bladder, and stomach cancers in well studied animal models. PAHs are released when red meat is prepared at very high temperature, or close to an open flame. Barbecuing or searing meat in a pan on a stove (bacon anyone?) produces the highest amount of PAHs. So at the very least, it would be wise to stay away from these methods of preparing meat.
LIVING PUR Recommendation: To avoid toxic PAH chemicals, avoid barbecue and pan-seared meat, prepared on very high temperatures or in close contact with an open flame, like flambé. Replace it with cooked, boiled, baked, or roasted dishes and stews instead.
ISSUE NO. 3. Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
According to the latest EWG testing, up to 79% of grocery bought meat is contaminated with antibiotic resistant bacteria (percentage varied per meat type, from 36% for chicken, up to 79% for turkey). CDC confirms that this antibiotic resistant bacteria from meat can spread to people, resulting in antibiotic resistant infections. People usually get exposed by handling or eating contaminated food and meat, or coming in contact with animal waste. So chew on that, next time you order your steak rare or medium-rare!
While it is possible that handling meat very carefully and cooking it to the appropriate temperature, will eliminate the issue of getting antibiotic-resistant infection from your food now, more important question still remains: how is the spread of this antibiotic-resistant bacteria affecting our ability to fight bacterial infections longterm, when many classes of antibiotics, our main lines of defense, are becoming ineffective? This is especially troubling when thinking about the most vulnerable groups of people: infants, pregnant women, elderly, and people with compromised immune system.
According to WHO antibiotic resistance is a serious threat to health and food security. Hence, in 2017 WHO issued a recommendation for farmers and food industry to stop routinely using antibiotics to promote more rapid growth and prevent disease in healthy animals. Nevertheless, US government allows meat producers to use antibiotics on healthy animals, unless they are raised organically. Currently, approximately 70% of all medically important antibiotics in the US are sold for use in animals. This is huge! It is beyond alarming! And government is doing very little about it. Under FDA Guidance for Industry #213 from 2017 drug sponsors were asked to voluntarily remove growth promotion from the labels of medically important antibiotics used in animals. In addition, use of these drugs now requires veterinary oversight. But this is, unfortunately, far from being enough to solve the issue. Hence, it is us, the consumers, who have the responsibility to stop buying meat raised with habitual, non-essential use of antibiotics to promote growth, or treat healthy animals.
For me personally, looming disaster of developing antibiotic resistance alone is enough to curb my appetite for meat. But if you are still having a hard time parting with that steak of yours, please buy organic meat, whenever you can afford it. Organic meat not only helps the issue of antibiotic resistance, but it is also raised without hormones, and USDA organic regulations require that animals are fed 100% organic feed, and are raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors (like the ability to graze on pasture). Sounds pretty nice! More on that below...
LIVING PUR Recommendation: Conventional meat industry contributes largely to very dangerous spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This has immediate effect in causing food-born antibiotic resistant infections, especially dangerous for the most vulnerable groups of people. Even more so, it leads to troubling longterm effects of antibiotic resistance. This is yet another reason to stop or decrease your consumption of meat. If that is not an option for you, then buying organic meat, whenever you can afford it, is a must.
ISSUE NO. 4. Environmental Impact & Inhumane Practices
If you made it up to here, I assume that you are not one of those "I don't care about the planet and animals" type of people. We all have only one planet to live on, at least for any foreseeable future (sorry, Elon Musk and SpaceX). And feeling empathy for other creatures is what separates us from lower forms of life, after all.
In addition to disturbingly inhumane practices and maltreatment of animals in conventional cattle raising in the US (you can read more on that in this well-written, albeit gruesome Rolling Stones article), cattle raising is one of the major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Cattle raising also occupies enormous amounts of land. It is estimated that 26% of Earth's total land mass is used for animal grazing. With almost 8 billion of people walking around, this is a big issue. We all watched as Amazon rainforests, dubbed "the lungs of the Earth", disappeared in flames in front of our own eyes, all to make space for more cattle farms in Brazil. How many more juicy steaks can you eat, before this leaves a bad taste in your mouth?
Fun fact: If all of us replaced beef with beans, an excellent vegetarian protein source, the US would immediately achieve 46--74% of reduction in greenhouse gas emissions needed to reach set 2020 goals (see mind-blowing infographic below).
Speaking of greenhouse gases, below is a chart from www.ourworldindata.org that shows impact of supply chain of different types of food on greenhouse gas emissions. Comparing the effects of beef and to lesser extent lamb production, to any other food type, is in short, eyeopening! There is no other way of saying this: meat (especially beef) production is destroying the Earth.
LIVING PUR Recommendation: Cattle raising is a culprit of inhumane treatment of animals, shocking amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and deforestation, through occupying 26% of the Earth's total land mass. We only have one planet to live on, so please go ahead and swap that steak for beans (pronto)!
For those of you who are not able to say good-bye to the meat just yet and are looking for an incremental change for the better instead: our second best recommendation, taking into account greenhouse gas emissions only, is to at least stay away from beef and lamb, and opt for poultry instead. (Note: even though pork production has just slightly higher greenhouse gas emissions, I can not recommend eating it, because of unfavorable health effects of pork, compared to poultry).
So in conclusion, after this comprehensive summary of issues of meat eating and meat industry, I think we made a pretty solid case on why you should seriously reconsider your meat--loving ways. When it comes to eating meat, there is no question, the steaks are high!
If you are already a believer and ready to make a positive change in your diet, for your health and for our planet, congrats, we are very proud of you! And even if you are not ready to give up meat completely just yet, you can still make a great progress by reducing your consumption. An easy way to do this can be to follow no meat every other day diet, or MeaT diet - no meat on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursdays, whatever is easy for you to remember and to stick to.
And if you are ready for 100% change, you might be wondering: ok, but now what do I eat instead of meat, and where do I get all my protein from? Not to worry, I wondered the same when I made the switch several years ago. As someone who is coming from a country where a meal is not considered a meal unless there is some kind of meat on the table, I can assure you that the switch was actually not that difficult. And the most dramatic part of the whole transition for me was probably the fact that my mom still thinks that by giving up meat, I gave up on my entire culture, and became "American". Spoiler alert, mom: the US is by far the biggest consumer of meat in the world, both per capita (120 kg/person per year) and in total consumption (21% of total world's consumption, followed by China and Brazil with 14% and 13% each).
Lastly, LivingPUR is here for you as always, so our next blog post will tackle the question of healthy vegetarian protein sources and how to find your perfect, nontoxic veggie burger! Stay tuned...