Thursday, December 15, 2011

Because My Baby Likes It

A dietician had just discussed nutritional needs at length with a young mother of an obese, diebetic toddler at a clinic. After the appointment had concluded, the nurse watched the mother reach into her purse and hand her toddler a candy bar, a deep fried chicken nugget, and a bottle of soda from an earlier to-go order. Dismayed, the nurse called the mother over and asked, "Do you remember what we just talked about? Why did you just give him that?" The mother blinked and simply said, "Because my baby likes it."

Jen Johnson Livsey,  a cattlewoman colleague of mine, shared this story with me of her former roommate's disheartening experience as a registered dietician in South Texas. Even after decades of public health education, why the bad choices still? Below are some dietetic studies about what food habits American children and adults make and the complex environments in which they are birthed:

  • Diet Quality of American School-Age Children by School Lunch Participation Status: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999 – 2004. USDA Report No. CN-08-NH, 2008. In this study on the dietary habits of school-aged children, the most concerning issues were that sodium, solid (saturated) fats, and added sugars were being excessively consumed whereas whole fruits, dark green and deep yellow vegetables, legumes, and whole grains were inadequately consumed. Sandwiches, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, pepperoni pizza, whole milk and ice cream were the greatest contributors to the dietary imbalance. Over 90% of children were eating too much salt, and over 70% of children’s diets were considered by dietitians foods “to be consumed only occasionally.”

  • The most commonly consumed vegetable was the potato, served fried. What frustrates me about the potato being officially considered a vegetable and not a starch is the misleading information about the mineral, fiber, and vitamin content of potatoes. Most websites that list potato nutrition content will say that the vast majority of nutrients are contained in the skin of the potato, which contains 46% of our needed Vitamin C and 18% of the recommended Potassium intake. It says that nowhere in the National Potato Council website’s nutrition facts! We all know potatoes are usually served, prepared, or eaten without the skins. For a website that can give you access to the nutritional breakdown of nearly all supermarket products, visit The USDA National Nutrient Database.

  • Children who were enrolled in the National School Lunch Program (which provides free breakfasts and lunches to children of low income households) consumed higher energy (more sugary, fatty) breakfasts, they were more likely to consume milk, meat, and beans than non-participants, and they were also more likely to consume vegetables, fruits, milk and milk products, and mixed dishes. This makes me think that there is some interplay between being poor and not having financial access to a variety of healthy foods, but also simply being more likely to make a few bad food choices because of a lack of education or because of a lack of parental enforcement. Funding or subsidizing health foods apparently only solves half the problem. 

  • McCable-Sellers et al., 2008, in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published the study “Assessment of the diet quality of US adults in the Lower Mississippi Delta”. They found that the prevalence of poverty, as you probably know, and of young households, are both highly associated with obesity and low Healthy Eating Indexes. High HEIs come from high dietary inclusions of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy products, meat, and a variety of different foods within those categories. They speculated that the low HEI in poor communities have limited supermarket access, also having less nutritional knowledge to help them identify healthy foods from unhealthy foods. Those who face food insecurity are less likely to include foods that translate to high HEI scores. Non-perishable, thus more affordable, food is more prevalent in the diet, which makes little room for milk, meat, vegetables, etc. Starches, oils, salts and sugars understandably make up the majority of the diet for those that are food-insecure.

  • USDA’s June 2006 Report: “Americans Consume Too Many Calories From Solid Fat, Alcohol, and Added Sugar”. Enough said. If only all articles could be as informative as their titles! One thing though, did you know that a gram of fat has 9 calories, a gram of alcohol has 7 calories, and a gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories?

  • USDA Agricultural Research Service, 2003. “Trends in Food and Nutrient Intakes by Adolescents in the United States”. Since the late 1970s, adolescents have been increasing their intake of soft drinks, crackers/popcorn/pretzels, French fries, juices, milk, cheese, and candy. Thirty years ago, adolescents were eating more yeast breads and rolls, green beans and peas, corn, beef, and pork. Think of the explosion of food and snack products that have hit the scene since 1977!

  • USDA Economic research report “The Impact of Food Away from Home on Adult Diet Quality” by Jessica E. Todd et al. (February, 2010). Eating out increases caloric intake through extra added sugars and fats that restaurants use to overly enhance their food, creating a memorable savory experience. Meanwhile, portion sizes at restaurants are often larger than ones of homemade meals, thus contributing to a customer’s satisfying experience. This study found that on average, eating one meal per week from a restaurant rather than prepared at home corresponds to TWO extra pounds a year! The average meal eaten away from home contains 134 more calories than a meal produced at home.

  • A study entitled “How Major Restaurant Chains Plan Their Menus” by Glanz et al. (American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2007) found, unshockingly, that restaurants only add menu items which are lower in fat or calories (denoted as “healthy choices”) if it favors their profit goals. This only works for restaurants if consumers increase their demand for healthy choices, and for many chains, they are not. However, McDonald’s, Applebees, and other chains have responded to consumer demand for healthier choices and have fared well. In the end, restaurants don’t necessarily lead the way for Americans’ eating habits, rather, they follow them.  

    Another friend of mine has begun to care for an impoverished single mother and her children. Since the mother’s car broke down, my friend has been taxiing the family to school and to work. She also makes balanced and nutritious meals for them to have when everyone arrives at home, given that the mother works long shifts and has no time (and not enough money) to make homemade healthy meals. Once one of the children pointed at a dish my friend made and said, “What’s that?” She answered, “Those are vegetables! When my children were young, they couldn’t leave the dinner table until they had eaten all their vegetables!” The child answered, “Will you do that for us?” 

    It seems that an interaction of expenses, poor parenting, and lack of education is to blame for the negative eating habits of impoverished Americans. I will also infer that the average American, compared to earlier generations, spends less time at a family dinner table and buys more highly-marketed convenient snack products. I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Pollan and several pop foodies on this specific issue, that food deserves more respect for its role it plays in keeping us alive, healthy, and in communion with one another. Slower, conversation-filled eating has a comeback to make in our culture.

    I hope to see and be a part of more intervention in broken, struggling, homes to restore intentionality and discipline (e.g., nightly TV-free family dinners and the command to "Eat your vegetables!") and integrity to family structures (monogamous couples who share child support and workload burdens). With that, I believe we can work miracles in all aspects of a child's life, beyond just the diet. As another aside, I do not believe that taxing or banning certain foods which the government deems "unhealthy" is the way to resolve the obesity issues of poor communities. Such nannying (or Big Brother-ing) is ridiculous. My own mother should be telling me to eat my vegetables and to quit eating junk, not the government. 

    Alas, to a struggling young mother, so what if a meal is unhealthy if “my baby likes it”? What do you Think?

    Wednesday, November 23, 2011

    Eat your vegetables!

