These days, there’s no shortage of confusing information about eating meat, its effects on our health, and what to look for when buying it. The labels on most meat products make the buying process even more complicated, as you spend (what feels like) hours trying to decipher what’s sneaky marketing lingo versus legit nutritional information.
“Many people are afraid of meat products because of the fear-based marketing that’s commonly used,” Michigan-based registered dietician Kelsey Lorencz told HuffPost. “They don’t know what to do, since they can’t afford the organic, free-range, antibiotic-free items, but are afraid of what’s in the conventional products.”
To help you make better meat-related decisions, both in the store and the kitchen, here’s the truth behind nine common meat myths so you can finally breathe easier.
Myth 1: All red meat is bad for you.
Processed and unprocessed meats (organic, grass-fed, grain-fed) get lumped together as being the same, but not all red meat is created equal. “Red processed meats, like deli meats and cured meats (salami, hot dogs), should be avoided due to their potential carcinogen activity,” said L.J. Amaral, clinical and research dietitian at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. But when it comes to the effects of unprocessed meat, there are no conclusive studies on risk for disease in our bodies.
The American Institute for Cancer Research supports people eating up to three portions of red meat per week. “The right cuts in small quantities are a rich source of bioavailable (heme) iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and selenium, among other nutrients,” said Edwina Clark, a California-based registered dietitian and head of nutrition at online vitamin seller made for_. She suggests choosing grass-fed, USDA-certified organic beef, with minimal visible fat, and keeping portions to roughly 4 ounces (or the size of the palm of your hand).
Myth 2: White meat is healthier than red meat.
White meat is known for having a health halo over red meat, but a recent study found that both raise cholesterol— and with it, the risk for cardiovascular disease. “Because white meat, like chicken and pork, is typically given a heart-friendly green light, this can lead to these types of meat being overconsumed,” said Los Angeles-based registered dietitian Megan Casper. Moderating meat intake while increasing non-meat protein consumption (veggies, dairy and legumes), show the best cholesterol benefit, say researchers.
Myth 3: What the cows eat doesn’t make a difference.
Swapping grain-fed for grass-fed beef does make a difference in nutrient profiles and health effects, Amaral said. Grass-fed cattle generally eat only grass and other foraged foods. (A seal from the American Grassfed Association on the label means the animals were fed a 100% forage diet and were never treated with hormones or antibiotics.)
How does this change the nutrient profile of the beef? Besides being an excellent source of protein, heme iron (the type of iron that’s super-easy for the body to absorb) and vitamin B12, grass-fed beef contains more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, a higher concentration of conjugated linoleic acid (a type of fat that can reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer), as well as higher levels of antioxidants, such as vitamin E.
Myth 4: It doesn’t matter how you cook the meat.
“If you grill your meats, especially fatter meats, those meats come with an increased risk of cancer and decreases the health benefits of the meat,” Amaral said. That’s because grilling usually means cooking at a higher temperature. “The fat drippings can go into the fire, and increase the amount of flame the meat’s exposed to,” she explained. “This creates harmful compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and heterocyclic amines (HCA), and these compounds can damage your cells.”
Because of how tricky it can be to nail down the exact level of PAH or HCA exposure a person gets from cooked meats, studies so far haven’t been able to establish a definitive link between these compounds and cancer in humans. However, “there is evidence of plausible mechanisms operating in humans,” according to a 2018 report by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Bottom line: Why chance it?
Myth 5: Cooking at high heat is only a risk for red meat, not poultry and fish.
The phenomenon of PAH and HCAs forming from high-heat cooking isn’t limited to red meat. The same is true for poultry and fish, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. “The premise is based on the heme iron found in animal products,” Amaral said. “When the heme compounds in meat, poultry or fish are heated over a fire at high temperatures, it changes the cell and makes it more reactive in the body.” The best way to consume meat of any kind is to use less hot cooking methods, such as sautéing or using the oven, a crockpot or an instant pot.
Myth 6: If you don’t eat meat, you won’t get enough protein.
We don’t need as much meat as we think we do to meet daily protein needs. A 2016 report by the World Resources Institute found that the average person’s protein consumption actually exceeded dietary requirements by one-third.
The report also found that the gap between the average American’s daily protein needs and the amount they’re already scoring from plant sources is less than the equivalent of 4 ounces of chicken breast (which contains half or more of your daily needs, said Casper). The average recommended daily intake of protein is 46 grams for adult women and 56 grams for adult men. This handy calculator can help you determine how much is best for you.
Myth 7: Meat labeled ‘all-natural’ means it’s healthier.
Beef, pork or poultry labeled as being “all-natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better for you. “‘Natural’ simply means that the product doesn’t contain artificial ingredients or added colors and is minimally processed,” Clark said. However, it doesn’t refer to the methods used to produce the meat. U.S. Department of Agriculture certified organic animal products, on the other hand, are free from antibiotics and hormones, have been given access to the outdoors, and have been reared on organic feed.
Myth 8: It’s best to buy chicken and pork that’s labeled hormone-free.
“Labels such as ‘hormone-free’ on chicken are misleading, as added hormones aren’t found in any chicken sold in the U.S.,” Lorencz said. (As of 1960, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of hormones in poultry production.) Hormones aren’t allowed in raising hogs, either, so labels aren’t allowed to say “no hormones added” unless they also state that “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones,” according to the USDA.
Hormones may be used to promote growth in cattle, however. Beef products can only say “no hormones administered” on the label if proper documentation has been provided to the USDA proving no hormones were used while raising the animals. Buying USDA certified organic beef can help to ensure that the meat you’re purchasing hasn’t been given growth hormones.
Myth 9: Meats advertised as having no added nitrites or nitrates are better for you.
Not necessarily. Sodium nitrite ― used alone or in addition to sodium nitrate ― is used as a preservative in cured meats, such as bacon and hot dogs. When exposed to high heat during cooking (say, via frying or barbecuing), these preservatives combine with the natural breakdown of proteins (amines) to form compounds called nitrosamines, most of which are known carcinogens, according to the USDA.
The obvious solution is to buy meats that are nitrite- and nitrate-free, but these meats might contain celery salt as a preservative instead, which is deceptive. “Celery is a magnificent source of nitrates, and when added to a processed meat that will be cooked at high heat, has exactly the same effect as if it was added artificially,” Lorencz said. Your best bet, she advised, is to buy meats with no nitrites, nitrates or celery salt, or to cook these foods at lower temperatures for a longer amount of time.