Opinion: Cutting Eating Could Lengthen Your Life
The world seems awash in newspaper and television reports of ground-breaking studies that will purportedly change our lives, possibly ‘lengthen’ or maybe even save or our lives, like the New York University study deducing pedestrians crossing on 42nd street that did not look both ways stand a 50 percent higher chance over being run over and killed than those that did.
That, of course, was invented. Still, it’s probably more profound and accurate, even life-saving, than what Harvard School of Public Health just came out with recently:
“A new study by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers has found that red meat consumption is associated with an increased risk of total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality. The results also showed that substituting other healthy protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, and legumes, was associated with a lower risk of mortality.”
“This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,” said the senior author, Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.
These sorts of studies invariably read like an economists’ global financial forecast reports, evoking more unanswered questions and vagaries amounting to total meaningless half-truths if not bamboozling misinformation.
Having read through the HSPH report, I was curious to know why the women in the study outnumbered men by almost three times, 83,644 women to 37,698 men. It’s a wonder there’s not been a complaint on sexiest grounds already. We know women live longer than men but surely it is a democratic right to be judged on our deathbed equally and without such gender bias. I am sure there is something in the American Constitution on this.
Speaking of American, we are asked to assume that the genesis of homo-sapiens is indeed America, as in our bodily make-up, our DNA, our habitat, our primal receptors and hunting and gathering techniques, all evolved out of Manhattan. And as the human race evolved throughout the world beyond America, we assume from this study and its conclusive outcome on all carnivores on this planet, that we are all essentially American.
Just on the hunting, gathering and eating techniques and emphasizing the vital point in the report “clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat,” the amount of processed meat American’s eat is exponentially higher than anywhere else in the world, and hey, there just might be the link to eating chemical crap and falling off the perch early.
As these finding are based on the American carnivore, I thought it appropriate to reference largely American resources on the subject. A pertinent reference from Anthony Bourdain’s recent book, Medium Raw, (HarperCollins ISBN 978-0-06-200903-6), an entertaining read although I should warn you, written with expletives and a gritty bluntness.
Chapter 9 of Medium Raw is devoted to meat, or more specifically hamburgers—14 pages on hamburgers! “I believe that the great American hamburger is a thing of beauty, its simple charms noble, pristine. The basic recipe—ground beef, salt, and pepper, formed into a patty, grilled or seared on a griddle, then nestled between two halves of a bun, usually but not necessarily accompanied by lettuce, a tomato slice and some ketchup—is, to my mind, un-improvable by man or God. A good burger can be made more complicated, even more interesting by the addition of other ingredients—like good cheese, or bacon...relish perhaps, but it will never be made better.”
Clearly the man likes his hamburgers. Moreover, he opines: “the hamburger—or ground beef—has been embraced as an expression of our national identity. The backyard barbeque, Mom’s meatloaf—these are American traditions, rites of passage.”
However, Bourdain devotes most of this chapter to the demise of the humble hamburger and drills down on an article published in the New York Times, that “as a standard practice, when making their ‘American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties’ the food giant Cargill’s recipe for hamburger consisted of, among other things, ‘a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps’, and that ‘the ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that process fatty trimmings and treat them with ammonia to kill bacteria.”
I am sure you can imagine what comes after this, as Bourdain surmises: “I believe I should be able to treat my hamburger like food, not like infectious f****** medical waste. I believe the words ‘meat’ and ‘treated with ammonia’ should never occur in the same paragraph...”
The point is, if you knew what went into commercially produced hamburger patties, sausages, hot dogs, spam etc (processed meat) you would never eat it again. And if our learned colleagues at HSPH wanted to get to the crux of the matter, and actually help lengthen or even save lives, they should spend more time detailing the facts of food adulteration and that eating chemical crap will most surely shorten your lifespan.