    I taught in a public high school for three years before entering agricultural and nutritional graduate studies. In our school cafeteria, a wide array of cooked and raw fresh vegetables was made available to kids. Vegetables were always stationed at the beginning of the buffet line, which coiled around a salad bar. Over and over again, students omitted vibrant green and red colors in order to arrange various shades of white and brown foods on their plates. French fries were a daily staple, often (but sometimes not) accompanied with a side of some sort of breaded or bunned meat.


    I found this NYT article to be interesting, entitled “Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries.” Despite millions of dollars and hoards of effort to the contrary, Americans are still undereating vegetables and overeating starches and simple sugars. (2-3 daily servings of meat is actually the only American Dietetics Association recommendation that is properly adhered to by the average American, per a conversation with Stacey Bates, former R.D. for the Texas Beef Council). The proceeding article in Food, Think! will focus more in depth on the American diet and decision-making, but today's article will be about why the order to “Eat your vegetables!” is truly sound advice. 

    Vegetables have 4 main benefits (main sources from ADA's website, www.eatright.org): 

    1. Antioxidants (Vitamins A, C, E & Flavinoids such as color pigments like red lycopene): These compounds are meant in plants to be absorptive of intense energy, such as sunlight. In the human body, they control the reactivity of dangerous compounds such as free radicals that may alter DNA to induce cancerous growth. Several studies have suggested a strong relationship between phytonutrient intake and cancer prevention: Jeffery, E.H., et al. (2006). Diet and cancer prevention: current knowledge and future direction; Lemonick, M.D. (July 19, 1999). "Diet and cancer: can food fend off tumors?"; Go V.L. et al., (December 2004). "Diet and cancer prevention: evidence-based medicine to genomic medicine". Journal of Nutrition; "Diet And Cancer Prevention: New Evidence For The Protective Effects Of Fruits And Veggies". ScienceDaily. December 7, 2007.
    2. B-Vitamins & Folate: essential for growth and creation of new cells and fighting disease. 
    3. Minerals: Calcium strengthens bones and necessary for muscle contraction. It also signals for many cell processes; Iron is necessary for oxygen transport within the body; Magnesium is an essential component of most bodily enzymes which mechanize all sorts of bodily functions; Potassium regulates blood pressure, helps maintain fluid and nutrient equilibrium in almost all cells, among other benefits. 
    4. Fiber: Vegetables offer two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber, or pectin, dissolves in the digestive tract into a gelatinous matrix...probiota feast on it within the digestive tract. Insoluble fiber, like soluble fiber, cannot be digested by human digestive enzymes, and stays intact until it reaches the colon where it is also a food source for probiota. 

    Soluble Fiber: Our bodies use internal cholesterol to create bile, which is a kind of detergent that is released into the intestine to break down fat, making them possible for absorption. The matrix that soluble fiber forms in the intestine actually traps bile and the fats they transport, preventing the body's reabsorption and recycling of cholesterol, and also the absorption of the fats they carry. This is why oatmeal, having 2 of the 3 recommended daily grams of soluble fiber, is so famous for lowering cholesterol!

    Insoluble Fiber: Because of its abrasive, pipe-cleaning effects, insoluble fiber reduces hemorrhoids, provides a vehicle for bodily wastes, and cleanses any harmful substances that adhere to the inside of the colon. Many studies (below) suggest that the benefits of insoluble fiber work to reduce the incidence of colon and rectal cancers by eliminating damaged cells, cleansing the tract from harmful substances, and promoting the growth of new cells. When probiota break down and ferment insoluble fiber in the colon, a metabolic byproduct (a Volatile Fatty Acid, particularly) is released called Butyrate. Butyrate stimulates growth of new, healthy epithelial (colon-lining) cells. Here area few studies that provide a possible link between insoluble fiber and cancer prevention: Trock et al., (April 1990). "Dietary fiber, vegetables, and colon cancer: critical review and meta-analyses of the epidemiologic evidence". Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Lanza et al., (1992). "Dietary fiber". Micozzi and Moon (1992). Macronutrients: Investigating their role in cancer.

    I’m going to make sure my plate is colored with plenty of vegetables this Thanksgiving. What do you Think?

    Thursday, October 27, 2011

    Meat and Cancer: Not Guilty.

    The Union of Concerned Scientists from Johns Hopkins University was the likely little bird that suggested…er, claimed... a relationship between red meat and cancer. Let’s give their statement a little context first about how scientific promulgations are transmitted to mainstream society.

    Say this news headline appeared in the paper: Norway at peace for the 66th consecutive year. Would you frantically rush to grab yourself a copy?

    Imagine a world conference on nutrition and health has been called by scientists studying several different foods as risk factors for cancer. The agenda might look something like this:
    • ·         No relative risk shown from consumption of conventional vs. organic orange juice
    • ·         No effect of turkey vs. chicken consumption on cancer cell development
    • ·         Does consuming expeller-pressed rather than extracted canola oil increase risk for cancer? (No)
    …you stop reading the agenda here because you begin to suffer a severe case of boredom.
    We all know that good news is no news. Publication bias, when something is less likely to be published if it is inconclusive or simply affirms the status quo, exists in the science world just as it does in journalism. Have you seen this message in fine print, usually following an asterisk on a milk carton: "FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones.”  However, it’s a lot more exciting as a consumer to buy milk that’s labeled “rBST Free!” “Milk from cattle not receiving artificial hormones!”…and we assume from these messages that rBST is guilty of making our milk less healthy, while ignoring the FDA’s dry statement (which deserves its own exclamation point!).
    As we return to today’s topic of red meat and cancer, keep in mind that scientists hardly know what causes cancer, or even how it is caused. Several carcinogens are known to be found at the crime scene, but the direct culprits are often mysterious. I have seven meta-analytical studies (which compile data from dozens to hundreds of studies to make more powerful, broader claims since the sample populations are bigger) and, to spoil their ending for you, they all are either inconclusive or conclude with no association between red meat and cancer.
    That’s good news for me, since my mother had breast cancer and I still get to enjoy all the beef and lamb I like. If you’re still curious and want to read the summaries of these studies, by all means, continue!
     
    Alexander et al., 2010 “A review and meta-analysis of red and processed meat consumption and breast cancer”
    A meta-analysis that examined over 25,000 cases of breast cancer compared cohorts of high red or processed meat consumption with cohorts of low red or processed meat.  It was found that “no association was observed in the fixed-effects meta-analysis of processed meat intake and breast cancer” and “No significant association between the highest category of red meat intake compared with the lowest category of intake and breast cancer was observed”. Many hypotheses such as cooked and overcooked meat by-products (heterocyclic amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), haem Fe from blood consumption, or hormones from eating meat (mammary glands have very sensitive hormone receptors) course through the halls of academia, but significant evidence to prove them has not been garnered in experimentation—if it has, the opposite has been demonstrated within an equal amount of other studies. For more information on heterocyclic amines, see the Addendum at bottom. 

