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Commentary: Nutrition often forgotten in food security debate

UN report praises nutritional benefits of meat, eggs and milk in diets.
The FAO wants governments to reconsider the benefits of meat, milk and eggs because they contain essential macronutrients such protein, fats, carbohydrates, as well as micronutrients.

It’s rare that an international report advocates for animal agriculture.

Raising animals for food is often blamed as a cause of climate change and environmental degradation, and is viewed as cruel and unnecessary by some groups. The consumption of animal products is also accused of causing various human health concerns, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Studies that assert the latter are fraught with assumptions and often based on anecdotal evidence that vilifies red meat and relates its consumption to higher death rates from heart disease, stroke and certain cancers. But it’s difficult to weed out other factors that might be at play in health outcomes.

Often the consumption of processed red meat in particular, which contains high levels of salt as well as curing agents such as nitrates and sulphites, is cited as the cause of health concerns. But reports from news media and social media sources rarely distinguish between processed and non-processed meats, leaving the public with impressions that all red meat is bad.

For decades, eggs were seen as killers because of their cholesterol content — as if other foods and biological factors couldn’t possibly contribute.

Dairy, too, has seen its share of hate because of saturated fat content. Butter has been dissed.

Poultry meat, being leaner than beef or pork, is one of few animal products seen in a positive light.

Such reports are only possible in North America and other areas of the world where food is plentiful, and where most citizens have the luxury of choosing what they eat.

Getting adequate nutrition, what your body needs to survive, is rarely an issue in western countries. Even those in lower-income groups often have access to government or community-run programs that supplement basic food needs.

That’s not true for millions of people in areas of the world that lack access to nutritious food or government safety nets.

A recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, entitled “Contribution of terrestrial animal source food to healthy diets for improved nutrition and health outcomes,” encourages governments to “update national dietary guidelines to consider where appropriate how meat, eggs and milk can contribute to specific nutrient requirements during the life course of humans.”

More than 500 scientific papers and 250 policy documents were reviewed by the FAO, and it concluded that “meat, eggs and milk offer crucial sources of much-needed nutrients which cannot easily be obtained from plant-based foods.”

The report says there is evidence of risks from consuming animal-source food, but it distinguishes between processed and non-processed meat. It says consumption of even low amounts of processed red meat can increase the risk of mortality and chronic disease, “however, consuming unprocessed red meat in moderate amounts (ranging from nine to 71 grams per day) may have minimal risk but is considered safe regarding chronic disease outcomes.”

The report states the evidence of “any links between milk, eggs and poultry consumption in healthy adults and diseases such as coronary heart disease, strokes and hypertension is inconclusive (for milk) or non-significant (for eggs and poultry).”

The FAO wants governments to reconsider the benefits of meat, milk and eggs because they contain essential macronutrients such protein, fats, carbohydrates, as well as micronutrients.

“High quality protein, a number of essential fatty-acids, iron, calcium, zinc, selenium, vitamin B12, choline and bioactive compounds like carnitine, creatine and taurine are provided by foods from terrestrial animals and have important health and developmental functions,” the report says.

The recent focus on sustainability in agriculture has centred on climate and productivity, with food security lower on the list. Even so, food security is often referred to in terms of food volume, not nutritional quality.

To fully address sustainability and food security, the nutritional value of food must be a bigger part of the discussion.

Kristy Nudds is editor of Farmtario.