Trendy Scientific Controversies Half 7: The Meat Battle

Visitor Essay by Kip Hansen  —  10  October 2019


The_Meat_WarThe_Meat_WarPrologue:  That is a part of  an occasional  sequence of essays that discusses ongoing scientific controversies, a selected sort of which are sometimes referred to within the science press and elsewhere as “Wars” – as an illustration, one essay coated the “Salt Wars1” and one other the “Weight problems Battle” — and one which seems mostly right here at this website online: “The Local weather Wars”.    The aim of the sequence is to light up the similarities and variations concerned in these ongoing controversies, as a part of the social tradition of science in our fashionable world.

This essay particularly covers the furor over a six-paper physique of labor that appeared lately in The Annals of Inner Drugs reviewing the proof used to make public well being suggestions for quantities of pink and processed meat within the human weight-reduction plan.

In The Meat Battle, the headlines scream out:

Uproar after analysis claims pink meat poses no well being threat  — The Guardian

Do you have to preserve consuming pink meat? Controversial examine says well-known well being dangers are simply unhealthy science — USA Immediately

Meat’s Dangerous for You! No, It’s Not! How Consultants See Totally different Issues within the Information — NY Occasions

New “tips” say proceed pink meat consumption habits, however suggestions contradict proof — The Vitamin Supply at Harvard

Scientist Who Discredited Meat Tips Didn’t Report Previous Meals Business Ties — NY Occasions

Solely one in every of these headlines is strictly true — the others are all distortions of what the printed research discovered and what they imply for public well being tips.  [ Ten Critical Thinking Skills points to the first reader to correctly identify the one that is true. ] This could not shock you — headlines are written to seize your consideration in order that you’ll learn the story beneath.  Headlines can  bias the reader earlier than they see a single truth.

What’s all this hub-bub about?

Nurtirecs2Nurtirecs2A bunch of dietary scientists and docs, related in a company known as NutriRECS,  spent three years public well being suggestions on  meat consumption, the sort  which most frequently seem as weight-reduction plan suggestions like these  pictured beneath.   Their efforts resulted in a set of six papers, all printed concurrently within the 1 October 2019 version of The Annals of Inner Drugs.



“NutriRECS is an unbiased group with scientific, dietary and public well being content material experience, expert within the methodology of systematic opinions and apply tips who’re unencumbered by institutional constraints and conflicts of curiosity, aiming to supply reliable dietary guideline suggestions primarily based on the values, attitudes and preferences of sufferers and neighborhood members.” — says the NutriRECS About web page.  They produce “Nutritional Recommendations and accessible Evidence summaries Composed of Systematic opinions” (thus NutiiRECS). — NutriRECS

Who precisely are they?  A bunch of nutrition-skeptic troublemakers?  No, they’re well-respected docs and scientists from many alternative international locations and establishments:

[ Readers may skip this section, it is included to illustrate that these papers have been written by a large team of doctors and specialists. ]


Dr. Bradley Johnston — director and co-founder of NutriRECS, and is an Affiliate Professor with the Division of Group Well being & Epidemiology, School of Drugs, Dalhousie College, Halifax, Canada.

Dr. Pablo Alonso-Coello — co-founder of NutriRECS, the top of the Barcelona GRADE middle, and is a well being companies researcher on the Biomedical Analysis Institute (Hospital Sant Pau) in Barcelona, Spain.

Dr. Malgorzata (Gosia) Bala — co-founder of NutriRECS, the top of the Cochrane Poland, and the chair of Epidemiology and Preventive Drugs on the Jagiellonian College Medical School, Cracow, Poland.

Dr. Gordon Guyatt — coined the time period “evidence-based medication”, is a mentor, Clinician-Scientist and Distinguished Professor within the Division of Well being Analysis Strategies at McMaster College, Hamilton, Canada.

Catherine Marshall —  a Cochrane Shopper situated in Wellington, New Zealand.

Dr. Patrick Stover — Vice Chancellor and Dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences on the Texas A&M College System.


Dr. Per Vandvik —  Affiliate Professor within the Division of Well being Administration and Well being Economics, College of Oslo, Norway

Dr. George Kephart —  Professor, Division of Group Well being and Epidemiology, School of Drugs, Dalhousie College. He’s co-founder and former Director of Well being Information Nova Scotia.