    Alexander et al., 2010 “A review and meta-analysis of prospective studies of red and processed meat intake and prostate cancer”
    Fifteen studies of red meat and eleven studies of processed meat were analyzed to result in a lack of supportive evidence for a correlation between dietary increments of red meat or processed meat and prostate cancer. The idea that the more meat eaten, the more at risk the person was for cancer, was not supported by the results. Circulating hypotheses for an increased incidence of prostate cancer include higher fat intake in the diet, but this also remains unproven in several studies that have taken place. In fact, high lycopene (from red pigment in fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes) and selenium (from meat) intake may reduce the risk of prostate cancer…so pour that ketchup on your burgers, people!
    Alexander and Cushing, 2010 “Red meat and colorectal cancer: a critical summary of prospective epidemiologic studies”
    This paper reviewed studies of European cohorts and Asian cohorts, and found no evidence that independently connected red meat to colon or rectal cancer. Red meat can’t be isolated as a cause especially because many competing factors that obscure the causes of cancer exist in the general Western lifestyle: the diet, to name one potential factor besides activity level and others, is typically high in refined sugars, starches, and alcohol, and low in fruits, vegetables, soluble and insoluble fiber.  It was found that men are 10 – 30% more likely to contract colorectal cancer than women are, but it was found to have nothing to do with men consuming more red meat than women do. In fact, a few recent studies demonstrate that red meat fats like conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and stearic acid (an 18 carbon saturated fatty acid) are anti-carcinogenic, but further studies need to be conducted in order to continue isolating these factors for their cancer-preventative benefits (Bhattacharya et al., 2006; Evans et al., 2009; Evans et al., 2009).
    Alexander et al., 2010 “Processed meat and colorectal cancer: a quantitative review of prospective epidemiologic studies”
    Salt, sugar, nitrates, nitrites, phosphate, and spices are all used to cure meat and preserve them against contamination by pathogens. Smoke from wood or liquid smoke flavorings may introduce polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as mentioned above in the other Alexander et al., 2010 article, but nitrates and nitrites remain the largest concern, since they have shown to produce cancer in some laboratory animal studies. As mentioned in the July post “Doubtful Dining”, vegetables contain the highest concentrations of all nitrate food sources, next to some cheeses, beers, and whiskeys. The results of this study were similar to the above study regarding red meat, where the isolated variable of red meat could not be associated with colorectal cancer. Again, men were found to be about 30% more likely than women to develop the cancer, regardless of processed meat inclusion in the diet.
    Alexander and Cushing, 2009 “Quantitative assessment of red meat or processed meat consumption and kidney cancer”
    Again, processed meat and red meat were not shown to be risk factors for kidney cancer; however, obesity and smoking were significant risk factors.
    Alexander et al., 2009 “Meta-analysis of animal fat or animal protein intake and colorectal cancer”
    Over 1,000 cases of colorectal cancer were analyzed in this study. When comparing high animal fat (more than 50g) daily intake and low animal fat (less than 25g) intake on cancer risk, neither group significantly differed in their relative risk. The same inconclusive result was found for increased increments of fat (~10g increments) and for incremental percentages of energy coming from animal fats. It should be pointed out that the study did not specify the source of the animal fat or what percentages were saturated and unsaturated. If saturated fat from animals were tested, the results would be confounded between whether the fact that It was saturated OR from an animal was the problem. The study included fats from mammals, birds, and fishes. Interestingly, a systematic review from 2005 could not produce consistent evidence for Omega 3’s to reduce colorectal cancer (Maclean et al., 2006).
    Alexander et al., 2010 “Summary and meta-analysis of prospective studies of animal fat intake and breast cancer”
    It was found that women are more likely to develop breast cancer than men (….still paying attention? Just checking). This study compiled results from 8 other studies on 200 – 7,000 breast cancer cases. It reported that once differences in demographic, ethnic, lifestyle, and diet factors were held even, animal fats did not impact the risk for developing cancer. Perhaps saturated fats or unsaturated fats could still be involved in cancer development, but it is clear that an animal source is no different than a vegetarian source.

    I have an Addendum about carcinogenic compounds in overcooked meats...

    When pan-fried, smoked, or flame-cooked, meats can form heterocyclic amines which are a known to be carcinogenic. Read more about it on cancer.gov ‘s webpage. Two sentences of note to me were “the doses of HCAs and PAHs used in these studies [observing cancerous growth in lab rats] were very high—equivalent to thousands of times the doses that a person would consume in a normal diet.” and “Population studies have not established a definitive link between HCA and PAH exposure from cooked meats and cancer in humans” (only a correlation has been established).


    What do you Think?

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    Agriculture: Home of Improvements

    GMOs
    Dr. Nina V. Fedoroff makes these cases and substantiates them in her New York Times article, "Genetically Engineered Food For All" in favor of Genetically Modified Organisms as food:
    • "New molecular methods that add or modify genes can protect plants from diseases and pests and improve crops in ways that are both more environmentally benign and beyond the capability of older methods."
    • "Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny."
    • "The European Union has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of genetically modified crops over the past 25 years. Its recent, lengthy report on the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods."
    • "The process for approving these crops has become so costly and burdensome that it is choking off innovation."
    I'm looking forward to possibly an elimination of pesticide residues thanks to GMO use (Pesticides are already present at no more than trace amounts which the EPA, FDA, and USDA deem safe -- see post, "Organic Or Not).

    A Letter to the Editor challenging the above asks "If these foods are safe, why the huge lobbying effort to deny the buying public information about which foods are modified? How about a simple label informing the consumers?" I can appreciate his point. I can also appreciate the lobbying efforts, given that the labeling of milk and meat products with "No Artificial Hormones" has caused this whole national scare against hormones. The scientific community, even decade after decade of research, still cannot get through to people that there is NO difference in hormone levels of milk or meat between animals given or not given implants. Labeling can create unnecessary scares, because people, by nature, are biased in thinking that unmodified food is better than scientific innovation. We're uncomfortable with novelty, and face it, we won't go look up the facts.

    Hormone Regulation

    A common question regarding hormone implants in beef cattle is: Why does it make sense to castrate the animals and then go back and give them androgynous hormones again? Here are some facts supporting castration and hormone implantation:

    Estrogen in bull meat is equal to that of estrogen in cow meat at 1st trimester of pregnancy. Testosterone in bull meat is over 30x that in both non-implanted steer meat and implanted steer meat, given that beef from implanted and non-implanted steers contain insignificantly different levels of testosterone.

