The Role of Beef in the American Diet

By ACSH Staff — Jan 01, 2003
Executive Summary Beef is a highly nutritious food. It is particularly valuable as a source of zinc, iron, and other minerals; B vitamins and choline; and protein. Beef also contains components that may have health benefits, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
Executive Summary
  • Beef is a highly nutritious food. It is particularly valuable as a source of zinc, iron, and other minerals; B vitamins and choline; and protein. Beef also contains components that may have health benefits, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
  • Lean beef, in moderate servings, fits well in a heart-healthy diet and can be used interchangeably with other lean red meats and lean poultry and seafood. It is not necessary for people to substitute poultry and fish for red meat in their diets in order to meet the U.S. government's and American Heart Association's dietary recommendations for saturated fat and cholesterol intake.
  • Only about one-third of the fatty acids in beef are cholesterol-raising fatty acids. About half of the fat in beef is monounsaturated fat, which does not raise cholesterol levels. The amount of trans fatty acids in beef is small, and the potential physiological impact of these fatty acids is not the same as that of the cholesterol-raising trans fatty acids in hydrogenated vegetable fats.
  • The results of some scientific studies have linked high intakes of red meat with increased risks of colon or prostate cancers (though probably not breast cancer). Other studies, however, have had conflicting results.
  • Substances called heterocyclic amines may form in meat during some cooking procedures that use high temperatures. These substances, like the many other naturally occurring animal carcinogens in food, are not a major cause for concern when consumed in small amounts. However, consumers who wish to reduce their exposure to heterocyclic amines can do so by adjusting their cooking methods.
  • The use of hormones to promote growth in beef cattle helps to keep the cost of beef down. These hormones, when used correctly, pose no health risks for human consumers.
  • The correct use of antibiotics in the production of beef cattle and other animals does not create residue problems. However, this practice, like other uses of antibiotics, may contribute to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The extent to which the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture contributes to the overall problem of antibiotic resistance is uncertain. Nevertheless, experts agree that antibiotics should be used judiciously and only when necessary, and the Food and Drug Administration has begun to take the issue of antibiotic resistance into account when making decisions about the approval of new animal drugs.
  • Efforts are currently being made in the production system to reduce the likelihood that beef will be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 or Salmonella. Nevertheless, adequate cooking and proper food handling techniques by consumers and food service personnel are the final and most important defense against these foodborne bacteria. Another bacterium, Listeria monocytogenes, is sometimes found in processed, refrigerated food products, including beef products (such as deli meats). This organism poses special hazards for pregnant women. It has been recommended that high risk individuals should thoroughly reheat processed meats, such as hot dogs and cold cuts, before eating them.
  • Raw foods of animal origin, including beef and other meats, need to be handled carefully and cooked adequately for safety. Although intact pieces of beef (steaks and roasts) can be served medium rare (cooked to 145°F), ground beef should always be cooked thoroughly, to at least 160°F. Consumers should use a food thermometer to determine when foods are sufficiently cooked, rather than relying on color changes. Precautions should be taken to ensure that drippings from raw meats, which may contain harmful bacteria, do not contaminate other foods.
  • The process of irradiation has been approved as a means of enhancing the microbiological safety of meat and poultry, including beef. The increased use of this process would have important benefits for consumers, particularly in ensuring the safety of ground meats.
  • Some countries outside North America are currently experiencing serious problems with two cattle diseases: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and foot-and-mouth disease. BSE can be transmitted to humans in rare instances; foot-and-mouth disease is not a human health problem. Neither disease is present in the U.S., and precautions are being taken to keep both out of the country. U.S. consumers need not be concerned about these diseases except when traveling to affected parts of the world.
  • Although producers of "natural" and "organic" beef products use production methods that differ from conventional ones, these types of beef have not been shown to differ from other beef in terms of nutrition or safety. Grass-fed beef differs somewhat from conventionally raised (grain-finished) beef in that its fatty acid profile is more desirable. However, the impact of this small difference on consumers' overall diets is uncertain, and grass-fed beef does not offer any special advantages in terms of safety.
Related Links
A Statement on Mad Cow Disease and the Safety of the U.S. Beef Supply from The American Council on Science and Health
Cattle Futures?
Scientific Panel Rejects NY Green Party Claims Regarding rBGH Milk Safety
The Mad Cow Kerfuffle