I recently attended the Nutrition Society Summer conference entitled “The future of animal products in the diet.” The conference was fantastic there was a huge diversity of speakers, coming at the issue’s from a myriad of perspectives. The combination of informative presentations on the latest scientific research and lively debate, combined with a friendly “in it together” atmosphere made for a uniquely positive environment that I found to be very inspiring. I am going to attempt to sum up, and give my opinion on, some of the main topics.
Is eating meat healthy?
A lot of the talks were focused around the health implications of eating meat. This involved looking at some of the individual nutrients in meats and epidemiological trends in disease incidences. As most of us know meat is an excellent source of protein containing both essential and non-essential amino acids. Depending on the type, meat can also be a good source of several micronutrients including magnesium, zinc, iron and B12. Its certainly true we can also get these nutrients from plant sources however, the proteins and micronutrients in meat are highly bioavailable. An excellent example is heam iron, which has a bioavailability of around 20-30% whereas iron found in plants is only around 5%.
A topic that came up several times was the health implications of consuming saturated fat, of which meats, alongside dairy, contribute a significant percentage to our diet. The general consensus was that that saturated fat seemed to have a neutral effect on cardiovascular disease mortality incidence and risk markers. If you want to know more I have written an article on this HERE. Omega 3 was also talked about in depth. Consuming adequate amounts of omega 3 should be, in my opinion, a huge priority in public health campaigns. Again I have more details on Omega 3 HERE. An advantage of meat consumption that kept cropping up was that animal sources of omega 3 are already in the active forms, EPA and DHA. Humans have an extremely limited capacity to convert the 18 carbon omega 3 fatty acid alpha linolenic acid, found in plant sources like flaxseed, to the longer chain omega fatty acids EPA and DHA. At this point I want to point out that we eat whole foods we don’t just consume single nutrients. Although saturated fat may not have a significant influence on cardiovascular disease as we first thought, if you consume lots of salami containing high amounts of salt and nitrates this could be detrimental.
When it comes to meat and disease incidence processed meat appears to be the bad guy. High consumption of processed meat was linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and certain types of cancer. A large question mark here is what exactly is defined as processed meat? For example a question was raised as to the effects of processed fish, this appeared to highlight a gap in the current knowledge base. For me this means trying to stick to whole cuts of fresh meat, and if you’re unsure ask your butcher they should be able to tell you exactly what has or hasn’t been done to their product.
Meat farming practices, feeding
In an effort to make farming meat more sustainable and the product more nutrient dense, there has been a lot of work done on feeding practices. This is something humans have been doing for years essentially trying to get an animal’s weight to increase quicker. This has been done through selective breeding of animals with a better feed efficiency (able to put on weight with less food). It was explained in one of these lectures that feeding cows fish oil or micro algae was being used to increase the EPA and DHA content in beef. For me I feel like this is adding an extra step that isn’t required if we just eat seafood. If I wanted to go to London from Edinburgh I wouldn’t go via Moscow! Slight hyperbole but I think that’s what we are doing here. It’s quite sad that as a population we are so adverse to consuming fish that feeding cattle fish oil is what we are turning too. Moreover the EPA and DHA content of this enhanced meat still paled in comparison to what is in fish. From a sustainability stand point I don’t think this makes sense either, a lot of oceans are over fished so why give these fish to cattle to produce a beef product that has less EPA and DHA compared to the original fish. On the other hand micro algae may be a slightly more promising option as at least this can be grown fairly easily, but again I just think people should try and eat fish. Another issue with these find of changes to farming practices is it is unlikely that farmers would be able to implement any of these strategies without some sort of financial backing.
Meat Sustainability Carbon Footprint
This was a big topic during the conference. The world’s population is expanded at a rapid rate growing around 1.14% each year. This raises huge questions on how we are going to efficiently feed this expanding population. To compound this we have the issue of global warming. Now I am not an expert in this area at all and won’t pretend to be. Producing meat on the scale we currently do has a huge carbon footprint and requires vast quantities of water. We need to produce the feed itself, transport the animals and meat and also the animals have an impact themselves particularly cows due to the amount of methane they produce.