    Testosterone levels in meat:
    0.34–0.73 mg/kg for bulls
    0.069 mg/kg in muscle tissue from heifers
    0.01–0.14 mg/kg detected in muscle from steers, both implanted and non-implanted.
    Thanks to modern practices such as castration and implantation (i.e., no bull meat), we have more beef produced per animal, we have a more tender product, and finally, we have less hormone exposure to estrogen and testosterone in beef.

    Sources:
    Human Safety of Hormone Implants Used to Promote Growth in Cattle
    Fritsche and Steinhart, 1998
    Hendricks et al., 1983

    So...what do you Think?

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011

    Feedlot, Rediscovered.

    Will Feed, Inc. (Cozad, NE)
    August 24, 2012


    We were the only ones up at 6. The sun still tucked itself below the horizon while cattle crouched low on folded legs. Anne and I cruised up and down the alleys of the 3,000 -head feed yard in her truck to “read bunks”. This was her routine for determining from yesterday’s leftovers how much cattle should be fed today. After a meeting with the foreman about the feeding instructions, we returned to the alleyway and were greeted by weanling calves at their gate. These calves were beginning their first full day at the yard. It was time for their morning exercise and training. Anne flushed them away from the gate with a Shhhh and waving arms to send them back into their pen and have them exit in a wide circle back through the gate. She zigzagged behind them, reminding questioning ears and curious eyes where they were to go. The calves obediently, though sleepily, walked forward and away. They occasionally looked over their shoulders and wondered if they were heading the right direction. Anne encouraged them on to the back of a holding pen with her presence only, and held her arms straight out from her sides to have them “park” there. 
    When they succeeded in following her directions, she moved to one side of the narrow pen and folded her arms behind her back. She began to slowly walk forward against the direction the cattle faced, and the cattle trotted past her. To slow them down, she slowed her pace. To stop them, she stopped or walked alongside them in the same direction they faced. A bovine’s “tipping point” is right at their shoulder. If you want them to walk forward, you stay behind their shoulder; stop, you stay at their shoulder; change directions, you come in front of their shoulder. After their exercise and training was complete and their behavior became more organized and collected, the calves were sent through the tub, the snake, the chute, and the squeeze to receive their new identification ear tags and vaccinations. 
    After toughing out ear piercings and shots, these calves were ready to go home to their pen! Just as I’m sure they’d hoped, there was fresh prairie hay sprinkled with a little feed waiting for them in their bunks. They formed a neat line without a sound. I wish young people could do what young cattle can!
    Notice that each animal gets about 300 square feet in every pen. You always see cattle crowded up together in feedlot pens leaving plenty of open space because it’s their natural herd behavior to stay close, especially if food is involved! Also, according to Beef Quality Assurance standards, feed yard pens must be kept free of mud. If water doesn’t drain properly, a skid steer must come and remove the mud. The “hills” in each pen allow a dry space for cattle to congregate in case of heavy rains, so that excess moisture can drain away from them. The entire yard has to slope down toward a water collection ditch that empties into a holding lagoon. Liquids, rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, are pumped onto adjoining crop fields.

    Throughout the morning, the foreman was busy making the day’s rations. Weanlings eat mostly hay for a week, and then the cattle start out on a mix of less than 15% corn, 50% distillers' grains, and 30% hay with some vitamin and mineral supplements. They progress all the way, very gradually over the course of 6 months or more, to a mix of 30% corn, 60% distillers' grains, and about 8% hay, straw, and corn stocks plus some supplement. Shocked to hear that there’s not a lot of corn in the diet? Read this article by BEEF magazine about transitioning away from corn.
    They are fed twice a day, precisely the right amount so just a few scraps remain in the bunks by morning: not wastefully so they leave too much behind, and not too meagerly, either. The first night I arrived at Will Feed, I saw Anne and her workers ship cattle out. Three cattle semi-trailers headed for National Beef in Dodge City, KS picked up over a hundred finished cattle, well-rounded and readied for harvest. Look at how big they are compared to the new calves!
    I discovered that the relationship people have with cattle at a feedlot can be a lot more intimate than at a cow-calf ranch. Cattle are far more dependent on people in that setting. If Anne or any of her three workers gets sick, sleeps in, or takes the day off, it directly affects the cattle. They can’t find their own food. They can only wait for it. If any steer or heifer walks with just the slightest limp, has eyes that squint just a little too much, or holds their head a little low, the cowboy who rides in pens every day or Anne who exercises the animals every day will notice it and attend to it. Out on the range, some cattlemen go days without seeing the same cow or calf.
    The attention to cattle in a feedlot is much more acute. Stressed, sick, depressed, lazy, etc. cattle do not grow good beef. Cattle that have been given hormones or antibiotics improperly will also not grow good beef. Anne believes “We need to set calves up for success.” For the ongoing story of Anne and the animals she cares for, see her blog, Feed Yard Foodie. Anne won Beef Quality Assurance Producer of the Year in 2009, and this year her feedlot is being nationally recognized by Certified Angus Beef. To support her and the Beef Quality Assurance program that guides animal care for the industry, look into what BQA stands for, ask your local producers to get certified, and put some beef on your plate this week!

    Hopefully more personal accounts like mine and like Anne's on her blog will serve to reclaim the Power Steer from Michael Pollan and the rest of us who lost confidence in the beef industry. What do you Think?

    Thursday, August 25, 2011

    In Nebraska with Feed Yard Foodie!

    I am currently spending the week at Will Feed feedlot in Willow Island, Nebraska! For more information about Will Feed and the amazing story of its primary operator, Anne Burkholder, please visit her blog, Feed Yard Foodie. I'll tell you all about it next week, but until then...we've got cows to feed! Back to work!




    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    Flour or Corn Tortillas?

    Two articles by Justin Gillis from The New York Times promote agronomy research for strains of food crops that can better cope with the heating and drying that much of the planet is facing this generation:

    Revisiting Climate and the Food Supply
    Aug. 18, 2011
    and
    A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself
    June 4, 2011

    Wheat is a C3 ("cool season") plant. When temperatures rise above 70 degrees Fahrenheit or so, C3 plants photosynthesize so quickly that oxygen builds up within the plant faster than the plant can obtain carbon dioxide for construction of sugars, starches, and fibers. Wheat then enters photorespiration, where the plant actually consumes oxygen and releases carbon dioxide in a much less efficient process of making carbohydrates. Photorespiration is when the plant "stalls" and has a difficult time growing.

    Corn, sugar cane, and sorghum (milo) are C4 ("warm season") plants, as well as many other grasses. A C4 plant has a pathway that helps concentrate carbon dioxide within itself to continue the photosynthesis system to "feed forward", and therefore, continue CO2 sequestration and sugar production. These plants can keep growing and producing carbohydrates while exhaling oxygen in much higher temperatures than C3 plants can.

    C4 plants are efficient in "warm seasons", while C3 plants are efficient in "cool seasons". If our world climate continues to warm, will there eventually be more production of corn, sugar cane, and sorghum (milo), while there will be less wheat planted and consumed? What do you Think?








