Keeping beef on the plate

Consumers are constantly bombarded with dietary information from sources of all kinds. And when it comes to protein sources, the validity of the nutrition information is often in question.

Some studies say beef is not healthy, but Shalene McNeill, executive director nutrition science, health science, culinary and outreach for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, says to check the science behind the study.

McNeill spoke along with Danielle Beck, director of governmental affairs with NCBA, at the Cattlemen’s College event just prior to February’s Cattle Industry Convention and NCBA Trade Show in San Antonio, Texas.

“Too much nutrition science today is being driven by what we call observational data or epidemiological studies,” McNeill said. “These are studies that are the hierarchy of evidence or the lower quality, the ones at the bottom.”

For example, McNeill said, “you’ll hear about a study with 500,000 women shows that you have a 40% rate of increase of breast cancer by eating a serving of meat.” These types of studies are looking at populations, without doing an intervention on the subjects.

“They’re just measuring population and seeing what happens in your diet versus what happens in your diet and trying to tease out little things in the diet that may be contributing,” McNeill said. “Because of that they’re correlation studies not causation.”

Beef tends to get a bad rap in these weaker forms of science relying on cause and effect, she said. Most often the population who is the least healthy is eating the most beef, and the population who’s the most healthy has been hearing they shouldn’t eat beef because of dietary guidelines, thus they cut back.

“I think we’re just now breaking through with that in regards to people recognizing the benefits of protein,” she said. “And you’re starting to see more people eat beef in a healthy diet.”

McNeill said nutrition research is limited and what “we’re stuck with” until there’s better research out there.

“When the checkoff does research, we do a little bit of that kind of research to understand it,” she said. “Most of what we do are what we call randomized control trials. Both the gold standard studies are the best of the best kind of research that your money can buy. They can determine cause and effect.”

Now the checkoff is looking at beef nutrients in infant and young children’s diets, beef during pregnancy and beef during the aging years.

“We look to see—can it support those health outcomes that we do—and every time we see favorable benefits, or at least mutual benefits of beef,” McNeill said. “I can’t really think of a clinical trial study that has ever shown something negative about beef intake. All the negative that you comes from this weaker form of science.”

McNeill said people have to be patient with nutrition, and progress is finally being made with dietary guidelines.

“But these things come slow,” she said. “Some people in my field say science only progresses one funeral at a time. But things can be slow to progress, but we are making movement on nutrition and health. We will have to do the same on sustainability eventually. And we’re working on that as well.”

McNeill said to recognize a couple of benchmarks regarding the dietary guidelines. In 2005, Dietary Guidelines for Americans said proteins weren’t even important, and to focus on carbs and fat. By 2010, the guidelines started recognizing the importance of protein.

“That had come in large part because checkoff research—not just beef checkoff research—but we’ve collaborated with dairy and eggs, soy foods, a lot of foods have really raised an interesting protein,” McNeill said. “And now with the protein on the map, we’re going to be watching where low carb goes and trying to get as much science and all the benefits of that and how the supports that.

Beck said at the 2019 annual convention, NCBA approved dietary guidelines policy priorities, and it happened again in 2020.

“Protecting the scientific credibility of the dietary guidelines and promoting accurate information about the nutritional advantages of beef as part of a balanced diet will continue to be a priority for NCBA as the 2020 dietary guidelines process moves forward, and ultimately concludes,” Beck said.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

So why are the dietary guidelines important?

“The DGAs are important because they are the cornerstone of all federal nutrition policies,” she said. “Whether you realize it or not, the dietary guidelines impact your life.”

Doctors, nutritionists, dieticians and other health community professionals utilize the guidelines when making recommendations. It dictates all of the government nutrition assistance—the National School Lunch Program, Women, Infants and Children, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and programs that help feed the elderly.

“Those programs impact one in every four Americans,” Beck said. “And so the DGA recommendations, they have a big influence there.”

The DGAs also direct FDA packaging and labeling regulations—think “healthy label” on packages.

“That is all dictated by what’s your dietary guide,” Beck said.

McNeill suspects the guidelines won’t be any less challenging in the future for beef.

“We always are faced with challenges,” she said. “But we also, as an industry, can do better. I think sometimes we don’t do enough as an industry to show that we can help people achieve healthier diets with beef.”

People don’t have to just enjoy beef when they want a burger and fries or a big steak at a steak house, but beef can be part of that stir-fried broccoli that gets you through the week, McNeill said.

“These can be the nutrients that you can eat on a steak salad and have a balanced meal,” she said. “So the more that we can do as an industry to showcase beef in healthy lifestyles with healthy meals with sensible portions helps create an image about our food that associates with a healthy lifestyle.

Beck said with all the protein options out there, 2020 has been dubbed the year of the vegan, and consequently, she’s been tasked with finding how consumers feel about proteins, and how healthy they are. NCBA conducted a consumer survey to try to get a better understanding around what the term plant-based signified to consumers.

“We’re using this data as part of our effort to combat fake meat and in appropriately labeled fake meat products,” Beck said. “But when you think about the year of the vegan to growing demand for protein, if you look at global food demand and the quality, protein demand that’s going to be included in that there’s plenty of room for beef to grow for everyone in this room to continue doing what they do so well.”

But protecting the brand is going to be really important. Fake meat is less than 1% of the market share right now.

“But it’s important to recognize the misperceptions that consumers currently have because there are a lot of folks who would like to replace animal proteins with entirely vegan or vegetarian products,” Beck said. “So when it comes to fits my budget and is a great source of protein, beef won out, no questions asked no hands down.”

Understanding the nutritional profile around beef and being able to communicate it becomes “super important moving forward,” Beck said.

“I don’t know that consumers truly believe they’re buying a product that might have beef ingredients, but they are being tricked into thinking these products are superior,” she said. “In terms of protecting our own brand, being able to talk effectively about the nutritional benefits surrounding defunding becomes all the more important.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].