• A new study finds that eating red meat isn’t associated with increased risk of cancer or heart disease.
  • This goes against long-held scientific opinion that red meat is associated with an increased risk of certain health conditions.
  • Now, a new report tying the lead author to the food industry has made the study even more controversial.

Editor’s note: This is a developing story that has been updated since it was first published. Healthline will continue to update this article when there is new information.

A controversial study on red meat is coming under scrutiny after the lead researcher has been tied to the food industry.

The study made waves after researchers said there’s evidence red meat may not be quite as bad for our health as we’ve thought. The findings were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last week.

The review of past studies found little to no health benefit from reducing red or processed meat consumption from average levels.

Now, new information has put a spotlight on this study, since one of the lead researchers, Bradley C. Johnston, PhD, associate professor at Dalhousie University, had past ties to the food industry.

Johnston, one of the study authors, has been recently called out by the New York Times for not revealing a potential conflict of interest.

They report Johnston failed to indicate on a disclosure form that he didn’t have any conflicts of interest to report during the past 3 years. However, in December 2016, he was the senior author on a study trying to discredit international health recommendations to eat less sugar.

That study, also appearing in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was funded by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry trade group heavily funded by big business.

In a statement to Healthline, Johnston said the research on red meat was not funded by the food industry, that he never had direct funding from the meat industry, and that he was one of 14 voting panel members.

“To suggest that money received in 2015 for a separate and independent project could somehow influence the recommendations on red and processed meat seems completely implausible,” he said in his response.

Johnston also pointed out that ILSI is made up of “over 400 food and agriculture companies” that contribute to a fund equally, which is then used to support research.

“I did receive funds in 2015 from [ILSI] for a review of the quality of guidelines that address sugar recommendations. In this review, we simply made guideline producers aware of areas for improvement.

Johnston also said that due to the time lag between studies, he did not view his work as a conflict of interest.

“My judgment was that the funding received for a project different from and distant from the current one — that is, beyond the accepted time frame for conflicts — did not constitute a conflict… Otherwise, 3 years is a standard used by the ICMJE (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors) author forms and many guideline groups, and my declaration was accurate, and there is no undisclosed conflict.”

The controversial study was published last week and kicked off a debate about the benefits and drawbacks of red meat consumption.

“The food industry usually invests in these meta-analyses because of the ability to combine many studies together to extract the data they want, including studies with poor methodology,” said Shelley Wood, MPH, RDN, with the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. “They did a good job with this and it’s going to create a lot of confusion, but values and preferences pertaining to meat consumption should shift as more people learn about the impact eating meat has on the environment and the more leading experts suggest limiting it.”

The reason for the controversy is that researchers didn’t find a statistically significant or important association between meat-eating and heart disease, diabetes, or cancer risk after looking at 12 randomized trials involving about 54,000 people.

While the study seemed to fly in the face of decades of research, the authors actually looked at past research to understand the risks of consuming red meat.

“It’s not necessarily new research. They’ve taken large bodies of previous research and put them into a single study called a systematic review, which analyzes previous studies in great detail,” said Dena Champion, registered dietitian at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and not associated with the study.

They found there was less risk for those consuming three fewer servings of red or processed meat per week, although they claim, “The association was very uncertain.”

Based on a series of five high-quality systematic reviews investigating the relationship between meat and health, a panel of experts with NutriRECS advises that most people can eat red and processed meat at present, average consumption levels.

For adults in North America and Europe, this means about 3 to 4 times per week.

“NutriRECS is a group of scientists and public partners from around the world interested in improving the quality of nutritional guidelines using international standards set forth by AGREE, the GRADE working group, and the National Academy of Medicine,” Johnston told Healthline in an earlier email.

Johnston said he and his fellow researchers were aware that current guidelines on red and processed meat consumption left room for improvement, “particularly with respect to systematic review methodology, and presentation of the absolute magnitude of effect,” which is the absolute risk per 1,000 people followed over time.

He added this was also true of the way studies had assessed public values and preferences and the certainty of the estimates for meat consumption and the risk for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Johnston emphasized that although ethical or environmental concerns weren’t addressed when making the recommendations, “A number of the guideline panel members eliminated or reduced their personal red and processed meat intake for animal welfare or environmental reasons.”

After looking at the randomized trials, the researchers discovered that eating meat didn’t appear to put people at increased risk for a host of health conditions, including heart disease and cancer.

However, after analyzing additional studies with millions of participants, the researchers did find evidence of small reduction in risk.

While the study made headlines, experts say the same basic nutritional advice still holds. And eating unlimited burgers isn’t a good way to stay healthy.

According to Wood, there’s recent research investigating cancer risk from the way red meat is prepared. She said high-temperature cooking like frying and grilling has been associated with potentially carcinogenic chemicals created by the flame and smoke they create.

“Until we have definitive research showing this is safe, avoid cooking meat directly in an open flame or hot surface for a prolonged period of time. Turn your meat over continuously during cooking, and remove charred meat before consuming,” she cautioned.

“Of course, deep-frying or battering — that’s not a healthy way to cook foods since you’re adding even more fat and calories. So that’s certainly something to think about,” added Champion.

The findings also don’t mean we can eat unlimited amounts of meat.

“This isn’t an endorsement of gluttony. The study had no way of answering whether more than ‘moderate’ consumption made any difference. Likewise, the study couldn’t easily break down the different types of meats or how they were prepared,” said Dr. Joshua S. Yamamoto, FACC, cardiologist, co-founder of the Foxhall Foundation, and co-author of “You Can Prevent a Stroke.”

Wood advises this doesn’t change how experts view processed meat. Wood says people should significantly limit their processed meat intake.

She says these meats are high in sodium and saturated fat, which have been linked to heart disease and stroke. These include hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, corned beef, and jerky.

“Most of the data suggests large amounts of red and processed meat leads to poor health outcomes; however, most of it is observational by nature. That’s how we get a lot of our recommendations,” said Champion. “What these authors are saying is that these findings are weak and low-quality, but this doesn’t mean that red and processed meats are healthy or that you can eat as much as you want.”

Wood said we should aim to make our diet plant-based at least 90 percent of the time and enjoy red meat conservatively. “Fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains are lower in calories and beneficial, not only for health but to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight,” she said.

“Current guidelines should guide the public toward plant-based eating, primarily for the overwhelming health impact associated with doing so. When looking at nutrients pound for pound, plant-based foods are more nutrient-dense and nutritious than is red meat,” Wood concluded.

An examination of several studies involving a very large number of people finds that moderate consumption of red and processed meats doesn’t negatively affect health.

And now a new report has put a spotlight on the lead researcher and his ties to the food industry.

Experts say that despite these big headlines, none of this research means eating beef is necessarily healthy or that we can eat unlimited quantities without consequences. They add that high sodium and saturated fat consumption are still associated with increased health risks.

They also point out the overwhelming positive health impact associated with a plant-based diet that includes generous amounts of fruits and vegetables.