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Finally! The Utah Beef Council Explains Myths and Facts About Beef

Posted by tinako on February 13, 2010

I came across the Utah Beef Council’s page (copy saved here) while researching, and I found it quite comical.  Shall we take a stroll through it?  Open it in another tab, and we’ll explore it together.

“Myth #1: Americans eat too much meat.”  The RDA is 5.5 ounces for the meat and beans group, with the USDA telling us we should “choose more fish, beans, peas, nuts and seeds.”  Also according to the USDA, the average American eats 195 lbs. of meat per person per year, or half a pound (8 oz.) per day, not the 4.9 ounces “from the meat group” asserted by Utah Beef Council.  Americans eat too much meat.

“Myth #2: Meat contributes the majority of fat to the American diet.”   I am having trouble finding information on this, but I think most people believe that fat contributes the majority of fat to the American diet, no matter it’s source.  Many people choose lower-fat meats already.  I did find a study that looked at overall fat intake, and it found that people who ate less fat tended to eat less meat and more grains and fruits.  Interestingly, they found that high vegetable consumption was associated with high fat groups, but on closer inspection this effect was found to be completely explained by French fries.  This is probably the “hidden  fat” in the vegetable groups that the Utah Beef Council suggests is the real culprit.  Sure, cast aspersion on the entire vegetable food group, as though it is a minefield of sneaky fats.

“Myth #3: Meat has too much fat, saturated fat, and calories.”  I don’t care how lean it is compared to 14 years ago.  I don’t care how lean it is compared to chicken, or even chocolate bars, as they so helpfully show us in the table.  For crying out loud, is the Utah Beef Council actually promoting “Beef: It’s better for you than a candy bar!”?  What I care is, how lean is it compared to nuts and beans, an actual alternative?  Let’s pretend to add beans to that chart.  A 4 oz. serving of black beans (1/2 c) has 100 calories, 7 g protein (remember, we get too much), no fat, saturated fat (or cholesterol), 1.2 mg zinc, 1.8 mg iron, and 15% of your magnesium, 10% of your phosphorus, and 6% of your calcium.  It may not have B12 (which I discuss here), but it does have 6 g of fiber that no meat product does.  If meat is optional, and beans are an alternative (yes to both), then meat has too much fat, saturated fat, and calories.

“Myth #4: A meatless diet is more healthful.”  Oh, for pete’s sake.  They say that lean beef gives people more nutrients in fewer calories, but they’re basing this on the notion that people are suffering from protein deficiency, which I dismissed in “Myth #1.”  Protein deficiency is the disease kwashiorkor, which you see children suffering from in developing countries; it’s rare in developed countries.  One study found 12 American children suffering from it, two due to poverty and 10 due to parental ignorance.   Sometimes anorexia can lead to it.  But meatless diets have been approved by pretty much every health organization as appropriate for all stages of life.

Once you realize you don’t need to try to match the protein of beef, you end up with the recommended serving size of beans, 1/2 c, which gives you much better nutrition overall.  To highlight a few nutrients that beef has and conclude that it is therefore more healthful is beyond ingenuous; it ignores the fact that you can get them from a variety of plants with fewer of the calories, fat, hormones, and antibiotics we’re getting too much of, and more fiber and antioxidants that meat is devoid of.  B12 is the exception, and I go into that topic in another post.  This statement also ignores the multitude of studies (see “Disease”) showing that meatless diets are indeed more healthful in practically every way.  By the way, calling protein “high quality” is not intended to infer that it is good for you, as I explain here.

I skimmed the PDF file that is referenced with this myth, and it appeared fair, but was definitely not balanced, in the sense that it focused on possible problems with vegetarian diets while ignoring all problems with meaty diets, which makes it appear as though there are none.  I found one statement in particular interesting: “However, the more foods eliminated from the diet, the greater the risk for nutrient deficiencies.”  Very true!  But I feel I can confidently say that as a vegan I eat a much wider variety of foods than omnivores do.  I am guessing that many, many omnivores do not regularly eat greens, for instance.

“Myth #5: Health organizations recommend eating chicken and fish, but not red meat.”  Sadly, this is indeed a myth.  While there are health organizations such as vrg.org and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine which recommend against eating all meat, I was unable to find any that pick and choose a total ban, though several, such as the American Cancer Society and the USDA, recommend cutting back.  I do find it difficult to believe that the National Cholesterol Education Program (a government panel) says that all 5-6 oz. of the RDA of meat and beans group can come from red meat and your cholesterol will go down.  That flies in the face of the USDA’s recommendation that we choose more “fish, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds” as part of that 5.5 oz.  I explain my opinion of the American Heart Association’s “heart-healthy diet” elsewhere.

“Myth #6: Beef is hard to digest.”  I love this!  Beef is 97% digestible because it has no fiber.  The Utah Beef Board would have you believe that this is a benefit, in that it sits in your gut and makes you keep your belt unbuckled longer.  But studies show sitting around feeling stuffed isn’t so great, because it gives the carcinogens in meat longer to do their job.  The American Cancer Society suggests limiting your red meat due to its link with colon cancer.  The study they cite called 2-3 oz. per day “high consumption” with a 30-40% risk increase over those who eat red meat only a few times per week.  Harvard Medical School reviewed 30 studies and came to a similar conclusion.  Here’s the NIH‘s take.

