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Red meat is not only unhealthy but can be positively lethal, according to a major US study.
The research shows regularly eating red meat - especially the processed variety - dramatically increases the risk of death from heart disease and cancer.
Each additional daily serving of processed red meat, equivalent to one hot-dog or two rashers of bacon, raised the chances of dying by a fifth.
[Related article: Top 10 worst foods to eat]
But the study found that cutting red meat out of the diet led to significant benefits.
Replacing red meat with fish, poultry, or plant-based protein foods contributed to a longer life, the study says.
Nuts were said to reduce the risk of dying by 20% - making a case for swapping roast beef for nut roast.
Data from 121,342 men and women taking part in two large US health and lifestyle investigations were analysed to produce the findings, published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine .
The studies monitored the progress of their participants for more than 20 years and gathered information about diet.
In total, scientists documented 23,926 deaths including 5,910 from heart disease and 9,364 from cancer.
Senior author Professor Frank Hu, from Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, said: "This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death.
"On the other hand, choosing more healthful sources of protein in place of red meat can confer significant health benefits by reducing chronic disease morbidity (illness) and mortality."
Cancer prevention charity the World Cancer Research Fund recommends that people avoid processed meat entirely and limit their consumption of red meat to 500g a week.
Dr Rachel Thompson, the charity's deputy head of science, said: "This study strengthens the body of evidence which shows a link between red meat and chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. The research itself seems solid and is based on two large-scale cohort studies monitored over a long period of time."
[Related link: Easy vegetarian recipes]
But the findings were challenged by Dr Carrie Ruxton from the Meat Advisory Panel , an expert body funded by the meat industry.
She said: "This US study looked at associations between high intakes of red meat and risk of mortality, finding a positive association between the two. However, the study was observational, not controlled, and so cannot be used to determine cause and effect.
"The authors' conclusion that swapping a portion of red meat for poultry or fish each week may lower mortality risk was based only on a theoretical model. This conflicts with evidence from controlled trials."
Dr Ruxton pointed out that meat and meat products were significant sources of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, selenium, B vitamins and vitamin D.
In the UK, red meat was "critically important" to zinc intake, contributing 32% of the total for men and 27% for women. Red meat also contributed around 17% of total dietary iron intake in the UK.
Dr Ruxton added: "In summary, this paper should not be used to dissuade people from reducing their current intake of red meat when it provides essential nutrients that are required as part of a healthy balanced diet."
Even after analysing food packets, checking out ingredients and swatting up on calorie counts, there are certain things you may not know about your food. Here are seven food facts that may surprise you.
World chocolate supplies are set to run out
It is one of the most popular treats worldwide, so it may come as bad news to many that world chocolate supplies may soon run out. Due to political unrest and dangers to farmers in the Ivory Coast (where a large proportion of the world’s cocoa beans are grown), many fair trade cocoa farmers and trainers have fled the country and chocolate production has hit a low. It has been predicted that supplies of sustainable chocolate are set to run out, and a chocolate drought has been predicted for 2014.
[Related feature: The grossest things found in people's food]
One of the world’s most expensive foods is made from saliva
From caviar (fish eggs) to truffles (an edible fungus), it seems that many of the world’s most expensive foods are made of dubious substances, and bird’s nest soup is no exception. The soup, which is an expensive Chinese delicacy, is made from a particular kind of nest that is created by bird saliva. While many of us would be reluctant to shell out for saliva, the bird nests that form this soup are one of the most expensive animal food products around.
Your food can legally contain bugs and hairs Most of us wouldn’t class insects as a component of our diets; however, you may be eating more of them than you think and, worryingly, these may not be the only unpleasant addition to your diet. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration allows for “natural defects” by permitting a certain amount of bugs and rodent hair to be present in food products. For example, chocolate products may contain an average of 60 insect fragments and one rodent hair per 100g, while citrus fruit juice can contain one maggot per 250ml.
Fruit and vegetables have become less nutritious
Although fruit and vegetables are one of the best sources of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, research findings published in the journal HortScience suggest that they have actually become less nutritious than they were 50 years ago, due to new agricultural methods which have stripped nutrients from soil. In fact, according to one study, it would take eight oranges to get the same levels of vitamin A as it would in one orange a few generations ago. To make sure you get enough vitamins, try to buy organic produce where possible and eat more fruit and vegetables. ‘Pre-washed’ salads may be contaminated with bacteria
Many of us opt for pre-washed salads when purchasing our greens. However, a Consumer Reports study has found that they may not be as clean as they seem. The study, which tested just over 200 samples of different pre-washed salads, found that 39 per cent of those tested contained bacteria called coliform, which is normally used to indicate contamination of food products. While this doesn’t mean you should ditch the greens, you should be careful to wash salads thoroughly at home, even if they are advertised as already washed.
Chewing coffee beans can freshen your breath Coffee may not be the first thing you reach for when looking to freshen your breath, however if you have been eating onions and garlic then it may be just what you need. If you haven’t got a toothbrush to hand, then chewing on roasted coffee beans can help extinguish onion or garlic breath. Other good breath fresheners include parsley or mint leaves.
Chocolate is as healthy as fruit Perhaps this good news comes too late if drought predictions are to be believed, but research has suggested that chocolate can be just as healthy as fruit. When tested and compared to juices from ‘superfruits’ such as blueberries and pomegranate, dark chocolate was found to be higher in antioxidants, which are essential for fighting disease and preventing wrinkles. For a healthy treat, it is best to go for a pure dark chocolate as milk, sugar and too much processing can reduce these health benefits.
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