Dr. Regina El Dib — Assistant Professor on the Institute of Science and Expertise, Estadual Paulista College, Brazil, and founder and director of the systematic overview unit of the Botucatu Medical College.

Dr. Russell de Souza —  registered dietitian and diet epidemiologist.

Dr. Celeste Naude —  registered dietician on the Centre for Proof-based Well being Care at Stellenbosch College, South Africa; and Co-Director of Cochrane Vitamin.

Dr. Lehana Thabane  —   Professor of Biostatistics and Affiliate Chair of the Division of Well being Analysis Strategies, Proof, and Affect at McMaster College, Hamilton, Canada. He’s additionally the Director of Biostatistics at St Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton.

Dr. Mi Ah Han —  professor within the Division of Preventive Drugs, Chosun College, Republic of Korea. She is a visiting professor with Division of Well being Analysis Strategies, Proof, and Affect in Hamilton, Canada.

Their work, nonetheless,  extends far past the bounds of dietary suggestions.

What had been their printed findings about meat?

Crimson and Processed Meat Consumption and Danger for All-Trigger Mortality and Cardiometabolic Outcomes: A Systematic Evaluate and Meta-analysis of Cohort Research

Conclusion:   The magnitude of affiliation between pink and processed meat consumption and all-cause mortality and antagonistic cardiometabolic outcomes could be very small, and the proof is of low certainty.

Discount of Crimson and Processed Meat Consumption and Most cancers Mortality and Incidence: A Systematic Evaluate and Meta-analysis of Cohort Research

Conclusion:   The potential absolute results of pink and processed meat consumption on most cancers mortality and incidence are very small, and the knowledge of proof is low to very low.

Patterns of Crimson and Processed Meat Consumption and Danger for Cardiometabolic and Most cancers Outcomes: A Systematic Evaluate and Meta-analysis of Cohort Research

Conclusion:   Low- or very-low-certainty proof means that dietary patterns with much less pink and processed meat consumption could end in very small reductions in antagonistic cardiometabolic and most cancers outcomes.

Impact of Decrease Versus Larger Crimson Meat Consumption on Cardiometabolic and Most cancers Outcomes: A Systematic Evaluate of Randomized Trials

Conclusion:   Low- to very-low-certainty proof means that diets restricted in pink meat could have little or no impact on main cardiometabolic outcomes and most cancers mortality and incidence.

Well being-Associated Values and Preferences Relating to Meat Consumption: A Blended-Strategies Systematic Evaluate

Conclusion:   Low-certainty proof means that omnivores are hooked up to meat and are unwilling to vary this habits when confronted with doubtlessly undesirable well being results.

Unprocessed Crimson Meat and Processed Meat Consumption: Dietary Guideline Suggestions From the Dietary Suggestions (NutriRECS) Consortium

Suggestions:   The panel means that adults proceed present unprocessed pink meat consumption (weak suggestion, low-certainty proof). Equally, the panel suggests adults proceed present processed meat consumption (weak suggestion, low-certainty proof).

How have these outcomes been obtained?

 “The American Coronary heart Affiliation, the American Most cancers Society, the Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being and different teams have savaged the findings and the journal that printed them.”  —  Gina Kolata within the NY Occasions

Kolata’s description of the response couldn’t be extra correct — the assaults on the papers, the journal, and the authors have been simply that: savage , as outlined as   “missing the restraints regular to civilized human beings”.  Kolata’s linked article within the NY Occasions  is smart, well-rounded, honest and among the many most informative of the protection within the mass media.  Kudos to her.

