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Leading physician highlights role of red meat

Professor Alice Stanton, director of human health at Devenish.

Professor Alice Stanton, director of human health at agri technology company Devenish, has outlined the importance of consuming sustainably farmed fresh foods, particularly red meat, as key to feeding a growing global population and encouraging good human health and nutrition.

Speaking at the recent Oxford Farming Conference, Professor Stanton outlined the key issues she believes must be addressed to tackle worldwide health issues, namely through the production and consumption of quality, nutritional, sustainable food. In doing so, Professor Stanton directly challenged the position that consuming less red meat and dairy is advantageous to human health and the environment.

“The greatest challenge of the century is to feed a growing population with nutritious food,” said Professor Stanton. “Last year’s EAT-Lancet Commission Summary Report suggests we eat half as much meat and dairy as we currently do, and twice as much plant-based food.

“This is simply not viable. The population does not currently consume the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables and, importantly, there are clear statistics that prove a major reduction in red meat and dairy farming is actually very likely to harm human health.

“A 2019 Lancet publication* outlined the leading global nutritional risk factors in the world today. The most common nutritional problems leading to deaths and disease were diets low in grains, high in salt, deficient in wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, low in Omega-3 fatty acids and low in iron. Diets excessive in red meat were responsible for less than 0.5% of global deaths and disease burden.

“Red meat is rich in nutrients including iron, zinc and selenium. Iron deficiency alone causes significant disease burden worldwide including fatigue and, crucially, poor child development. The iron obtained from meat is much more readily bio-available, that is, more easily accessed by the human body, than that of the iron contained within plant sources. Consumed between two and five times per week, red meat has actually been proven to be protective of human health.”

Alongside the benefits of consuming red meat as part of a balanced diet, which includes fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, Professor Stanton underlined the critical need to enhance the quality of fresh foods and instil sustainable farming practices.

“The pressure to grow more food over the last five decades has forced farmers to focus on quantity rather than quality and factors such as the appearance of vegetables for retail use have become more important than nutrient density,” she said. “In many fruits, vegetables and grains for example, we have witnessed a 20-40% decrease in protein, calcium and riboflavin over the last 50 years. If we continue to increase carbon dioxide concentration in the air, this problem will become worse.

“Rather than replace fresh meat and dairy with additive-rich, calorie-rich, processed foods, which are nutritionally disadvantageous, we must focus on optimising the nutritional quality of fresh foods and instilling sustainable agricultural practices that will allow for long-term provision of those foods which promote good health.”

Prof Stanton said that a greater consumer understanding of nutrition is vital and discussed the role of government intervention in helping deliver this.

“Pivotal to encouraging behavioural change amongst consumers is promoting a greater awareness of the advantageous nutrients in food,” she said. “A clear, front of pack, food labelling system that outlines the nutritional density of foods would be hugely beneficial, particularly if it also highlighted the common deficiencies that fresh foods positively contribute towards tackling.

“It has also been proven that interventions on food consumption work. Subsidies to support sustainably produced, nutritious foods and taxes on disadvantageous foods that are commonly eaten to excess, would have a positive, immediate impact on the way the world eats,” Professor Stanton concluded.

Prof Stanton is a leading physician within the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and director of Human Health at Devenish. In 2018, she pioneered world-leading research that proved the regular consumption of naturally enriched omega-3 chicken and eggs is likely to reduce risk of heart attack, stroke, dementia and depression on a similar scale to the consumption of oily fish.

*SOURCE: Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990-2017: a systemic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 (Professor Christopher Murray) – published in The Lancet, April 2019.

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