The recent CNN coverage of President Barack Obama, cooking hamburgers on the front lawn of the White House for the British Prime Minister, David Cameron is a powerful illustration of how symbolic the American hamburger tradition is. However, if one is to believe the HSPH findings, is the American President unwittingly participating in involuntary manslaughter?
I assume President Obama is like my good (American) friend in Singapore who loves his hamburgers and invites us around all the time to eat them; that is he makes his own. At a mandatory trip to the best butcher in town (Singapore), Huber’s, he instructs them to carve off a piece of Margaret River, West Australian free range, grass-fed, organic Wagyu rump—not only a relatively leaner Wagyu cow but a cut that is proportionately lower in marbling than the rest of the animal.
I know you’re thinking Wagyu is Kobe-style beef with an incredibly high content of fat marbling. However, being grass-fed is a strategic point which I will go into further shortly, but this rump has the ideal balance of fat-meat ratio required for a good burger. And I have to say, our friend’s burger cannot be improved.
Let’s just assume, if there were some basis to red meat consumption shortening your lifespan, shouldn’t we be seeing unprecedented mortality rates in Argentina and surely New Zealanders should be placed on the endangered species list? Shouldn’t we be warning them not eat all that grass-eating lamb, beef and venison (deer) and goat?
At this juncture, a little fat 101 is pertinent. Specifically we humans need essential fatty acids (EFAs); alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid) and linoleic (an omega-6 fatty acid), which are essential to our biological processes and good health, and as our body cannot produce EFAs, we have to induce them.
We know that the balance between omega-3 and omega-6 is an issue, and that we should have a lot more of the omega-3, which is what our people at Harvard are banging on about moreover, apparently omega-3 makes you happy, which we definitely need more off.
We also know omega-3 is commonly found in marine and plant oils, and if we mammals must eat EFAs then it makes sense to include more of these in our diet. However, what the nutritionists are not saying loudly enough is that omega-3 is also present in red meat, but more importantly higher in GRASS-FED meats, “the n−6 to n−3 ratio of grass-fed beef is about 2:1, making it a more useful source of n−3 than grain-fed beef, which usually has a ratio of 4:1.”
I am going to quote from Wikipedia as frankly, it is put so clearly and succinctly I am not going to attempt a personal take, but just give you the facts, and I trust Wikipedia more than Harvard: “Omega 3 fatty acids are formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves and algae. While seaweeds and algae are the source of omega 3 fatty acids present in fish, grass is the source of omega 3 fatty acids present in grass fed meats. When cattle are taken off omega 3 fatty acid rich grass and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on omega 3 fatty acid deficient grain, they begin losing their store of this beneficial fat. Each day that an animal spends in the feedlot, the amount of omega 3 fatty acids in its meat is diminished.”
And here I go hypocritically quoting another report, but it is, well, science: “In a 2009 study which was a joint effort between the USDA and researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina grass-fed beef was compared with grain-fed beef and researchers found that grass-fed beef is: lower in total fat, higher in beta-carotene, higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin, higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium, higher in total omega-3s, higher in CLA (cis-9 trans-11) which is a potential cancer fighter, higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA), lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease, and has a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84).”
If I could interject at this juncture, a friend of mine in Southeast Gippsland, in Victoria, Australia (or in the colloquial vernacular, in the middle of bloody nowhere) has a property called Moondarra, www.moondarra.com.au where he raises Wagyu cows, more specifically, Tajima cows, from Hyogo prefecture, where Kobe beef is produced.
The original plan was to sell beef into restaurants differentiated by variety and region, appealing to chefs and a growing awareness of consumers identifying with regional produce. After many years of successfully selling Moondarra 500 day Grain-Fed Wagyu which was heavily marbled and perfectly tender and moist, they realized that the muscle itself had little flavor and there was no Gout du Terroir - no discernable regionalism about the flavor.
