Good nutrition: Does meat really matter?

URBANA — Late last year the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that people who consume processed meat daily raise their risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Naturally, this prompted me to check the facts.

It was apparent to me that WHO’s report plays with the numbers. I found that the incidence of colorectal cancer among people on vegetarian diets was 4.7 percent, while people consuming three ounces of processed meat daily had a 5.5 percent incidence. This 0.8 percent difference in colorectal cancer risk accounts for the 18% higher risk among processed meat eaters. Hardly what I’d consider an epidemic for the meat-eating consumer.

Calorie for calorie beef trumps cauliflower, broccoli or spinach in terms of dietary protein. (Don’t make any assumptions here. I didn’t have the Republican convention on the tube while writing this commentary.)

You’d have to eat 24 cups of your vegetables to reach the protein content of only three ounces of meat. I like my broccoli, but give me a break!

In the following, I set the record straight on meat production and consumption.

Modern beef production has steadily increased sustainability. From 2005 to 2011 the beef industry has:

• Reduced water usage by 3%

• Increased water quality by 10%

• Reduced use of landfill space by 7%

• Reduced energy consumption by 2%

• Reduced greenhouse gases by 2% due to improved bovine nutritional programs

Dr. Frank Mitloehner of the University of California-Davis has shown that beef production contributes 3% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, as opposed to the 26% quoted by WHO and bandied about by many environmental activists.

The U.S. beef industry has one of the lowest bovine carbon footprints in the world due to genetics, cattle nutritional programs and new technologies adapted to animal management programs.

Now, before any “veggies” out there get a wedgie in their shorts, I will concede that transportation of animal products also contributes to greenhouse gases. But this is also true for transportation of any food product, including cauliflower, broccoli or spinach, as it makes its way from production to processing to the grocery store.

As I’ve heard one “astute” consumer note, greenhouse gas concerns could be greatly reduced if beef was obtained straight from the grocery. (Hope you don’t strain any eye muscles like I did with my eye roll.)

Some “foodie” activists paint a picture that U.S. beef is loaded with hormones used to promote faster growth and more muscling. You may have read about this in a previous column, but I think it’s worth repeating.

It is true that growth hormones are often used to promote muscling. However, this needs to be put in perspective. A steer given a growth implant will have 0.00000000186 parts per million of the hormone estradiol in its meat. Meat from a steer never given a growth hormone implant will contain 0.0000000056 parts per million of natural occurring estradiol. The difference is minuscule.

In comparison, a garden salad contains 12,000 parts per million of estradiol. Tofu and soy burgers have a whopping 33,000 parts per million estradiol. You best stick with being an omnivore.

And please don’t read into this that you shouldn’t eat salad or tofu. The conclusion is that both are safe to consume without becoming paranoid that someone is poisoning your food.

A few years ago human nutritional experts evaluated child nutritional programs in Kenya. Elementary age children in 12 school systems were divided into four nutritional programs, receiving the following daily diets:

• Group 1: the standard Kenyan diet of tuberous root plants. This was the control group.

• Group 2: a blended diet of githeri, a combination of tuberous root plants, leafy vegetables and fruit. It was like a stew without meat.

• Group 3: githeri and eight ounces of milk.

• Group 4: githeri and four ounces of meat.

The children in the 12 schools were regularly evaluated for bicep muscle mass, playground activity and intellectual capacity. The children receiving four ounces of meat with their githeri were found to have more bicep muscle mass and increased playground activity. And they scored 12 points higher in IQ tests than all of the other groups.

Children receiving milk with their meals had increased bone strength but did not experience increases in the other parameters.

The children on the control diet and the blended vegetable, or githeri, diet did not have detectable increases in the measured developmental parameters.

So, remember these findings when you read about school systems starting “meatless Mondays” or promoting vegetarian/vegan lunch programs. And rely on your county extension agents, land grant university nutritionists and other wellness professionals who “get it” and advise eating in moderation rather than following the misguided activists’ meatless recommendations.


My column last month — about the great watermelon raid and cover-up — has sent shivers through the extended Sanders family and my cousins, the Turners. They are still shaking their heads. After all, our family elders had always assumed we were innocent children. But in my defense, I was just a naïve 12-year-old when I was drawn into the world of watermelon plundering.