In recent months, many papers have carried articles and letters critical of meat (particularly beef), milk, and milk products. We are told to reduce or eliminate them from our diet to prevent or cure various diseases and environmental problems. But these prescriptions are scientifically invalid and won't achieve their touted goals. They are urged upon us despite the fact that nutritionists have recognized the exceptional dietary merits of meat and milk for over a century.
With respect to the environment, we are told that animal agriculture wastes land and grain that are needed in programs to feed starving people. But the real challenge is to overcome the political and economic factors that prevent getting enough food to the hungry. The criticism also involves a misperception of animal agriculture, discussed below.
Since the United States formed some 200 years ago, Americans have grown up on meat and milk. At the time of that founding, our European forbears averaged only slightly more than 5 feet in height. In today's terms, this suggests undernourishment. The outstanding value of milk as a source of calcium and the high quality of both meat and milk proteins no doubt have been factors in the notable subsequent increase in Americans' stature, as well as in the improvement in our general health.
The anti meat-and-milk campaign is consistent with the political agenda of the animal rights movement's strict vegetarianism ideal. They suggest that Americans' risk of cancer will increase as well as that of several other major diseases (heart disease, for example), and that we will be liklier to die young unless we reduce or eliminate these foods from our diets. This is not science; it is propaganda.
Cancer, for example, is a complicated family of diseases. Except for lung cancer, we know very little about the specific causes of most cancers. No one knows just how and to what extent food is involved.
Animal fat has been singled out as a culprit in the development of cancer, yet studies show that very-low-fat diets as well as high-fat diets are associated with a greater incidence of some forms of cancer. In addition, research has demonstrated the presence of cancer antagonists (conjugated linoleic acids, or CLAs) in milk fat. And, despite the dire warnings of the anti meat-and-milk groups, the latest American Cancer Society statistics indicate that cancer incidence in the U.S., with the exception of lung cancer, is actually falling!
The supposed danger of cholesterol is another of their widely used scares. This accusation stems from the longstanding presumed guilt-by-association of dietary cholesterol with heart disease. The facts: The blood cholesterol values of 80 to 85 percent of people show little or no response to dietary cholesterol.
The criticism by the anti-beef contingent that animal agriculture misdirects the use of land and grain indicates misunderstanding on their part. A major reason that humans have domesticated livestock is that livestock do not compete with mankind for food. Specifically, the natural food of cattle consists of grasses and crude plant matter that humans neither want to eat nor can digest. There is a lot of land for which the best use is animal grazing. In fact, it is not fit for much else.
Grassland farming of these animals is practiced in many areas of the world today, including parts of the U.S. A high-grain regimen for steers improves palatability in certain cuts of meat for which some Americans are willing to pay a premium. But such feeding practices are hardly an indispensable requirement in the meat industry. If anything, the current market, which is demanding leaner meat, tends toward less grain feeding.
The anti meat-and-milk coalition charge that the dairy and beef industries, backed by the federal government, are guilty of discrimination for promoting the consumption of foods that are harmful to certain races and ethnic groups. For example, the capacity to digest lactose, or milk sugar, varies among races. What are the facts? Lactose is no problem for the majority of Americans and can be easily managed, using several different options, by the rest. Virtually everyone can accomodate a glass of milk a day without intestinal discomfort from the lactose.
Moreover, lactose digestion is controlled by a dominant gene that is spreading in the U. S. population. So lactose intolerance is not only a nonproblem; it is disappearing.
Flat statements that meat and milk products should be reduced or eliminated from the diet are misguided and simplistic. Obviously, the human condition varies greatly and many of us have individual needs based on age, gender, occupation, health status, lifestyle, and genetic background. While satisfactory diets for some individuals may be created without the use of meat or milk, it is a mistake to assume that everyone will know how much of what to put into such a diet to achieve sound nutrition. In this sense, dietary inclusion of meat and milk products is excellent insurance because of their many nutrients.
In any case, it is irresponsible to use one's political agenda in an effort to confuse and mislead the public about the sciences of nutrition and public health.