The latest diet trends have shone a spotlight on protein, and for good reason. The emphasis on protein in popular programs such as the keto diet provides an opportunity for beef to stake its claim as the top choice for consumers wanting more protein.
“The more we get protein on their radar, the importance of protein, the more they think about beef as a solution,” says Shalene McNeil, executive director of nutrition science, health science, culinary and outreach for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
Although this protein focus is backed by science, it needs to be reflected in the federal nutrition guidelines to make a widespread impact, McNeil said at NCBA’s annual convention this February in San Antonio, Texas. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services review the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years. NCBA is working to ensure beef stays on the nation’s plate when the updated guidelines are released later this year.
“Protecting the scientific credibility of the dietary guidelines and promoting accurate information about the nutritional advantages of beef as part of a balanced diet will continue to be a priority for NCBA as the 2020 dietary guidelines process moves forward and ultimately concludes,” says Danielle Beck, NCBA’s director of government affairs.
In addition to being the foundational document for all American health professionals when making nutritional recommendations, the guidelines dictate the standards for the national school lunch program, as well as other federal nutrition programs. The dietary guidelines also shape U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations on food labelling.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is also powerful in shaping nutrition perceptions.
“What we see from our check-off market research is that most people are pretty content with the amount of beef that they’re eating,” says McNeil. “Only about 16 per cent of our consumers say they’re thinking about cutting back on beef intake.”
However, those who indicated interest in reducing beef intake identified health as the primary motivation, an idea stemming from past dietary guideline recommendations.
The history of U.S. dietary guidelines
In a historical context, nutrition guidelines in the United States reflect the times in which they were created. For example, the first U.S. nutrition standards, developed in the late 19th century by the USDA, mirrored the evolving agricultural landscape and growth in food production. Guidelines developed during the Second World War focused on how Americans could aid the war effort through their diets, with rationing coming into play. After the war, the USDA created daily nutrition guidelines that recommended at least two servings of meat per day.
When an increasing number of Americans were dying from heart attacks in the late 1960s, this led to the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs developing new guidelines in 1977. While committee members had good intentions, Beck says, the process wasn’t exactly thorough. When the guidelines advised Americans to reduce their red meat consumption, the committee drew much criticism.
“The evidence they were looking at was fairly weak,” Beck says. “Also, it was a bunch of senators who lack nutritional scientific expertise and experience.”
As a result, the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans document was published in the 1980s, after the House Appropriations Committee made it mandatory for the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services to select scientific experts for a committee to develop the guidelines. The U.S. Congress passed the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act in 1990, which is the legislative mandate for the current dietary guidelines review process. This officially introduced the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, made up of nutrition and health experts who review the latest nutrition science and submit recommendations to the USDA and Health and Human Services.
The importance of using rigorous nutritional science when making these recommendations is vital. Many studies that cast beef in a negative light — and often receive considerable attention — are lower-quality research in the hierarchy of evidence, McNeil says.
“Too much nutrition science today is being driven by what we call observational data, or epidemiological studies.”
In these studies, beef appears to be unhealthy simply because “the population who is the least healthy is eating the most beef,” McNeil says, adding that this population is also more likely to smoke and less likely to be physically active.
This differs from the randomized control trials funded by the national Beef Checkoff, which works to determine cause and effect.
“I can’t really think of a clinical trial study that has ever shown something negative about beef intake. All the negative that you hear comes from this weaker form of science,” McNeil says.
“This industry invests in so much nutritional research, and we have so much good science to support the role that beef plays in a healthy diet. And that science is critical when we go and talk to the dietary guidelines (committee) about the concerns that we have.”
Advocating for the role of beef
During the 2015 dietary guidelines review process, topics unrelated to nutrition began to drive the discussion. “There was a lot of conversation relative to sustainability and what type of sustainable diet recommendations could be made as a way of improving the environment, not human health,” says Beck. “There were really sound scientific studies that were excluded from the process.”
Because of this, the Appropriations Committee intervened to ensure the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee focused only on its mandate of nutrition.
“The problem with the dietary guidelines talking about sustainability is you have nutrition experts without any sustainability expertise,” says McNeil. “Not only is it not in the scope of the work they’re supposed to be doing, they didn’t even really have the expertise.”
The 2015 review process also took into consideration research from those epidemiological studies on diet patterns, as McNeil mentioned, basing ideas on the nutritional value of red meat on correlation research. McNeil says most committee members were “never really able to connect the dots” on the nutrition of lean red meat.
By drawing the committee’s attention to nutritional science, NCBA helped ensure that the 2015 guidelines weren’t based on environmental concerns and included lean meat as part of a healthy diet. There was some pushback from health professionals about the association’s involvement, though.
“As an industry we’re not trying to ramrod the dietary guidelines; we’re trying to make sure it’s accurate and that it’s based on science,” says McNeil. “We’re about ensuring the credibility of the scientific process is maintained.”
Ahead of the 2020 dietary guidelines review process, the USDA put out a call for scientific questions in February 2018, prior to appointing the committee. Previously the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee had established the questions. Calling for the questions beforehand was meant to avoid any bias, which Beck reported has been effective. However, as the review process began, the committee ran into some of the same issues around sustainability and lean red meat as in 2015.
NCBA has been involved in each step of this process, beginning by nominating nutrition experts to serve on the advisory committee. This year, two of the eight nutrition scientists nominated by the association were selected to serve on the committee, a first for the NCBA.
In early 2020, the committee sought comment from the scientific community. At one public meeting, physician and rancher Dr. Molly McAdams spoke up on behalf of the U.S. beef industry.
“She was a strong voice when there were several others there advocating for a pro-vegan, pro-vegetarian, pro-plant-based diet. So the fact that she was there delivering that message that there are over 20 Gold Standard studies that show that beef contributes favourably to heart health and other positive health outcomes, we were really grateful to have her,” says Beck.
So far, sustainability has not come up in a meaningful conversation, at least during the public deliberations from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee members that they’ve seen so far, Beck says. And she believes the USDA and Health and Human Services’ efforts to eliminate non-scientific topics will prevent any sustainability conclusions from being woven into the guidelines.
However, NCBA will continue to watch the process carefully. The committee will submit its report to the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services on May 11, after which the two departments will use those recommendations to finalize the 2020 guidelines. A new public comment will open at this point.
Once the report is made public, NCBA will review its recommendations and draft comments to be used by all members and affiliates during the public comment period.
“It is going to be critically important that both agencies hear from beef producers,” says Beck. “Hearing about the importance of beef in the diet, the importance of dietary guideline recommendations that are practical, that are applicable at home, that are feasible, that are affordable, that are manageable for the average everyday household.”