It has become a bit of a joke but cows do produce a lot of methane especially if you consider the fact that there is around 1.4 billion cows. What is less funny is this image of an industrial farm in the states. That green coloured "pit" in the middle is a whats known as a "waste lagoon".
Going forward this has to change and the solutions appear to be an overhaul of farming practices or reduce the demand i.e. eat less meat.
What should we do?
One of the best quotes from the conference was in my opinion….
"We don't need to demonise meat, but we should recognise its cost” - Professor Tim Benton
Personally I don’t think we should all become vegetarians. I enjoy eating meat and it is a great source of several nutrients. What I do support is a reduction in meat consumption and a mindfulness of what types of meat we are consuming and where it’s coming from. I think western populations are often guilty of constantly wanting more more more, and this just isn’t sustainable. The food and agricultural industries have a huge role to play moving forward as we seek to make meat consumption a more viable long term option. However we as consumers need to take some responsibility for our current predicament and make some changes to our eating habits
So what can we do?
Cut down on meat and consume more alternative protein sources - Current recommendations from the British Nutrition Foundation is to consume a maximum of 80g of meat per day. Beans, legumes and pulses are all good sources of protein and are high in fibre. Several meat alternatives exist too such as Quorn and hey if it’s good enough for Mo Farah. I have to admit I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of Quorn but a talk from Dr. Tim Finnigan educated me on the food product, highlighting that Quorn is a complete protein with a high bioavailability (actually higher than some meat products).
· Prioritise fresh cuts of meat over highly processed products, and shop local. Processed meat was consistently shown to have a negative impact on health. By buying fresh cuts you are looking after your health and, if you buy from a butcher, you are supporting a local business.
· Spend the same but buy less – go for quality of quantity and look for sustainably sources meat products. Companies are usually quick to advertise if their meat is sustainable it just takes a little time to check over the labels.
· Eat the whole animal – A mantra I have lived by over the last couple of years is if I am going to eat meat I am going to make an effort to consume a mix of cuts. This includes eating organ meats on a fairly regular basis. These are cheap and extremely nutrient dense and there is a ton of recipes out there to get them into your diet. WARNING organ meat tends to be very high in vitamin A so it wouldn’t be advisable for anyone who is pregnant to consume any more than once per week.
· Try eating some wild caught game – This is tricky to come by in the UK but its a much more sustainable meat. The animal is usually fed on its natural diet and game tends to be both lean and nutrient dense venison being an excellent example.
There was a talk from Professor Arnnold van Huis, co-author of “the insect cookbook”. At first, to me, this seemed like it was going to be a talk about the “novel” idea of consuming insects. It turns out this is a legitimate option that many countries have already adopted. Farming insects is a relatively easy and very sustainable practice, which has been practiced across regions of Asia for a number of years. These insects can be fed to animals or consumed by humans, and are a source of protein and nutrients. Supermarkets in the Netherlands have already started selling certain varieties of insects and cricket flour can easily be purchased from online retailers. The issues moving forward here in the UK is ticking all the boxes on food regulations, but it seems the ball has been set in motion on this. Another big issue is just getting past the notion of eating insects, which in western cultures is generally thought of as well a bit weird. I will certainly be interested to see if insects hit our supermarkets in the future and how they will be received. Professor Van Huis has actually done a Ted Talk and it can be viewed here.
Rather than conclude with a lengthy statement I’ll just sign off with this video which I think sums up the sustainability of meat quite well. I will say that personally I probably am going to cut down my meat consumption a little, especially processed meat. I am into my sport and I enjoy training and with that always comes the importance of consuming high quality protein. By spending the same and eating less, focusing on sustainably sourced meat and alternative protein sources even as a fairly active person I don't think I have anything to worry about regarding protein intake.