New link between red meat and heart disease

Food safety experts advise eating no more than two to three portions of meat per week

Beef: raw meat

A link between red meat and heart disease has been highlighted by US researchers who have identified the culprit as a little-studied chemical called carnitine.

A study published in the latest edition of Nature Medicine found that when carnitine was broken down by bacteria in the gut, it turned into a compound, TMAO, which hardens arteries. It also found that people who ate large quantities of meat had more of bacteria that converted carnitine to the harmful compound.

Irish food safety experts said the findings did not change their advice to eat red meat two to three times a week. The study, led by Dr Stanley Hazen from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, followed 2,595 people and measured carnitine and TMAO levels.

Meat-eaters produced more of the compound than vegetarians and vegans after eating carnitine, the researchers found. Carnitine is found in fish, poultry, wheat and some vegetables but its main food source is red meat. The findings also raise concern about the use of carnitine as a dietary supplement. Certain fat-burning slimming aids and muscle builders contain carnitine but researchers said the safety of that supplementation should be studied more closely to make sure it was not fostering the bacteria.


Marian Faughnan, chief nutrition specialist at Safefood, said supplements could not replace a healthy, balanced diet.

A spokeswoman for the Food Safety Authority of Ireland said it had not studied the findings in detail but noted the research pointed to a level of meat consumption that was much higher than recommended. She said people should eat no more than two to three portions of red meat a week, a portion of meat being the size of the palm of the person's hand.

“Our advice would be to eat lean red meat and cut off all fat. And when you are cooking it avoid frying it, and using added fats and oils.” – Additional reporting: Bloomberg

Alison Healy

Alison Healy

Alison Healy is a contributor to The Irish Times