Nutritional benefit off the menu for global food policies

Special interest groups have influenced a new layer of food policies. Globally, decision makers, in particular government officials, are fabricating dietary guidelines centered on social policy rather than real value of animal proteins — nutrition — to a humans’ well-being.

In the world, where an estimated 795 million are chronically undernourished and the world population swelling is it realistic to eliminate a food item that can deliver more nutritional value per calorie?

Netherlands join the United Kingdom in recommending its residents to dramatically reduce the amount of animal protein in their diets. Following Sweden, these countries are asking their citizens to make food choices based on environmental concerns by reducing what the government sees as “high-carbon” food items.    

Citing ecological impacts of diets, the Dutch government sets a hard limit on meat consumption per person by recommending that a person only consume a little over 1 pound of meat per week or 17.6 oz. with only 10.6 oz. being red meat. Putting this into perspective, the new recommendation would mean having only three 3 oz. servings of red meat a week. Red meat was not the only scapegoat in the new dietary guidelines. Egg servings were maxed out to two to three servings a week and a suggestion of 7% reduction in dairy consumption, eliminating whole milk entirely. The Dutch government wants everyone to make up the protein difference in legumes and an occasional handful of unsalted nuts.

Sign me up! I will start on that diet plan right now. I am certain I will not miss the mental and physical strength that animal proteins provide to my well-being daily.  

Using the Dutch and U.K. government dietary recommendations, 1.5 cup of black beans has the same amount of protein as 3 oz. serving of lean pork but with 21% fewer calories. However, not all protein is created equal. Pork and other animal proteins are complete proteins containing all indispensable amino acids that are needed by the average person to build muscle mass, boost brain power and manage weight. Overall, the quality of the protein comes down to digestibility. Compared to plant-based protein, animal proteins are highly digestible. For instance, meat and cheese are 95% digestible while split peas are 70%. As an added bonus, pork is also an excellent source of thiamin, selenium, niacin, vitamin B6 and phosphorus along with a good source of riboflavin, zinc and potassium. A real bargain for your calorie intake.

Similarly, it was attempted to sneak environmental considerations into the last round of dietary guideline for the United States. Yet, the final guidelines issued in January, unlike the U.K. and Netherlands, did not include the recommendation to reduce animal proteins mainly because the agriculture community worked diligently to keep nutritional facts and scientific research at the forefront of the dietary guidelines’ discussion.

Still, it seems every day research is being released contradicting itself on the true “environmental impact” of animal agriculture. There is absolutely no argument that agriculture — crop and livestock production — has an effect on the environment. Honestly, if you kick a stone into a stream you have made an impact on the environment. The landscape has evolved over time with large help from man and civilization. Sitting in the middle of Illinois, I often can see the miles of concrete that now covers what once was the “world’s best soil” for growing corn and soybeans. Yet, housing a growing population or building a new Whole Foods around the corner never enters into the ecological discussion.

Moreover, the discussion never seems to highlight the sustainable milestones farmers and ranchers have reached over the years. A complete third-party life-cycle assessment of U.S. pork production — that included growing the feed to raising the pigs to processing and retail marketing components — found the pork industry over the past 50 years has made great strides in producing more pork with fewer natural resources. From 1959 to 2009, a 35% decrease in carbon footprint, a 41% reduction in water usage and a 78% drop in land was needed to produce a pound of pork. Many of these gains are contributed to innovation, research and advancement in farming from crop to livestock farm and frankly the farmers’ genuine concern for the environment. Still, these facts are left out of the debate of food policy lately. 

More importantly, agriculture and especially the livestock industry are criticized for speaking against making dietary guidelines that appear to no longer be established on nutrition and ask the policy decision makers to reject junk science.  

Since the dietary guidelines are exactly just that, a guideline, it is fair to ask why animal agriculture would care so much. The bottom line is consumer research has shown over and over again that the average person relies heavily on health advice from the government followed by the medical professional. Therefore, it is important that real science shapes those dietary recommendations.  

While the debate will continue on defining sustainable diets, is it honestly fair for agriculture to ask the dietary guidelines to be simply centered on actual nutritional value.

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