Common misconceptions around beef nutrition

So, I'm a little nervous about this post. Why? Because people can have very deep convictions and beliefs regarding this topic. I'm not here to start a debate, I'm just here to share the information that has been shared with me. There is a lot of fear regarding this topic and I'm hoping to shed some light on it. Take what you want from it (or don't take anything at all). 

If you read my recap post in May, you saw that I had the privilege of going on a conference with the Beef Council in Kansas City. We had sessions on beef nutrition, got to see an actual cattle ranch, and then even got to ask a panel difficult questions. I LOVED this portion of the trip because there are a lot of important questions that need to be discussed. I also loved that the people on this panel were well-educated, well-spoken individuals. So, I wanted to share some of misconceptions I hear or have had myself along with what is actually true. 

 
Common misconceptions around beef nutrition
 

Eating beef more than once a week is bad for your heart. The American dietary guidelines recommend less than 10% of daily calories come from saturated fats. In previous studies, there has been a link between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Just an fyi, this is currently being challenged, but the debate hasn't been settled (hence why I promote eating all foods--any food is harmful in too large of quantities). It's true that beef is a source of saturated fat, but over the past 55 years, the fat content of beef has actually decreased due to better butcher and trimming processes. In fact, there are 29 cuts of beef are as lean or more lean that a chicken thigh. A study* published in 2012 compared a typical American diet to the DASH diet (the dietary pattern recommended to decrease heart disease and high blood pressure--it is low in beef and high in white meats), a diet containing a 3 oz serving of lean beef everyday, and a diet containing 5.3 oz of lean beef everyday. The researchers found that all three (DASH, 3 oz lean beef, and 5.3 oz lean beef) groups had a decrease in LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol. I don't say that to promote beef over other types of meat, I just say that to take away the fear around eating beef. I think all types of proteins should be consumed; variety is key :-)

Additionally, beef is a reeeallly great source of protein, iron, selenium, magnesium, zinc, niacin, and B12. It can definitely be enjoyed as a part of dinner to promote nutritional wellbeing.

Grass-fed beef is better for you than conventional beef and should be the only beef you buy. Did you know that all cattle are grass-fed for the first 12-14 months of their lives? The difference is whether they are grass or grain finished. Now, there is a slight difference in nutrition profile and definitely a difference in taste. Grass finished cattle have a slightly higher omega 3 fat content, lower overall fat content, and lower calorie content than grain finished cattle. So how much of a difference? The infographic below is helpful for comparing. You can see that total fat and saturated fat is significantly less, but so is the amount of monounsaturated fat, which is supportive of heart health. You can see the difference in omega-3 content is .03 g. A 3.5 oz serving of salmon roughly provides 1.0 g of omega 3...

 
Graphic courtesy of the Texas Beef Council 

Graphic courtesy of the Texas Beef Council 

 

I personally prefer to buy grass finished beef because of taste and because our grocery store regularly puts it on sale for $3.99/lb (which is super affordable). However, I'm not going to say "no" to conventional grain finished beef at a friend's house or restaurant, nor am I going to promote that people should buy only grass finished as a superior nutrition choice. It's just a personal preference for me. You do what works for you; it doesn't make that big of a difference. If you want to increase your omega 3 intake, you should be spending your time eating salmon, not beef. 

 
The beef panel we had the privilege of asking questions to

The beef panel we had the privilege of asking questions to

 

The hormones given to cattle are harmful to humans and are causing a majority of our health problems. You should only buy organic, hormone-free beef. I completely understand this concern: if it is true, I would want to limit my consumption as well. That is why I really paid attention during this part of the panel conversation. Let me give you a little background information: when cattle are brought from the ranch (where they are grass fed) to the feed yards, they are given an estrogen tab once behind the ear. This estrogen helps them to convert their feed into mass more quickly. The faster they can gain mass, the less time they are in the stockyard. Faster turnaround means lower expenses and higher profit for cattle ranchers. It also means decreased food consumption by the cattle. If the cattle industry didn't use estrogen, they would need significantly more feed (which means more land to produce this feed, higher costs, etc.). The cattle are in these feed yards for 4-6 months until they reach a certain weight and then are shipped to the stockyards for slaughter and packaging.

The argument given is that beef from cattle given estrogen is 40% higher than beef from cattle not given estrogen. Again, let's put this in perspective. The amount of estrogen found in 500 g (over a pound) of beef from an estrogen-given cow is 7 nanograms (ng); the amount of estrogen found in the same amount of beef from a non-estrogen-given cow is 5 ng. Two nanograms of a difference. What is that compared to other foods? Check out the graphics below. 

Graphics found at http://www.iowabeefcenter.org/information/IBC48.pdf

Graphics found at http://www.iowabeefcenter.org/information/IBC48.pdf

As you can see, the amount of estrogen found in other foods is FAR greater than that found in beef or what is naturally made in our bodies. 

Antibiotics given to cattle will cause antibiotic resistance in humans. You should only buy antibiotic free beef. When cattle are given antibiotics, there are procedures about the length of time required before being able to slaughter them (withdrawal period). These range from 0-60 days to ensure that there are no unacceptable levels remaining in the meat. Additionally, there are quality checks to ensure that the beef does not contain unsafe levels of antibiotics, bacteria, etc. The use of antibiotics and antibacterial soaps/cleaners/etc is of concern when it comes to antibiotic resistance in our modern world of medicine and should be taken seriously. However, we cannot develop antibiotic resistant diseases from beef without actually ingesting an antibiotic resistant bacteria in the beef, and this shouldn't be happening with our modern sanitation and processing laws. The concern is really with sanitation and cooking practices, not antibiotic use. Furthermore, the argument just isn't that simple. Yes, antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistant bacteria, but so can probiotics and zinc supplementation. It's not as simple as just stopping the use of antibiotics. I will say that I'm all for exploring more natural ways to prevent illness in the cattle (and humans!), but I am not going to fear eating beef that was given antibiotics because I trust the procedures set in place to ensure that the beef on my table does not contain antibiotics and I have a responsibility to handle and cook the beef properly. 

 
This cattle rancher was SO sweet and funny; and his mustache is LEGIIIIT

This cattle rancher was SO sweet and funny; and his mustache is LEGIIIIT

 

So, there you go. A few thoughts to contribute to the beef discussion...I'm not even going to get into the "What the Health" conversation here...I hope this was helpful and not too wordy. Have a great week and enjoy some beef if that sounds tasty to you!

*MA Roussell, et al. Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet study: effects on lipids, lipoproteins, and apolipoproteins. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Jan; 95(1): 9–16. Published online 2011 Dec 14. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.016261