    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    Meat Eaters, Misguided


    Vegans are reaching out to the public with a softer message: “Just skip meat and dairy once a week. You can do it!”

    As a result, “Meatless Mondays” has gained attention as a food trend. Let’s take a look at the Meat Eaters Guide To Climate Change + Health.

    Previously, I have spoken out my concerns for the environment, but I am definitely concerned for my health. My mom was diagnosed with cancer when I was twelve. She survived, thankfully! I learned what an antioxidant was before I could even spell it. Every starch our family ate at the table (to my younger brother’s chagrin) was whole grain and unprocessed. Fiber here, fiber there, fiber everywhere! I spoke of my high cholesterol and potential inheritance of Alzheimer’s (3 of 4 grandparents had it) in previous posts. My fascination for nutrition and its mitigation of genetic risk factors took root in middle school. You bet I’m personally invested in this.

    ENVIRONMENT
    It is correct to say that the energy efficiency of eating vegetables is greater than eating meat.
    It is incorrect to conclude that overall, eating a vegetarian diet is better for the environment. We'll see why.

    Anything along the food chain that respires and does not photosynthesize costs energy to maintain, and carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere along the way. This phenomenon is called the Feed Conversion Ratio (FCR).

    Feed conversion ratios are as follows:

                     Pounds of feed : Pounds of food produced
                                        1.2:1 Fish
                                        1.9:1 Chicken
                                        5.9:1 Pork
                                        8.7:1 Beef

    This mostly has to do with how quickly or slowly the animal grows. Slower-growing animals require more maintenance energy (See “Going Hormonal Over Beef” post). A quick glance at these FCRs might make you think, oh man, beef is so inefficient! While these animals are consuming non-food grade diets (industrial co-products like soybean meal or distiller’s grains that would end up trashed), cattle have a special ability to turn cellulosic fibers into energy for meat and milk production. No mammal produces cellulase, the enzyme that releases glucose from cellulose (long chains of glucose) for utilization. Cattle and other ruminants operate symbiotically with microbes in the rumen to ferment straw, wood shavings, grasses, hulls, and other inedible materials into energy for tissue growth. The 8.7:1 ratio is efficient in its own right.

    Question: For organic crop production, what are the two most important sources of fertilizer?
    Answer: Manure and Compost.
                Manure, being richer in nitrogen than compost, is most important, and where, pray tell, will manure for fertilizer come from if animal agriculture is eliminated? Because manure is far less rich in nitrogen then synthetic fertilizer, even a 15% reduction in manure production (Meatless Mondays) would amount to serious consequences for the organic produce industry. Manure is a highly valuable resource that is not wasted in the animal agriculture industry.
                To create compost, biomass has to rot down. If well-aerated, it emits more carbon dioxide than methane. Those carbons, however, are not ending up in the form of amino acids and fats in animal tissues to be reused as food for humans. Vegetarian biomass waste is a large component of agricultural animal diets.

    Question: What is the main culprit for the destruction of 96% of America’s Tallgrass Prairie?
    Answer: Cropland

    I love that all beef cattle spend part of their lives on wild, open range. The beef industry keeps wildlife habitat profitable. We all know that economic incentives help guarantee environmental protection. Cattlemen know that overgrazing, overwatering, erosion, destruction of wildlife habitat and water resources will put them out of business as cattle raisers and hunting leasers. If there weren’t a strong demand for beef, ranchers would be selling their open lands for development. I'd rather see ranched lands than plowed lands, and so would wildlife.

    HEALTH

    While the Guide acknowledged that the environmental impact of feedyard beef vs. grassfed beef is debatable, it needs an update on grassfed’s nutritional profile (See “Is The Grass(-finished beef) Always Greener?” post).

    Also, save a few known carcinogens, there are no known CAUSES of cancer. It is irresponsible to assert that red meat causes cancer if, at best, studies are only showing correlations. I am still going to eat the recommended serving, about 6-9 oz. of lean meat a day, for highly bioavailable nutrients, protein, and MUFA:SFA ratios that are greater than 1 (See “Is The Grass(-finished beef) Always Greener?” post).  

    If anyone has more questions, I encourage you to browse the older posts and post a comment. Many people are searching for a silver bullet to solve health and environmental problems. Accepting the “Meateater’s Guide To Climate Change + Health” is naïve.

    The reality is, life is a costly and complicated thing. Trade-offs are everywhere. What do you Think?

    Wednesday, July 20, 2011

    Hard to Swallow

    Last week, I made “Llom amb pressecs”, a Barcelonan recipe for roasted pork loin chops in a white wine and peach sauce. I proudly sautéed Fredericksburg, TX peaches on the stovetop while store-bought pork bronzed in the oven below.

    Reading this New York Times article by Mark Bittman marinated the thought of my dinner in guilt. 

    Bittman sang to his typical anti-Ag-industry tune, but my appetite faded while investigating his references to “Pig 'brain machine' cripples Hormel workers" and “undercover video documents unspeakable pig abuse".

    However, I recognized that these sources were showing the outlying, worst faces of the pork industry. I expect that those responsible for the abuse were prosecuted. I went quickly to the National Pork Board’s website to temper the bias.

    I learned from the Pork Board that:

    “Pork production contributes only one-third of one percent (0.33%) of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, every pound of pork produced in the United States today has a smaller carbon footprint than it used to have 20 years ago, due to improved production methods employed by producers over the years.  Things such as:

        * Improved feeding programs that carefully match swine diets to the nutrition needs of the  pigs' based on their sex, age and stage of growth ensures the pig's health and welfare without overfeeding nutrients that end up in the manure.


    These points put many questions to rest about pork’s environmental footprint, but I still wondered about the animal welfare issues, especially the gestational sow crates. Pig brains are widely used in neuroscience experiments, given that their anatomy and development are similar to human brains. Pigs are regarded as higher-functioning cognitively than other mammals. Given that, I am curious as to what they are aware of experientially more so than other livestock. This website discusses research showing that stress levels in individually-housed (in crates) sows were equal or less than group-housed sows. This makes sense because of lower competition and less potential for injury to sows and piglets if housed in crates. Both groups had the same amount of square footage per sow.

    I found this to be interesting, but if I am honest with you, I am still unsure about the justification for such a restricted lifestyle for mother pigs. I am also not an expert in pork science. Again, we return to the discussion of the post “Bitten Hands That Feed…” about laying-hen cages. More space for individually-caged animals means less production, which means more costly food, which means human beings will likely make the exchange of more food expenses for more crowded/cheaper living conditions. There is always an exchange.

    I am choosing to trust that the pork industry is making the best decision given their expertise in swine husbandry and safely feeding America pork. I expect their compliance with human and animal welfare. I am not giving up on pork, just as I am not giving up on the potential for Americans to do what is right.

