Does red meat combat hidden hunger?

Red meat’s place in the human diet as a healthy sustainable food was debated by an expert panel last week, at the launch of a new report released by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ). Professor Warren McNabb (deputy director of the Riddet Institute) took part in the four-person panel made up of academics within the nutrition, farming and farm systems disciplines (Emily King, Spira Director, Dr Andrea Braakhuis, University of Auckland and Professor Derrick Moot, Lincoln University, chaired by Daniel Eb) . The launch event, held at the new Homegrown Restaurant in Auckland, was attended by a large diverse audience who heard about the complex and often, conflicting messages about red meat.

The new report “The Role of Red Meat in Healthy and Sustainable New Zealand Diets” summarises the current research and findings regarding human and environmental impacts of this food choice. It suggests that wellbeing does not have to be traded off when it comes to consuming moderate amounts of pasture-raised red meat, certainly if you live in New Zealand.

This new report is the fourth of its kind, having last been updated in 2015. It navigates the science around red meat, outlining red meat’s key nutrients and micronutrients, and summarises the latest findings about healthy levels of red meat consumption and in the case of Riddet Institute research, the case for it being included in sustainable diets worldwide.

Professor McNabb indicated the new push towards plant-based diets forgets that our normal diet is about 85% plant-based and 15% animal based. He outlined the issues with feeding large populations to underpin health, and in that case, it is the micronutrients that are critical.

“Often people or consumers, focus on protein, or fat or sugar but it is the hidden hunger effect that is a real issue when it comes to feeding populations. The nutrients that we don’t think about like specific amino acids, iron and vitamin B12 are crucial to health and animal-based proteins contain these in a nice package with minimal calories”.

B+LNZ’s head of nutrition Fiona Windle, who hosted the event says the latest report reflects how scientific evidence changes and includes up to date studies and research. There are new sections for developing fields and knowledge, for example on food systems. It also looks at farming practices and red meat production in New Zealand compared to overseas. Discussing red meat’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions, effect on land use and impact on water quality and biodiversity.

There were often polarising arguments around whether red meat should be eaten from an environmental or nutritional standpoint. Windle says the report presents the evidence, from contributors who collectively have well over a century of expertise between them, who have assessed the current body of scientific evidence relating to meat and its production in New Zealand. From a New Zealand perspective, Windle hopes people will use the report to inform discussions and be used as a reference document by policy makers or those influential in the industry.

Lincoln University Professor Derrick Moot says international academia has largely realised that NZ red meat is farmed differently than in most countries. “While our voice may not always be heard on a global scene as to what we are doing, academia overseas know what we do, are proud of what we do and try to learn from us,” he said.

From a nutritional perspective, dietitian Andrea Braakhuis says “the very dull message of moderation” was key when asked about red meat’s place in our diet.

“It’s a very difficult sell when we’re up against celebrities selling diets or up against entertainment posed as science leaning towards propaganda, that’s a really hard job for us to get that across,” she said.

When the panel was asked how they could fix NZ’s food system, have better conversations around nutrition and tell farming stories better if given a blank cheque, Moot says we need to educate our own population about our agricultural systems. McNabb added a note of caution when assessing diets, suggesting that not all protein is equal, and this information is often lacking from public discussions.

“People think of protein as being all the same. But when we compare cost and nutrients of production systems for our food, we need to think about bioavailability of nutrients. For example, the amino acids in animal proteins are 100% available to us when we digest them. But plant proteins are often 40-80% available, and so we must eat more to get the same level of nutrition. It is this information that we need to include in our informed conversations about diet”

2022 © Riddet Institute