So they began experimenting with grass-fed Tajima Beef, which they now dry age on the bone for around four weeks, to which Neill Prentice (the proprietor) describes as “strong in mineral flavor of grass fed beef with the sweet moisture and tenderness of classic Wagyu, typically about marble score 7. The flavor is not something that appeals to the Japanese, it is too strong, rather it is somewhere between Kobe and great dry-aged grass-fed Scottish or Argentinean beef. It truly shows Gout du Terroir.”
Prentice also discovered his Tajima Beef had ‘melt in your mouth’ fatty acids (Oleic and Stearic acid) identical to the Jamon, or Iberico Pigs, treasured for their dried meat and small-goods and has been experimenting with “Sobrasada” style sausages and air-dried salami. Yes, shock, horror, processed meat – but we will talk more of this shortly.
Moondarra is just one of thousands of examples around the world where cows raised naturally on grass not only manifest where they are from but also what they eat. And provenance is everything if you want to authenticate what you are eating.
But, here’s the crazy, perplexing reality, most (American) consumers think that (corn) grain-fed beef is superior to grass-fed, unscrupulously promoted by butchers, supermarkets and even steakhouses worshipping that USDA Prime Cut—all because it has a whole lot more fat—that tastes good. Yessiree, the whole grading system works on marbling, the higher the fat, the higher the quality of the meat.
Here’s another irony, a cow’s digestive system cannot cope with a diet of corn and grains. It’s unnatural for them and causes major health problems, which is why they need to be fed a whole lot of antibiotics to keep them alive, just long enough to survive a feedlot, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), as they officially known.
These so-called USDA prime cows stand in dirt and their own manure for months on end in crowded pens, feed on a concoction of corn, antibiotics, growth hormones and steroids, and the all the unmentionables like chicken manure and food wastes, and not that long ago (in the time frame of our HSPH Study), slaughterhouse waste and even dead pets, all ground up and ammonia bleached, because we are a little worried about E. coli contamination!
Just the corn alone is a huge worry, invariably full of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. If you consider that the large majority of beef in USA is CAFO grain-fed, any wonder there's an increase in “cardiovascular, and cancer mortality” as per our HSPH Study.
So, is meat actually bad for you, or is it actually bad meat is very bad for you?
Before World War II, all American beef was grass-fed; actually it all went downhill around the 1950s when chemical fertilizers become widespread and at the beginning of the age of “Industrialization of Eating”, as Michael Pollan coins it in Chapter III of his touchstone book, ‘In Defense of Food – An Eater’s Manifesto’ (Penguin Press ISBN 978-1-59420-145-5) Here is a book that covers it all and is a must-read if you want to extend your life—and your family’s. In fact, if the incumbent president really wants Obama-Care to work, he should send a copy of this book to every single American, and even if only 20 percent of the US population were to adopt Pollan’s approach to eating, the savings in medical costs alone would pay for the entire national health program.
Actually, if President Obama took a tiny sliver of the US defense budget and that US$1 trillion war cost and redirected to sending a copy of ‘In Defence of Food’ to everyone on this planet, he might just truly save the world.
There is so much philosophical prose, thorough research and balanced journalism, logical theory and summation in this book I’ll go vegetarian if this does not inspire change in your diet or at the least, the way you think about food, and want to start enjoying food. I can’t resist transcribing some of the book’s introduction and quote a few paragraphs:
“But some of our food animals, such as cows and sheep, are ruminants that evolved to eat grass; if they eat too many seeds they become sick, which is why grain-fed cattle have to be given antibiotics, Even animals that do well on grain, such as chickens and pigs, are much healthier when they have access to green plants, and, it turns out, so are their meat and eggs. For most of our food animals, a diet of grass means much healthier fats (more omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA; fewer omega-6s and saturated fat) in their meat, milk and eggs, as well as appreciably higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants.”
