A research group at The Cleveland Clinic has linked carnitine, a dietary component found naturally in red meat, to hardening of the arteries.

The research group, led by Dr. Stanley Hazen, section head of preventive cardiology and rehabilitation, has been investigating the link between heart disease and foods, the bacteria in the intestine that digest them, and the substances these bacteria create in the digestion process, reports the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

In 2011, the group connected the dietary nutrient lecithin, found naturally in animal products, to heart disease through a byproduct of its metabolism in the gut called TMAO. In those studies TMAO, or trimethylamine N-oxide, proved to be a 10-fold stronger predictor of heart disease than cholesterol, a relationship that has held up in more recent work. This recent study has found a similar relationship between carnitine and TMAO.

Co-author Stanley Hazen, head of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says that the study could signal a new approach to diet and health. In some cases, an individual’s collection of intestinal microbes may be as important to their diet as anything on a nutrition label, he says.

“Bacteria make a whole slew of molecules from food,” he says, “and those molecules can have a huge effect on our metabolic processes.”

For more information about the methodology of the study, visit Nature Magazine’s website at: www.nature.com/news/red-meat-wrong-bacteria-bad-news-for-hearts-1.12746.

Sources: Cleveland Plain Dealer, Nature