[ Note that “the journal that published” the studies is  Annals of Internal Medicine which is widely recognized as “one of the most widely cited and influential specialty medical journals in the world” and is published  by the American College of Physicians (ACP) which is the largest medical-specialty organization and second-largest physician group in the United States, after the American Medical Association.  It has 154,000 members. ]

Gina Kolata’s  colleagues on the Well being Desk of the NY Occasions, Tara Parker-Pope and Anahad O’Connor,  weren’t so restrained:  Scientist Who Discredited Meat Tips Didn’t Report Previous Meals Business Ties.  They repeat the assaults on one of many authors, Bradley C. Johnston, who has up to now obtained analysis funding from “a robust commerce group” [ILSI ].  The purpose is vaguely true, however is a niggle, because the Occasions’ report admits: : “Though the ILSI-funded examine publication falls throughout the three-year window, he mentioned the cash from ILSI arrived in 2015, and he was not required to report it for the meat examine disclosure. ‘That cash was from 2015 so it was exterior of the three yr interval for disclosing competing pursuits,’ mentioned Dr. Johnston. ‘I’ve no [current] relationship with them in any respect.’”  Persevering with, the Occasions studies that “Dr. Laine  [editor in chief of the Annals of Internal Medicine] famous that individuals on each side of the meat concern have conflicts of curiosity. ‘Lots of the people who find themselves criticizing these articles have numerous conflicts of curiosity they aren’t speaking about,’ she mentioned. ‘They do workshops on plant-based diets, do retreats on wellness and write books on plant-based diets. There are conflicts on each side.’”

[ Note that the ILSI — International Life Sciences Institute  — has been under attack recently on the Health pages of the NY Times  and has responded in their own defence. ]

And in that, Dr. Laine is totally proper.

“Physicians Committee for Accountable Drugs, a gaggle advocating a plant-based weight-reduction plan, [ their web site states that their mission is “dedicated to saving and improving human and animal lives through plant-based diets and ethical and effective scientific research” — kh  ]  on Wednesday filed a petition towards the journal with the Federal Commerce Fee. Dr. Frank Sacks, previous chair of the American Coronary heart Affiliation’s diet committee, known as the analysis “fatally flawed.” “ —  NY Occasions 

 [ The petition is a publicity stunt — the Federal Trade Commission has no authority over journals publishing scientific results — thank heavens! — the FTC can and does regulate advertising.  ]

Essentially the most radical assaults come from Dr. Frank Hu, Chair of the Division of Vitamin, Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being.  The Chan College is a serious proponent of plant-based diets and publicly advocates the inclusion of reductions (or elimination) of pink meat consumption in public well being dietary tips.  Hu is without doubt one of the signatories of a letter issued by the True Well being Initiative, an advocacy group pushing “life-style well being options” and mostly-plant-based diets,  to Annals of Inner Drugs, recommending that they preemptively retract publication of those papers on the idea of grave considerations in regards to the potential for injury to public understanding, and public well being.

Along with Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being’s personal critique of the NutriRECS papers,  Hu is quoted in practically each media article attacking the research:

Hu mentioned. “However they misuse the info from the Lady’s Well being Initiative to say that meat discount has no impact on heart problems, most cancers or mortality.”

[ This statement is false:  the NutriRECs team did not say that at all.  See the conclusions of the studies earlier in this essay. ]

“However Dr. Hu mentioned Dr. Johnston’s strategies weren’t very goal or rigorous and the software he employed in his meat and sugar research might be misused to discredit all types of well-established public well being warnings, just like the hyperlink between secondhand smoke and coronary heart illness, air air pollution and well being issues, bodily inactivity and persistent illness, and trans fat and coronary heart illness.”  “Some individuals could also be questioning what his subsequent goal can be,” Dr. Hu mentioned. “However I’m involved in regards to the injury that has already been performed to public well being suggestions.”– NY Occasions

[ The “tool” referred to above is the GRADE methodology for “Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation” and has been in development and use for over a decade.  It is featured in a series of articles in BMJ (previously titled the British Medical Journal) here, here, here and here.  It is specifically designed to grade recommendations — such as clinical and public health guidelines. ]

Irresponsible and unethical,” mentioned Dr. Hu, of Harvard, in a commentary printed on-line together with his colleagues. Research of pink meat as a well being hazard could have been problematic, he mentioned, however the consistency of the conclusions over years provides them credibility.  Vitamin research, he added, shouldn’t be held to the identical inflexible requirements as research of experimental medicine.” — NY Occasions

 “Nothing new is popping out of the examine,” mentioned Dr. Frank Hu, chairman of the Division of Vitamin at Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being. “There was no breakthrough. It simply confirmed earlier findings.” —  USA Immediately