Pollan’s mantra is “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” However, he’s not pushing you to be vegetarian either: “Scientists may disagree about what’s so good about eating plants—Is it the antioxidants in them? The fiber? The omega-3 fatty acids? —but they do agree that plants are probably really good for you, and certainly can’t hurt... So what about eating meat? Unlike plants, which we can’t live without, we don’t need to eat meat... But meat, which humans have been going to heroic lengths to obtain and have been relishing for a long time, is nutritious food, supplying all the essential amino acids as well as many vitamins and minerals, and I haven’t found a compelling health reason to exclude it from the diet.”
The inside jacket cover introduction is powerfully succinct and having read the book several times, the solution is almost ridiculously logical; it just makes sense and if we simply spent a little more time and thought on what we eat, like our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did, we would not be as prone to our modern-day diseases and ailments.
“Food. There’s plenty of it around, and we all love to eat it. So why should anyone defend it? Because most of what we are consuming today is not food, and how we are consuming it—in the car, in front of the TV, and increasingly alone—is not really eating. Instead of food, we’re consuming ‘edible foodlike substances’—no longer the produce of nature but of food science... But if real food—the sort of food our great grandmothers would recognize as food—stands in need of defense, from whom does it need defending? From the food industry on one side and nutritional science on the other. Both stand to gain much from widespread confusion about what to eat, a question for most of human history people have been able to answer without expert help.”
You simply MUST READ this book and hopefully, change your eating ways—and “You are what you eat eats too—that is, the diet of the animals we eat has a bearing on the nutritional quality, and healthfulness, of the food itself, whether it be meat or milk or eggs.” Visit http://michaelpollan.com
Of processed meat, the most abused, maligned and greatest source of misinformation in any produce or food production; timeless, traditional, cultural practices and methods like sausages and salami, hijacked by industrial food companies churning out cheap, nutrition-less stomach-fill that have more synthetic additives than the humble neglected bits or discarded cuts that have shaped diets and cuisines for centuries around the world.
The problem is exacerbated by the very (incorrect) word ‘processed’, whereas is the correct terminology and technique is ‘preserve’ or the methods of preserving meat, not only a staple but essentially life-saving facet of the Mediterranean diet; that miraculous and uber-healthy diet the modern western world is pinning its hopes on for digestive immortality.
All those wonderfully fatty delicatessen foods that seemed to be obscured in the fish-eating, pseudo-vegetarian Mediterranean diet were born out of necessity, that the majority of people could not afford to eat lamb, goat or cattle ‘meat’ and made best of every part of the animal that the rich did not want—to eat, which has not changed much to this very day.
This is where I have to depart from American reference and quote an extraordinary Englishman, although the latest reprint of his book does have an introduction from the intrepid Anthony Bourdain and clearly is bait for the American market. Anyway, after you have read Michael Pollan’s ‘In Defense of Food’ you MUST get your hands on a copy of “The Whole Beast, nose to tail eating’ by Fergus Henderson.
And I quote, “This is a celebration of cuts of meat, innards, and extremities that are more often forgotten or discarded in today’s kitchen; it would seem disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast: there is a set of delights, textural and flavorsome, which lie beyond the fillet.”
And perhaps more potently, “Time and Preserving: Taking time with your food does not mean long intricate recipes, just a little thinking ahead; an ox tongue in brine (a salt sugar solution), or a bucket of cabbage salting in the corner of your kitchen, what could be more reassuring? Out of the traditional methods of preserving, delicious results are to be found for stocking your cupboard for leaner months: salting, drying, pickling, curing, potting, and preserving in fat. Again, not long and complicated processes, just a matter of time, which contrary to today’s mood, we still have on our side.”
There might well be validity in the HSPH study, that “Volunteers in the meat study who reported eating the most processed red meat, such as bacon, salami, hot dogs, and sausages, had a higher risk of dying from cancer and heart disease than those who ate mainly steak or meatballs.” However, anyone who buys commercially processed meats clearly wants to die earlier and that's a democratic choice.
Frankly, people have the wrong end of the sausage here, Personally, there is no other meat I enjoy eating more than pig bits and sausages, salami, air-cured meats, andouillette and offal dishes, moreover a meal at Fergus Henderson’s St John Restaurant in London is remains one of the most memorable dining experiences I have ever had.