The UBC states correctly that fruits and vegetables do not hang out in your stomach, but it ignores that their fiber makes you feel full with more nutrition and fewer calories right when it counts – when you’re sitting at the table.  Team these with whole grains and legumes for long-lasting energy, and you will do fine.

“Myth #7: Growth hormones used in beef production are unsafe.” Their text here just explains how they use growth hormones, which is irrelevant to its proven safety.  Their first source link is broken, and the second one just shows estrogen levels in humans, with no context – do these people eat hormone-laced meat?  What happens when they eat more?  The third chart makes an interesting point, that there is estrogen in soybean oil, but with no serving sizes, this chart is useless.  All of this leaves me with many questions, such as: Is estrogen the only hormone used in beef production? (No, testosterone and progesterone are also used)  Is the estrogen in beef the same as the estrogen in soybean oil and other plant foods? (No, it’s synthetic)  How do these various hormones affect human populations over time?

I went looking for studies either proving or disproving the safety of hormones in beef, and here are the first two I found: The NIH reports that steroidal estrogens are carcinogens, for which one source is food, and (as you would expect), veterinary use increases tissue levels in food animals.  The NIH also reports that Semen Quality is Lower in Men when Mother’s Beef Consumption High During Pregnancy.  Hormones are not the reason I don’t eat beef, so I’m not terribly interested in these studies.  In my brief search, I did not immediately find the “overwhelming” scientific evidence that the UBC tosses off without sources, but it looks as though, on the contrary, there is some evidence that “Growth hormones used in beef production are unsafe.”

“Myth #8: Beef cattle are given large doses of antibiotics on a regular basis.”  Cattle Today, an industry site, has an article saying the “Overuse of Antibiotics May be Leading to Resistance.”  This article says that antibiotics should only be used for sick animals, but also states that there is indeed a problem due to using them in place of good farm practices to keep animals healthy in the first place, which the UBC sweeps under the rug.  None of the other sites I visited said the industry was restraining itself from regular growth-promotion use, however.  The FAO (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization) says that “in the USA, compounds used as growth promoters for cattle include flavophospholipol and virginiamycin.  Cattle are also exposed to ionophores such as monensin to promote growth.”  Here’s an FDA report listing for the first time antibiotics and quantities used – it’s quite a list!

The UBC says that these antibiotics do not show up in the meat, but the problem isn’t that we humans are eating used antibiotics (bleh!), but that the germs exposed to these antibiotics wherever they are mutate and develop resistance to them.  The antibiotics aren’t so much a direct threat to humans (after all, we take them too) as they are a threat to us through their spread through the environment; their ubiquity makes these lifesaving drugs useless.  Scientific American says they’re even in the vegetables I eat, thanks to rushing to the cheapest possible way to farm more meat at any cost to everyone else.  And it doesn’t matter if I’ve eaten antibiotic-laced meat when I get a superbug that is resistant to antibiotics.  Frontline says, “Another New England Journal of Medicine study from Oct. 18, 2001, found that 20 percent of ground meat obtained in supermarkets contained salmonella. Of that 20 percent that was contaminated with salmonella, 84 percent was resistant to at least one form of antibiotic.”

Let’s not pretend that the issue is whether we’re eating antibiotics in meat.  Antibiotic levels in meat products is irrelevant.  The issue is, is the animal agriculture industry putting these drugs in the environment where they do great harm.  The answer seems to be a resounding yes.

“Myth #9: High levels of pesticides and residues have been found in beef and beef products.”  Well, that’s a silly thing to call a myth.  All I have to do is prove that someone, somewhere, one time found such a thing.  Here it is! Done.

Let’s take a look at what they have to say anyway.  I love the patronizing tone here: Consumers are very concerned about pesticides, but they pose little hazard to human health.  These issues are being studied now, and I think it is premature of the UBC to declare it a myth.

The second paragraph here seem to have lost its way; I think their editor meant to put this in the hormone section.  I laughed out loud at the sentence telling us that the USDA inspects the animals to make sure that the meat supply is safe and wholesome.  I offer the USDA as a primary source elsewhere in this post not because I have great love for them – I can’t stand them – but because I figure you respect them.  But if you knew with how little care they inspect your meat, you would be appalled.  Read Gail Eisnitz’ Slaughterhouse or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and prepare to never want to eat another burger again.  From what I’ve read, the meat supply isn’t safe and is the opposite of wholesome.

“Myth #10: There are good foods and bad foods.”   Well, this is just a matter of definition.  We can say a food is good or bad, OR, we can say we should eat a lot or a little of it (or none).  It amounts to the same thing, so why bother calling it a myth?  Let’s restate it as “There are foods we should eat much more of and foods we should eat much less of.”  You know where vegetables, fruits, and whole grains fit.  The USDA and other reputable sources cited above say beef fits into the latter category.  Call it what you want.

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