Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The meaty advice that’s tough to chew

We’ve been inundated with information about a healthy diet for some years, but the very latest advice seems a little more difficult to swallow.

The BBC has reported that the Scientific Advisory Commission on Nutrition, which advises the government, has issued new guidelines on red meat.

According to Auntie, “red meat lovers have been warned to cut down their intake.” And it goes on to post what’s obviously The Really Big Question: “Just how much red and processed meat should we consume?”

It seems that the advice is based on the premise that substantial numbers of people eat at least one portion of red meat every single day. Since you should apparently only consume 500g of such meat a week, that works out at 70g a day (for adults).

The real fun starts with the illustrations of what the guidelines mean in terms of what’s on your plate.

Given the 70g figure, the article lists six examples of foods, with an estimated amount of red meat – and a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as to whether it falls in the 70g bracket or not.

The six are:

  • cooked breakfast (“assumes two standard sausages and two thin rashers of bacon”) – 130g – No;

  • spaghetti Bolognese (“standard portion of minced beef” – whatever a “standard portion” is) – 140g – No;

  • 5oz rump steak – 102g – No;

  • doner kebab (“typically comprising several slices of processed marinated lamb”) – 130g – No;

  • Big Mac (“contains two thin burgers”) – 70g ¬– Yes;

  • Sunday roast (“assumes three slices of beef, lamb or pork”) – 90g – No.

The NHS website itself helpfully provides other examples:

  • a quarter pounder beefburger – 78g – (to copy the style of the BBC article, ‘No’);

  • a grilled 8oz beef steak – 163g – (so another ‘No’);

  • Peperami – 25g – (that’ll be a ‘Yes’).

Later, it says that the advice has been issued by the Department of Health and is “based on a report called Iron and Health, by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), published in February 2011”.

SACN is apparently “a committee of independent nutrition experts who advise the government on diet and nutrition.”

They’re interesting figures that the government is providing. Not because they’re needlessly complicated and will simply confuse people. But interesting for an entirely different reason.

Between the BBC article and the NHS website, nine specific examples are given of red meat meals. Only two are apparently ‘safe’ to eat on a daily basis.

Those two also happen to be the only two examples given of branded foods. In this case, a McDonald’s Big Mac (the other beefburger cited is not given as a branded example) and Peperami (a Unilever brand).

I hate to be a suspicious sod, but one’s mind cannot help but drift back to last November, to a story about how the likes of McDonald’s and Unilever were to be put “at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease”.

This is not to suggest that the core of the advice is not reasonable. We know that ‘the Mediterranean diet’ is considered a very healthy one, and that it includes less meat in general than might be considered usual in the UK – and quite a lot less red meat than we consume. Not none – but less.

What seems so blatant here, to a suspicious mind, is that the only two examples presented as within the ‘safe’ limits, if you wish to keep consuming red meat every day, are the only branded items – and they are produced by companies that the government has invited to help create policy on health.

The complicated way in which the advice is written could even be seen as a sort of subliminal advert for Big Macs and Peperami.

Now of course, this could simply be my suspicious mind and it might simply be a coincidence. After all, if it says it’s an “independent” body then so it must be.


  1. Fantastic - keep up the good work

  2. Where is Eric Picles going wrong!