As far as the HSPH studies core finding, “That those who ate more than two three-ounce servings per day —had about a 30 percent greater likelihood of dying over the course of the study compared with those who ate about one to two servings per week.” Frankly, anyone who eats red meat five days in a row is going to die of culinary boredom and will be gastronomically brain-dead long before cancer or anything else gets them.
And then there is the HSPH study’s recommendation to eat more chicken. Well, if you are now somewhat perturbed at the issues of grain-fed Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation beef, then you will be most certainly heading for vegetarianism once you realize what happens to Intensive Farmed battery raised chickens. This is entering the realm of the macabre, to which you can read more on at http://www.thewanderingpalate.com/produce/a-happy-chook-is-a-tasty-chook/
At the end of the day, what we eat is going to be personal choice, and as Pollan puts it, we have never really needed experts to tell us what to eat. I try to impart this sense of self guidance already on my 8 year-old daughter.
We were shopping at the supermarket the other day and she asked if she could have a pack of her favourite corn nacho triangles. I said, “Sure”. She then said, "What are they made from daddy?" I replied "Presumably corn but why don't you turn the packet over and read what the ingredients are". She did so but could not make out what they were, handing the packet to me saying, “Daddy I don't understand these words". To which I said, the print is to fine for me to read (truth), tell me what words you recognize. She said, "Corn starch, and the rest I can't pronounce. And what is starch Daddy?"
I said, well it’s the only thing remotely connected to what might have been corn, the rest are chemicals, artificial flavorings and colorings".
She put them back on the shelf.
We now have a mutual pact that if you can’t pronounce what’s on labelled ingredients or know what they are, we don’t eat it.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her practically everything has refined corn starch and chemical additives these days, and with all the industrialized, refined foods dominating our supermarket shelves, the best advice I could give her is not to eat at all.
I don't know about humans and their ability to evolve; I’m still trying to work them out. The other day, a woman at the supermarket checkout lets the cashier pack her purchases in plastic bags, and then proceeds to place them in a reusable bag made from recycle material with the words “Say no to plastic bags” emblazoned on it. Figure that one out.
I am nearing the end of my meat essay, although I have come across another bit of information on Wikipedia that might explain why New Zealanders are not dying prematurely; “In most countries, commercially available lamb is typically grass-fed, and thus higher in n−3 than other grain-fed or grain-finished meat sources. In the United States, lamb is often finished (i.e., fattened before slaughter) with grain, resulting in lower n−3.”
It’s a good thing the President of the United States understands the qualities of free-range grass-fed meat, serving up Bison Wellington at the recent Obama-Cameron State Dinner, not only a diplomatic courtesy and nod to the 1st Duke of Wellington, but a very generous boost of omega-3 to all the honorable guests, including Republicans.
Maybe someone from the State Department should have consulted the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon Julia Gillard MP, on President Obama’s recent visit to Australia and had Kangaroo on the menu, which “is also a good source of n−3, with fillet and steak containing 74 mg per 100g of raw meat.”
This is of course not just an American issue. The “Industrialization of Eating” is as prevalent in Europe and around the western world as it is in America. What is perhaps more worrying is the Chinese are developing a taste for Western Beef, or anything Western, and here we are struggling to get the message across to people to adopt a more healthy Asian—diet.
In reality, America is arguably progressing more in rediscovering the old ways and witnessing change and diversity than most. American’s are drinking more wine than ever, and yet the French are drink more spirits. Now there’s a paradox.
Even more telling, America’s most comprehensive cookbook, ‘How to Cook Everything’ by the legendary Mark Bittman is full of Asian and Mediterranean dishes.
And maybe the American stomach would have changed sooner if its famous writer on human behaviorism, John Steinbeck, had said, “Work, (eating) and love make sense of our senseless lives.”