Processed Meat, Fillet Steak and Death

I was planning to write an “appraisal” of the Harvard study on meat and risk of death that hit the news, but have been so busy procrastinating lately that another blog has beaten me to it. Apparently, we should all be eating less meat, particularly processed meat like sausages, bacon and burgers because not eating less will kill us. At least, that’s what the headlines and the tabloid stats seem to imply. 20% increased risk if you eat 3 or 4 beef steaks every week?


Sounds scary. Better go vegetarian right away, which will be quite hard for anyone who actually does eat steak almost every day, I’d assume…

However, the risk of anyone in the 120,000 cohort studied by the Harvard team, dying in a given year works out at about 0.8%. In other words, on average over the course of the two decades-plus of the study, the risk of someone being “tracked” dying was less than 1 in a 100.

The study reports that meat increases the risk of dying by 20% (15-24%, for processed meat). Take that 0.8% as baseline and add 20% and the risk leaps to a massive 0.96%. So basically, still less than a 1 in a 100 chance of dying in any given year. Even stretching to the upper error bar in the study, the risk increasing by 24% still doesn’t take the risk above 1%.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t health and environmental benefits to cutting down on one’s meat intake or indeed going wholly vegetarian, because there are. But, the way to convince people is not to spin the statistics in this way, but to hit them where it hurts, not in the heart, but in the wallet. Fillet steak 3-4 times a week? That’s quite a lot of yummy lentil burger equivalents…

Here’s the full skinny on those stats: Unpacking the meat data. And here are some of those “true” but well spun scaremongering stories:

This article has been reproduced from Sciencebase Science News. Copyright David Bradley.

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About David Bradley Science Writer

David Bradley has worked in science communication for more than twenty years. After reading chemistry at university, he worked and travelled in the USA, did a stint in a QA/QC lab and then took on a role as a technical editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry. Then, following an extended trip to Australia, he returned and began contributing as a freelance to the likes of New Scientist and various trade magazines. He has been growing his portfolio and and has constructed the Sciencebase Science News and the Sciencetext technology website. He also runs the SciScoop Science Forum which is open to guest contributors on scientific topics.
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