By Barry Carpenter
Special to Poultry Times
WASHINGTON — In China, each year is defined by an animal and this year happens to be the Year of the Red Fire Monkey. In the meat and poultry industry, our years are often characterized by an overriding issue; I predict this year will be characterized by a tiger of sorts — the nutrition issue.
As the year opens, we anticipate that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration will unveil the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The process that went into developing these has been sharply criticized because the panel strayed from its nutrition focused mission into environmental considerations. The panel also seemed inclined to ignore facts, like the fact that followers of the widely regarded Mediterranean diet eat twice as many processed meats as followers of the USDA recommended pattern.
Also this year, we will see the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) finalize its monograph on the relationship between red and processed meat (and this includes processed poultry) and cancer. An abstract IARC published in Lancet in October indicated that the panel believes red meat probably poses a cancer hazards and that processed meat does pose a cancer hazard. IARC will elaborate on its reasoning in a longer Monograph that is likely to be published at the end of 2016.
In the year of the Monkey, a clever character who thrives on being challenged, we must again look to the Chinese for wisdom. The Chinese character for crisis is the same character for opportunity. It’s often difficult to gain the media’s and the public’s attention with good news, so let’s use the events that we all think of as “crises” as an opportunity for conversation. Bad news may start the conversation, but let’s finish each of these conversations with good news.
When it comes to nutrition, we all know that meat and poultry are good for you and part of a healthy balanced diet. But given what we face, it’s incumbent on all of us to school ourselves about exactly why meat and poultry are so important to nutrition and we need to be prepared to communicate those reasons at every turn. Consider the following facts.
Protein. Protein is essential for health and the protein found in meat and poultry is “complete” because it contains all the amino acids essential for health. Animal proteins are referred to as complete proteins. Vegetarians must combine foods in certain ways to obtain all the amino acids needed for health, but meat eaters get all the amino acids they need with every serving of meat.
Iron. The blood needs iron to stay healthy. Meat, fish and poultry contain heme iron, which helps prevent anemia because the body absorbs this iron better than the non-heme iron found in plant foods such as vegetables. Heme iron foods, reports the National Institutes of Health, also help the body absorb non-heme iron found in plant foods, so adding bacon to spinach means your body will enhance its absorbing power.
Bioavailability. Depending on the source of nutrients, the body can absorb nutrients differently. Nutrients in meat, including iron and zinc, are typically more easily absorbed and used by the body. We call this high bioavailability.
Muscle growth and maintenance. High-quality protein, in meat and poultry, has been shown to prevent muscle loss as people age — a condition called sarcopenia — more effectively than other protein foods. Studies show aging people need more, not less, protein.
Brain health. Animal products such as meat are the only natural sources of vitamin B12. This nutrient promotes brain development in children, according to a Food and Nutrition Bulletin, and, adds the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board, helps the nervous system function properly. Numerous studies show that followers of vegan diets have a higher risk of psychological and neurological conditions.
Zinc immunity. Researchers have found that zinc helps maintain optimal immune function and promotes wound healing. Beef is the top dietary source of zinc.
Selenium rich. A serving of beef or lamb delivers about half your daily selenium needs. Selenium is an antioxidant that helps prevent cell damage, promotes proper thyroid function and may contribute to cancer prevention, reports the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
Weight management. Studies in the New England Journal of Medicine and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition say high-protein diets that include lean meat and poultry have been shown to promote long-term weight loss better than other diets.
Vegetarianism. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics indicates that vegetarian diets can be healthy if balanced properly, but vegetarians are at risk for a number of deficiencies including iron, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. Research shows that vegetarians have lower levels of vitamin B12 in the blood; some studies even report this may increase the risk of heart disease. The more foods that are eliminated from the diet, the trickier adequate nutrition becomes.
Interestingly, adherence to a vegetarian diet is often poor. In fact, recent polls showed that 84 percent of self-identified vegetarians return to eating meat. The study also revealed that 2 percent of American adults are current vegetarians or vegans, 10 percent are former vegetarians/vegans and 88 percent have never been vegetarian or vegan. More than half of the ex-vegetarians and vegans gave up on their vegetarian diets within their first year; a third went back to meat within three months.
These fundamental facts are just a fraction of the data and research that make a compelling case for healthy, balanced diets that include lean meat and poultry. As members of the industry, we must rise to the challenge of the nutrition flashpoints that are likely to occur in 2016 and be prepared to share the news about the health benefits of the products we produce. We can all start by reading some of the materials prepared by our Institute at www.MeatPoultryNutriton.org. Test your knowledge using our interactive quiz. And take advantage of some of the free Webinars we plan to host this year to teach the members of our industry some important facts about meat and poultry nutrition.
Armed with information presented in understandable ways, you can share it on social media, in your business interactions, with policymakers and elected leaders and in your personal life where you are more credible simply because you are you: a friend, a family member or a neighbor.
Together, let’s all grab the tiger by the tail and turn the flashpoints of 2016 into opportunities to educate our customers and our consumers. It’s both smart — and necessary.
Barry Carpenter is president and CEO of the North American Meat Institute with offices in Washington, D.C.