Meat industry advises caution on iron and heart disease link

Meat bosses have said any move to discourage iron intake among consumers would be “misguided”, after a study from the US claimed further evidence that red meat consumption increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 57%.

The Indiana University School of Public Health – Bloomington claimed to have found a “strong association” between haem (heme) iron, which is found only in meat, and coronary heart disease (CHD). It said haem iron increased the risk by 57%, while non-haem iron, found in plant and non-meat sources, was not associated with the heart condition.

The research, which was a meta-analysis examining 21 previously published studies and took data from 292,454 participants over an average of 10 years, looked at the associations of total iron consumption. According to the researchers, the body can better control absorption of iron from vegetable sources, including iron supplements, but not so with iron from meat sources.

However, Maureen Strong, Eblex and Bpex nutrition manager, said the results should be treated with caution: “Iron is a pro-oxidant and can be harmful in large amounts. Fortunately, the body has various mechanisms that control absorption and degradation.

“Iron absorption is controlled by hormonal release from the liver and is regulated in accordance with the body’s need for iron. Yes, haem iron from meat tends to be more bio-available, but if iron status is poor, more non-haem iron will be absorbed. It is also important to note that natural degradation of red blood cells does reduce iron status.

“There are many uncertainties that exist in this area, but this has been addressed recently by the publication of SACNs review of iron in the diet. They emphasised the importance of having a variety of iron-containing foods in the diet from both plant and animal sources and, as a ‘precautionary’ measure, suggested limiting intakes of red meat to 70g a day.

“Any calls to reduce iron intake as a general public health message would be misguided as it could have negative health consequences for some ‘at risk’ groups of the population, such as small children, teenagers and pregnant women, who are known to have poor dietary intakes of iron. Iron deficiency anaemia is the main nutritional deficiency seen in the UK and, indeed, worldwide.

“Lean red meat remains an important part of a healthy balanced diet, as advocated by the government’s Eatwell plate.”

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