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Red and processed meat intake high across North America

Consumption in US, Canada and Mexico exceeds recommended daily limits, figures show.

In order to achieve net zero emissions targets, we will have to reduce consumption of red meat in high-consuming countries. Given the important role of trade policy in meat availability and affordability, regional analyses are key to understanding the current status of meat intake.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the University of Edinburgh, the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico City, and Université Laval in Quebec City have evaluated national levels of red and processed meat intake across all three major North American countries – the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

Dr Lindsay Jaacks, Co-Principal Investigator of the study and UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, said, “This is the first such inter-continental analysis of a food group of concern in North America. I was especially surprised by our observation that on any given day, 63-74 per cent of North Americans eat red and processed meat. This is not treated as the costly, special food that it is – it’s perceived as a superficially cheap, everyday food.”

Findings of this study are reported in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

High intakes

Hot dogs
Intake of processed meat was in excess of recommended limits.

Median amounts of unprocessed red meat eaten per person per day – such as ground beef – were 79.0 grams in Canada, 72.3 grams in the United States, and 62.0 grams in Mexico. For processed meat – foods like bacon and sausages – median intake levels were 44.5 grams in the United States, 41.8 grams in Canada, and 40.0 grams in Mexico. The EAT–Lancet commission recommends 14 grams/day of unprocessed red meat and 0 grams/day of processed meat as optimal levels for human and environmental health.

Men were more likely to consume unprocessed red meat and processed meat, and had larger estimated intakes. In Mexico, wealthier individuals were more likely to consume meat. In the United States and Canada, the opposite was true, and less educated individuals were more likely to consume meat. However, when looking at the absolute amounts of meat eaten, levels did not differ according to socio-economic status.

Lead author, Sarah Frank, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said: “We know from food balance data that meat consumption in North America is high, relative to the global average. But ours is the first to compare and contrast individual intake in these three countries. Meat consumption is generally higher in Canada and the US than in Mexico. But in Mexico there are significant differences by wealth, with wealthier folks being more likely to consume meat. This mirrors patterns in other middle-income countries, and we can anticipate that without intervention, demand for meat may actually grow in North America, particularly as Mexico becomes wealthier and more people can afford to purchase meat regularly.

Public policies are going to play an important role in achieving diets that are healthy and sustainable,” said Dr Lindsey Taillie, the Principal Investigator of the study and an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “We’ve seen policies like taxes and front-of-package labels work well to reduce consumption of other harmful products, like sugar-sweetened beverages and tobacco. Given the availability of healthy, affordable alternatives, the next step will be to understand what policy options can reduce high levels of red meat consumption in higher-income countries.”

This study was funded by the Wellcome Trust’s Our Planet, Our Health programme.

Related links

UNC Nutrition

UNC Global Food Research Program

Wellcome’s Our Planet, Our Health

EAT–Lancet commission summary report

Scientific publication

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