“Hu, of Harvard, acknowledged the constraints with observational research – they don’t present causation as a result of a wide range of compounding components like an individual’s life-style or different dietary selections might be inflicting the antagonistic well being results.  … Nonetheless, when diet information is replicated throughout demographics, age and geography – as was the case with the greater than 6 million individuals from greater than 100 massive research within the Annals’ analyses – it needs to be taken significantly, Hu mentioned.”  —  USA Immediately

“The panel’s blanket suggestion that adults ought to proceed their pink meat consumption habits is extremely irresponsible. We face a rising epidemic of diet-related persistent ailments and a local weather change disaster, each of that are linked to excessive meat consumption,” Frank Hu, Chair of the Division of Vitamin, Harvard.”  —  True Well being Initiative

“If the identical process had been used to validate secondhand smoking, for instance, the proof can be rated very low or low high quality.”  – Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the diet, Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being — PBS

[ “Notably, secondhand smoke, the smoke inhaled from tobacco smoked by different individuals, creates about as a lot as threat for most cancers and coronary heart illness as pink and processed meat — and the underlying research round secondhand smoke carry simply as a lot uncertainty.” — PBS ]

“That basically doesn’t make any sense, proper? A very powerful standards in science is reproducibility and replication,” Hu mentioned. — PBS

[ Hu is dissembling here — what he is saying is that there are a lot of studies that each find the same small-scale associations (correlations) and mis-identifies that as “reproducibility and replication”.  But, these are cohort diet-recall studies, and thus, according to John Ioannidis:   “These implausible estimates of benefits or risks associated with diet probably reflect almost exclusively the magnitude of the cumulative biases in this type of research, with extensive residual confounding and selective reporting.” ]

And from Hu’s Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being’s editorial on the research [maybe written by Hu..]:  “To enhance each human well being and environmental sustainability, it is very important undertake dietary patterns which might be excessive in wholesome plant-based meals and comparatively low in pink and processed meats.” …. “The panel declared ‘issues of environmental affect’ out of the scope of their suggestions.     It is a missed alternative as a result of local weather change and environmental degradation have critical results on human well being, and thus is vital to contemplate when making suggestions on weight-reduction plan, even when that is addressed individually from direct results on particular person well being.” — supply

After all, Frank Hu is just not the one main league physician within the diet discipline to stage an assault.  One of many oddest assaults comes from Christopher Gardner, a professor on the Stanford Prevention Analysis Middle:

“The brand new research additionally solely think about the direct affect of consuming meat on somebody’s physique, which isn’t the one approach meat can have an effect on well being: Meat manufacturing, notably beef manufacturing, is a serious contributor to greenhouse gasoline emissions and world local weather change. Emissions and the altering local weather are, in flip, main public well being threats. So even when consuming meat gained’t immediately trigger coronary heart illness in a person, inhaling air polluted by meat manufacturing can. That’s essential to contemplate when making dietary suggestions, Gardner says.” —

[ Breathing air “polluted by meat production” can cause heart disease?  That’s bit beyond….  I have emailed Dr. Gardner to ask if he has been quoted correctly, but his mail server auto-responds that he is on sabbatical for the rest of the year.  — kh ]

Why this savage response?

 “ ‘Dr. Johnston mentioned the actual downside is that individuals don’t wish to settle for findings that contradict long-held views. “Folks have very robust opinions,” he mentioned. “Scientists ought to have mental curiosity and be open to challenges to their information. Science is about debate, not about digging your heels in.’ “ —  NY Occasions

Aaron Carroll, long-time science and medication columnist for the NY Occasions , wrote an editorial that accompanied the NutriRECs research within the Annuals of Intern Drugs, lays out the opposing sides in his column within the NY Occasions. 




 Knowledgeable Judgement and  Analysis

 We see that this Science Battle, the Meat Wars, is typical and might be used as a exemplar for the overall class.   We’ve an “institution” tribe — a gaggle that has managed the analysis and imbued the sphere with their very own shared scientific viewpoint (which might simply be the cumulative bias within the discipline).  This institution group (people, associations, college departments, and many others) jealously guards the scientific discipline and their scientific viewpoint from different viewpoints which may threaten their place of status and energy.  That is completely regular for many endeavors.