    This is a difficult issue. What do you Think?

    *Addendum: This YouTube video featuring Temple Grandin made me feel A LOT better about eating pork! 

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    Doubtful Dining

    A salient tone of distrust resounded in three New York Times articles about meat last week:

    “Our insatiable appetite for animal protein is as much of an agricultural liability as it is a nutritional one. We raise and slaughter nearly 10 billion farm animals in the United States every year (and that’s not counting fish or dairy animals.) It follows, then, that a significant percentage of our corn and soy crops are used to feed the animals that give us our much-wanted (and less-needed) protein. The intensive system of animal and crop production that is fueled by our demand for meat and milk and cheese leads to all manners of abuses: animal, environmental, farm-worker — you name it.”

    [“Leads to all manners of abuses”? As someone from inside (and outside) the industry, I have never once seen abuse, but I have seen triumph in research discoveries such as those that produce more food with a reduced environmental cost. I have also seen sweet (awwww) relationships form and become reinforced between humans and the animals they care for. Abuse is not tolerated by anyone in animal agriculture]

    “Our digestive system, a secondary receptor totally independent of our tongues, seems to crave calorie-dense foods like umami-rich animal proteins, no matter what they taste like.”

    [Calorie dense? We receive 25g protein from180 calories in lean beef instead of from 230 calories in raw tofu, 374 calories in beans, or 670 calories in peanut butter]


    “I’m aware that my choices are mostly imperfect, but I rarely conclude that I should make a burger and fries for dinner or provide a pound per person of prison-raised pork served with fruit from 10,000 miles away, followed by a cake full of sugar and artificial ingredients. Yet, for the most part, that describes restaurant food.”

    [Prison-raised pork? That’s a good idea, actually…I have heard of programs that involve inmates in gardening and animal care, which could be quite therapeutic. However, I wish this author would take himself more seriously as a writer and refrain from flagrant exaggerations]

    “You’ll move in the right direction, cooking and eating less meat and junk and more plants.”

    [Someone is telling you to eat less meat again… Per a discussion with a registered dietitian from the Texas Beef Council, Americans actually eat the recommended amount of meat every day. They tend to over-eat carbohydrates and under-eat vegetables. Meat consumption should stay about the same]

    “Nitrate and nitrite have been used for centuries to cure meat, giving products like hot dogs, bacon and ham their characteristic flavor and color and killing the bacteria that causes botulism. Today, conventional meat packers typically use a synthesized version known as sodium nitrite. But companies that label their products natural or organic must use natural sources of the preservatives. They usually employ celery powder or celery juice, which are high in nitrate. A bacterial culture is used to convert that to nitrite. The resulting chemicals are virtually identical to their synthetic cousins. When the products are packaged, both conventional and natural products contain residual amounts.”

    [This affirms that chemicals are chemicals, no matter if it comes from a “natural”, “organic” or “synthetic” source. This argument parallels the arguments made for “organic” vs. “synthetic” nitrogen fertilizer discussed in the post “…Determined to Succeed!”]

    “Since the 1970s, concerns about the health effects of nitrate and nitrite have focused on the potential for nitrite to combine with meat protein to form carcinogenic substances called nitrosamines.”

    “The U.S.D.A. responded by limiting the amount of nitrate and nitrite that goes into processed meats, and today they contain far less than they did 40 years ago.”

    [Processed meats contain less nitrate and nitrite than many vegetables do. About 85% of consumed nitrates come from plants (Van Velzen et al., 2008)]

    What do you Think?

    Thursday, June 23, 2011

    Null Hypotheses

    Today I wondered, do too many of these posts preach to the choir? Do they all seem to have a predetermined conclusion? As I write, I do not mean to stray from confidence into contentedness. Objectivity cannot exist in smugness (n., a precursor to bias).

    I pondered how many of the studies I mention fail to reject the following null hypotheses (the default claims of “innocent until proven guilty”)

    1)      Foods grown with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides…
    2)      Grain-finished beef…
    3)      Conventionally-grown and transported foods…
    4)      Hormone and antibiotic use…
    5)      Genetically modified organisms…

    …Are just as safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly as unmodified, grass-finished, locally grown, and organic foods. There are no real differences.

    Take note, the null hypothesis is never accepted in scientific studies, it is only not rejected. It is statistically impossible to prove a negative…like it is impossible to scientifically prove there is no God, etc. A healthy skeptic is skeptical of his or her own skepticism.

    I leave you with this thought: Research must continue to reject null hypotheses as long as we seek to feed our world with dwindling resources and novel methodologies. Research that is extensive is also expensive, so I encourage everyone’s support of land-grant universities that make discoveries to support our future.

    Never stop researching. Never stop questioning. Never be content with what you know.
    Never let anyone think for you. That was my mistake a few years ago.  

    So, what do you Think?
    What agriculture-related problems shall we continue to seek out and solve?

    Tuesday, June 14, 2011

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    GMO? OMG!

    Food allergies are rampant in the United States, but can the phenomenon be tied to Genetically Modified Organisms?

    U.S. intellectual property regulation dictates investigations for patent infringements. The genetic material in GMO seeds is patented and protected. Does this threaten the freedom of non-GMO farmers to retain their own seeds for next year’s crop?

    Crops are genetically modified for the realization of this one basic goal: feed 6.7 billion people every day. Water shortages, soil nutrition limitations, pests, and politics, to name a few obstacles, make this goal impossible. GMOs are designed to overcome the first three impediments. They enable environmental stewardship through resource conservation, especially through no-till practices (see benefits from  post “…Determined to Succeed!”). We’ll discuss the health and political implications of GMOs.   

    Health
    It seems everybody knows somebody with a life-threatening allergy to foods like nuts, milk, soybeans, wheat, and corn. Consumers and even scientists assume that Bt, a gene spliced into seeds that promotes the plants’ resistance to insects, provokes allergic reactions in humans. Because plants are producing their own pesticides (Bt toxins), many suppose that humans are developing allergies to foods containing the compound. While biotech companies claim the Bt protein is destroyed by our stomach acids, other reports claim that allergic reactions have closely coincided with the use of Bt pesticides. Bakshi (2003) described public allegations of allergic reactions to GMOs. Some GMOs that have caused allergic reactions in people did so because a gene from a Brazil nut (a normal allergen-containing plant) was spliced into a soybean. People that were then allergic to the soybeans were so because they had an allergy related to the Brazil nut, but unrelated to the fact that it was a GMO. The author concedes that allergens, such as those from nuts, milk, and gluten, are easily tracked and identified, so that GMOs found to contain these proteins are not released to the human food supply. Given that proteins are not ever absorbed into the body in their original form but rather digested down into peptides of short amino acid chains, it is also unlikely that animals that consume non-food grade GMOs can pass along the allergens to human consumers.  


     In summarizing the safety of GMOs and the rigor with which safety and allergen testing is conducted, I will not proceed to “re-invent the wheel” after Monsanto has composed explanatory websites that are both candid and clear. After being quite frankly impressed, I encourage you to visit Monsanto’s Issues and Answers page.

    Politics
    Small farmers who do not purchase GM seeds fear “bullying” by Monsanto for free-blowing pollen that contaminates their crops. A group of organic farmers filed a pre-emptive suit in March, 2011 against Monsanto in order for a precedent to be set against prosecution for the trespassing of pollen into non-GMO crops. Monsanto has stated that they have “not ever sued and has publically committed to not sue farmers over the inadvertent presence of biotechnology traits in their fields”.

    Trade sanctions by the E.U. against U.S. grown GMOs hinder U.S. provision of food to starving peoples in Africa. American donations of foodstuffs are rejected because of restrictions imposed on GMOs. At Texas A&M, the late Dr. Norman Borlaug “genetically modified” wheat in the 1960s through extensive laboratory-based plant breeding, creating the dwarf wheat variety that keeps an estimated one billion people alive today. For more sources on cumbersome world politics and GMOs, read Pray et al., 2007 and Paarlberg, 2010 . Some E.U. officials concur with pro-GMO Americans that the current politics that reject GMO products for starving areas of the world are unsustainable (Davison, 2009) .

    It seems the most underlying fear is that non-GMO participants sell products that our future world’s demands might make obsolete. In our world, I understand that the market is “always right”. What do you Think?

    Tuesday, June 7, 2011

    The Egregious Case of Escherichia coli

    I read this article in the New York Times and pondered the following quote by a German girl: “[E. coli is] a big conversation issue among my friends,” she said. “Some are no longer eating salads. Others are ignoring the medical recommendations. As for myself, frankly, people have died. For me, that’s the bottom line. I no longer eat salads. But then again, this E. coli strain could be in milk, meat, whatever. It is very worrying. I have no idea what to eat anymore.” For the Europeans now battling an outbreak of E. coli O104:H4 sickness and even death by this pathogen are very real fears by both vegetable farmers and non-ag consumers. Lost crops and lost revenues also seriously afflict the vegetable farmers. Everyone from consumers to producers shares an equal magnitude of concern for food safety.

    In the United States, Escherichia coli O157:H7 instigates 73,000 cases, 2000 hospitalizations and 60 deaths each year (Food Seminars International, 2011). I certainly find it unfortunate that eating raw or undercooked foods poses a risk to my health, but among all the other risks I juggle in my daily life, I worry the least about my food. I make the choice to trust that my food in the U.S., after passing numerous checkpoints of vigilant FDA and USDA workers, is safe (See Industry Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables and Consumers' Guide to Safe Handling of Raw Produce and Fresh-Squeezed Fruit and Vegetable Juices ).

    Honestly, though, when you think of E. coli, doesn’t beef come to mind first? This is probably because the pathogen’s fame debuted in a hamburger served at Jack in the Box in 1993. Since then, the Checkoff dollars from beef cattlemen (a program that extracts $1 a head in every cattle sale) have overwhelmed the scientific community with over $30 million for beef safety research. Also, every year the beef industry spends $550 million to validate and conduct their safety control methods (See the Cattlemen’s Stewardship Review). E. coli is now primarily a fresh produce issue.

    What I find frustrating is that there have been some claims (namely the ones made in The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, and the film Food, Inc.) that grass-finished beef is “safer” than grain-finished beef because the grass-based diet does not culture an optimal, acidic, E. coli environment like a grain-based diet does. FALSE.

    What a naïvely dangerous claim to make, and on such faulty science! These two media venues have championed the “junk science” of a pilot study conducted at Cornell testing the “Effect of grain-feeding on the numbers of E. coli in the colonic digesta of cattle (a) and their survival of an acid shock (b) (pH 2.0, 1h). Cattle (three animals, three observations per animal) were fed three ratios of timothy hay to grain (10:90, 55:45, 100:0).” (Russell et al., 2001, the review paper that was able to publish unpublishable data). Look back at the description I gave. Three cattle on three diets? Three observations? That’s like someone assigning you, me, and Dirk Nowitzki Rice Krispies, Cocoa Puffs, and Frosted Flakes, respectively, and after three basketball games concluding that Frosted Flakes is the best cereal for enhancing athleticism. Okay, an extreme example, but you get my point in that without having sufficient replication (a large sample population), it’s not scientific.

    If warding off E. coli were as simple as feeding cattle hay, wouldn’t the entire beef industry follow suit? Quite to the contrary, it was found by a referee-journal publication in Calloway et al. (2009)  that it is in fact when the rumen pH is highest (least acidic, especially when the rumen is empty or sometimes when it is full of a high-fiber, grain-free diet) that E. coli proliferate. Because of this, cattle feeders have changed their fasting protocols before slaughter.

    I’m going to wash my American-grown vegetables before stacking them on my 160ºF hamburger patty tonight…and I’ll have a salad on the side. What do you Think?

    Thursday, June 2, 2011

    Vive la résistance? (Antibiotics)

    People who shy away from buying meat from animals given antibiotics do so to avoid exposure to antibiotic residues or to antibiotic resistant microbes. Modern germ warfare has significantly improved the quality and longevity of human life…as it has for animals, too…and the prospect of antibiotic resistance threatens that accomplishment.

    Before we discuss the antibiotics that may have been used in producing your hamburger, we’ll stage the context: hands and dishes that contact it have just been washed with antibacterial soap, and the kitchen counters have been wiped down with antibacterial wipes. Maybe you nicked your finger cutting the tomato and applied Neosporin to it, and maybe it’s allergy season, so you’re fighting a sinus infection with the help of an antibiotic.

    Funny how agriculture gets all the attention for an antibiotic scare…when one third of people try to take antibiotics for the common cold (McNulty et al., 2007), or when somewhere between 10 and 44% of people quit taking their antibiotics before the prescribed duration when they start feeling better (Pechere et al., 2007).

    Antibiotics have a specific withdrawal date: they can only be administered before a certain time frame before the animal is harvested. Like synthetic hormones, antibiotic products are excreted from the body or decompose within the body. The “withdrawal date” denotes the time by which this elimination has been carried out to a satisfactorily low, safe level. Meat products are also routinely tested for antibiotic residues. If they test positive, they are thrown out and never enter the food supply. See these resources by beef.org: Antibiotic Use in Cattle and Antibiotic Approval Process.

    In beef cattle production, antibiotics are used therapeutically (in response to serious illness) and subtherapeutically (pre-emptively or for improving efficiency). Subtherapeutic antibiotics like metaphylaxis, tylosin, and monensin are used to reduce sicknesses by 50% upon receiving a cattle shipment, to improve growth efficiency by 17% and reduce respiratory problems, and to improve feed efficiency by 10%, respectively (Wileman et al., 2009; Griffin, 2007)

    Metaphylaxis can consist of the following drugs: Ceftiofur (Naxcel & Excenel), Florfenicol (Nuflor), long-acting Oxytetracycline, and Tilmicosin (Micotil) and chlortetracycline and sulfamethazine (Griffin, 2007)
    In human medicine, these are either used ubiquitously (like tetracycline) or not at all. On its own initiative, the beef industry is emphasizing low stress shipping and handling of calves in working pens, sale barns, or trailers. Slow, reduced-stress weaning techniques also reduce the prevalence of shipping fever and respiratory diseases that are common to cattle that newly arrive to feedlots. The industry is en route to mandating best practices that would preclude the need for metaphylaxis treatment. The Beef Quality Assurance website has more information on self-regulation in the beef industry. After this treatment, unless a feedlot steer becomes sick (he’ll be quarantined and his file becomes red-flagged), no other antibiotic treatment other than tylosin and monensin or lasalocid will be administered.

    Tylosin and monensin (or lasalosid, an ionophore like monensin) pose no threat to human medicinal effectiveness because these antibiotics are not used in human medicine. Also, the killing efficacy of ionophores is due to macro-mechanisms that are extremely unlikely to be overcome by bacterial gene mutations (Russell and Houlihan, 2003).

    Monensin and lasalosid eliminate inefficient rumen microbes and promote efficient ones so that cattle can derive more energy from their food and waste less carbon-hydrogen molecules on methane production and eructation. Ionophore use reduces methane emissions in cattle and fosters efficient beef production: more gain on less feed…and we’re back to the “carpool effect.” I went into a grocery store last week and saw a note from the farmers that produced the meat which bragged, “We raised this beef without the use of ionophores!” I was disappointed.

    What I finally find to be most interesting is that the same prevalence of resistant bacterial strains has been found on both organic, “antibiotic-free” animal production systems and conventional systems in large-scale studies of poultry, swine, and beef cattle operations (Young et al., 2009; Barlow et al., 2007). That tells me antibiotic resistance is far more likely to be linked to household abundance and prescription abuse than to agricultural practices. What do you Think?

    Friday, May 27, 2011

    Going hormonal over beef

    The mention of hormone use in beef often stirs visceral reactions. Uncomfortable with a seemingly “unnatural” production method, consumers may seek relief in USDA Organic brands or Reserve programs where such a practice is shunned. Although synthetic hormone use carries a heavy stigma (yeah, thanks, baseball players), its actual use in livestock production is far more simple, safe, and even beneficial than you’d think.

    Beef producers choose to use hormones to increase efficiency by 20% (Wileman et al., 2009): cattle gain more lean muscle on less feed. Remember the carpool effect discussed in the blog post Food Routing: Local or HOV? The more lean muscle material (lean meat) that can be piled onto fewer body frames means less maintenance energy wastage, less fecal/urinary excretion, smaller carbon footprint, less environmental impact per pound of beef. Some are concerned that animal bodies are weighing down too heavily onto their skeletal frames, causing lameness and breakage, but this is impossible given that estrogen improves bone density and strength, and in some cases causes bones to continue growing (Felson et al., 1994). Consumers derive most of their fear from the inaccurate suspicion that they ingest the hormones that the animals are given; they fear that the substances given to live animals linger in meat.

    We’ll get one thing straight: hormones are never injected. The dose from a dissolvable pellet per animal immediately begins to signal for muscle building and breaks down after it “delivers its message”. There is no hormone blood-pooling, no accidental over-dosing; it’s just not possible, nor profitable (cattleman common sense: implanting with more than one is a waste of money, does not amount to increased growth, and could get you jailed). Growth promotants are implanted as a slowly-dissolving pellet in the ear, or they are fed in trace amounts. Animals are not allowed to be slaughtered until the compounds have had more than enough time to decompose and reduce down where they reach an equilibrium at a natural blood concentration. This is why, over and over, the FDA and USDA report that beef from implanted cattle are insignificantly different than non-implanted cattle. Despite the following reasons why, on a most basic biochemical level, there is nothing to fear, the FDA and USDA stringently regulate growth promotant use and routinely test for residues in meat. Secondly, the beef industry excels at self-regulation and mutual accountability through the Beef Quality Assurance program.

    Beef producers use two kinds of growth promotants:
    1.      Hormones (low-dose ear implants, usually a form of estrogen) signal for continued lean tissue development after the animal reaches sexual maturity (Trenkle, 1997).
    2.      Beta agonists (mixed in feed) block amino acid breakdown so that the same weight isn’t maintained as the body "idles" and generates heat, but increases as the animal eats dietary protein (Borohov et al., 1987; Dawson et al., 1988).
    Both chemicals are naturally occurring in us and in cattle. Being chemically unstable and having limited half-lives, they degrade all the way down until they reach a normal equilibrium concentration in the animal’s body.

    A meta-analysis of ten studies by Taylor et al. (2009) summarized that no significant relationship between conventional beef consumption and breast cancer (mammary tissue being most sensitive to estrogen intake) could be alleged.

    Let’s put things into perspective (Preston et al., 1997):
    1.      Milk estrogen concentration: 0.12 parts per billion (nanograms/gram)
    2.      Unimplanted beef: 0.16 ppb
    3.      Implanted beef: 0.22 ppb
    4.      Eggs: 35 ppb
    5.      Soy flour: 1,510,000 ppb !!
    6.      Female daily production: 5,000,000 ng
    7.      Male daily production: 100,000 ng

    Consequently, vegetarians have repeatedly tested positive for higher circulating androgens because of high consumption of soy products (Armstrong et al., 1981; Thomas et al., 1999).

    You’ve heard the rumor about precocious development in females (recent generations of girls hitting puberty earlier)? Blaming this on milk and meat consumption doesn’t make sense, but blaming it on diets higher in starch and sugars does. These simple carbohydrates cause insulin levels to rise, which sets off this chemical chain reaction in the body: Insulin --> GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone) --> LH (luteinizing hormone) & FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) --> increased estrogen production (Poretsky et al., 1999; Ultrianen et al., 2009; Rosenfield et al., 2009). In starch and sugar, I believe, you have the culprits for early puberty and possibly even ovarian cysts. Similarly, there are  several beef cattle studies that use  high energy diets to increase blood sugar (--> blood insulin) to ultimately decrease the age of puberty in heifers (Corah et al., 1977; Moseley et al., 1977; 1982; Randel & Rhodes, 1980…).

    For more information on why growth promotant use in beef production is safe, refer to Avery & Avery’s 2007 study.

    What do you Think?