Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Compound in red meat and energy drinks linked to higher heart-disease risk

steak photo
The heart risks of red meat may be related to a compound called carnitine.

Meat consumption has long been associated with clogged arteries and a higher risk of heart attacks, strokes — and death. For decades the blame for that association was placed primarily on the saturated fat and cholesterol in the meat.

Recent research, however, has led many scientists to believe that saturated fat and cholesterol do not sufficiently explain why meat appears so hazardous to our health. The search was on for other possible explanations.

In a fascinating study published Sunday in the journal Nature Medicine, researchers led by Dr. Stanley Hazen of the Cleveland Clinic have uncovered another possible culprit: a compound in meat called carnitine.

This finding has significance not just for regular meat-eaters, but also for people who consume energy drinks. Carnitine is commonly added to those products.

Carnitine is found other foods too, of course, but in much smaller amounts. Its job in the body appears to be to transport fatty acids into cells, where they are used for energy. In the digestive tract, carnitine is broken down by bacteria to form a metabolite called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). Earlier studies have shown that a high level of TMAO is linked to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, but the exact mechanism of that link is unknown.

A three-prong approach

For this new study, Hazen and his colleagues conducted three lines of research. First, they analyzed blood samples from 2,595 patients who were undergoing elective cardiac evaluation at the Cleveland Clinic. They found a strong association between high levels of carnitine in the blood and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease — but only in patients who also had high levels of TMAO.

Next, the researchers fed a group of omnivores, vegetarians and vegans a large amount of carnitine (either an 8-oz. sirloin steak or a carnitine capsule). Blood and urine tests taken after the meal revealed a significant rise in TMAO levels — but not among the vegetarians and vegans. Their blood and urine was almost TMAO-free.

Five of those volunteers were then given broad-spectrum antibiotics for a week to suppress bacteria in their intestines. The sirloin-steak experiment was then repeated. This time, no TMAO was found in the blood or urine, which suggests it isn’t converted in the gut from carnitine in the absence of bacteria.

In a third line of research, Hazen and his colleagues were actually able to cause heart disease in mice by feeding them a high-carnitine diet.

Reasons unclear

It’s not yet clear why TMAO appears to increase the risk of heart disease, but it may be because the compound makes it easier for cholesterol to form in arteries.

The link between carnitine ingestion and heart disease “has broad health-related implications,” write Hazen and his colleagues. One of those implications, they stress, is the need to examine the safety of adding carnitine to energy drinks and other supplements.

Of course, the findings also call into question the safety of consuming red meat.

“I used to have red meat five days out of seven,” Hazen told a BBC reporter, “but now I have cut it way back to less than once every two weeks or so."

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (1)

Debunking the Red Meat Myth

This story smells a little fishy, and here is the reason why. First of all, they blame all red meat for this and they typically study the American diet which is meat that is highly saturated with fat and low in omega-3 fat as a result of the way the cattle are raised, in the feed lot. There is not a single study with red meat that includes the healthier grass fed meats found on the plains of the Dakota’s. I queried the National Cancer Institute in 2007 when they linked cancer to red meat consumption. Their response? “The study did not explore whether the cattle were grass-fed or corn-fed. This area of research requires further study.”
Now researchers from the Cleveland Clinic claim that when red meat is consumed, L-carnitine or Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) was a bacterial by-product (bacteria found in the gut aiding in digestion) and was higher in Red meat eaters than Vegans or vegetarians’ and was a “Good warning sign of impending heart attack and stroke.
Carnitine is biosynthesized from two amino acids (building blocks of protein) lysine and methionine. It’s job in living cells is to transport fatty acids from the cytosol into the mitochondria (the cellular power plants) during the breakdown of fats for energy. One of its isomers is in its active form, L-carnitine is found in a number of nutritional supplements and energy drinks.
Ironically, L-Carnitine or TMAO (Trimethylamine N-oxide) is an osmolyte found in saltwater fish where it may counteract the protein-destabilizing effects of pressure and decomposes to TMA (trimethylamine) which is the main odorant of degrading seafood. So, if this research smells a little fishy, they have the science and biological markers to prove it.