All these controversies solely change into Science Wars when at the very least one of many “tribal sides” shifts from merely defending their viewpoint  (their concepts, their suggestions)   with collegial rational dialogue and good science to savage assaults on people who might need different opinions that problem the established order within the discipline — assaults on the science, on the individuals, on the journals — extending even to efforts to forestall publication (as within the Meat Wars), calling for retraction (a number of Wars), even private regulation fits.

We’ve seen this in Local weather Science in spades.  Within the Salt Wars, two our bodies of researchers  publish  opposing research within the journals and institution teams (just like the American Coronary heart Affiliation) denigrate all opposite findings.   Within the Battle on Sugar we have now a broad widespread bias towards sugar in practically all institution teams within the discipline of diet who combat tooth-and-nail any science findings that don’t condemn added sugars within the human weight-reduction plan.  (One of many gamers within the Meat Wars, Brad Johnston, was a participant within the Battle on Sugar, when he printed a industry-funded examine on sugar.)

Not too long ago, John P. A. Ioannidis took Dietary Epidemiology, the idea for suggestion on human weight-reduction plan, to process in a serious journal article titled “The Problem of Reforming Dietary Epidemiologic Analysis”  ( I wrote about it right here).  His elicited touch upon the Meat Wars:

“I might not run any extra observational research,” mentioned Dr. John Ioannidis, a Stanford professor who research well being analysis and coverage. “We’ve had sufficient of them. This can be very unlikely that we’re lacking a big sign,” referring to a big impact of any specific dietary change on well being.”  —  NY Occasions

 One final quote from one other cool-head within the overheated debate:

“Dr. Meir Stampfer, additionally of the Harvard T.H. Chan College of Public Well being. He believes that the info in favor of consuming much less meat, though imperfect, point out there are prone to be well being advantages. “ . . . .  “Dr. Dennis Bier of Baylor mentioned the research of meat consumption are so flawed that it’s naïve to imagine these threat reductions are attributable to consuming much less meat.”   Or perhaps, mentioned Dr. Bier, policymakers ought to attempt one thing extra easy: “Once you don’t have the highest-quality proof, the proper conclusion is ‘perhaps.’”  — NY Occasions (and right here)

Backside Traces and Take-aways:

Sincere, well-meaning critical scientists can take a look at the very same physique of proof and are available to totally different conclusions, in any discipline of examine.  It’s this facet of science that results in advances when the scientists act professionally and try to make use of that distinction of opinion to additional higher understanding of their discipline.  Then again, when scientists dig in, take tribal positions and sling calumny and accusations over variations in scientific opinions, they stop good science from advancing and injury the repute and public notion of science.
If proof for a declare or suggestion is scientifically weak there can be extra controversy — and there needs to be. Definitive claims and public coverage shouldn’t be made on proof which is acknowledged to be weak or solely associational.   We’ve to be taught to have the ability to say “We don’t actually know”  and “There simply isn’t sufficient stable proof to say…”.   We’ve to be taught to just accept “perhaps” as the most effective reply science has to supply at the moment.
The issue within the Meat Wars, like many different Science Wars, is that public coverage has been set primarily based on weak, iffy, dodgy, associational, hypothetical and in any other case scientifically unreliable proof.  These answerable for recommending these public insurance policies react badly when this truth is identified.  In spite of everything, they can not depend on the power of the proof behind their suggestions to defend themselves.
Human Dietary Science has been captured by advocates of all types of unsupportable concepts primarily based on the present practices of Dietary Epidemiology, which Ioannidis has identified is “intrinsically unreliable”.

# # # # #

Writer’s Remark:

Most of my opinions about this subject are contained in my earlier essay on Dietary Epidemiology.

Within the spirit of Full Disclosure:   my household and I adhere to a non secular well being code that requires consuming meat sparingly.

It’s my opinion that far too many public insurance policies are primarily based not on stable oak timbers of proof however on matchstick skinny proof — a truth which is inflicting a terrific many issues in society at massive.

The very existence of those Science Wars offends me deeply — as they injury the repute of Science and forestall Science — our information base in regards to the bodily world round us — from advancing and increasing.

Start your feedback with “Kip..” if chatting with me personally.  If chatting with another particular commenter, start with their identify/deal with, it helps to maintain the conversations clear.

# # # # #


Like this:

Like Loading…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *