Friday, April 12, 2024

Why red meat is outstanding in its field

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Going from the laboratory to the family dinner table, a multi-year research programme looked into the relative nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef and lamb, and plant-based alternatives. Annette Scott found out why grass is so great.
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This article was among Farmers Weekly’s most read in 2022.

A New Zealand research programme has found pasture-raised beef and lamb beats both grain-fed beef and plant-based alternatives when it comes to health and wellbeing benefits for consumers. 

The four-year programme brought together researchers from AgResearch, the Riddet Institute and the University of Auckland and included two ground-breaking clinical trials to look at the impact of red meat on the diet.

The clinical trials assessed the physical effects on the body from eating beef or lamb raised on grass, grain-fed beef and plant-based alternatives, and looked at measurements of wellbeing such as satisfaction, sleep and stress levels.

The project was led by the Meat Industry Association’s innovation arm and jointly funded with Beef + Lamb NZ, as well as the High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

The trials were a departure from much of the global research on the health, nutritional and environmental aspects of red meat, which tends to be based on the product of intensive grain-finished farming systems.

“The idea was to investigate the health consequences of humans consuming either grass-fed beef or lamb and comparing that to these other alternatives that are increasing in the market such as meat analogues,” Andrea Braakhuis, research dietician at the University of Auckland, says.

She says it was important the research provided moderate amounts of red meat based on a healthy diet in a practical and realistic situation to bring out both the positives and negatives of consuming red meat as part of healthy diet.   

A whole food such as beef is ‘full of things, all manner of compounds that are part of what our body needs’, researchers say.

The study found the plant-based alternative tested had lower protein digestibility than the grass-fed and grain-fed beef.

In the lamb and two beef meats researched, the essential amino acid response was much higher compared to the meat alternative even though the total protein was similar. The amount of amino acid absorbed from the three red meat options was much higher than has been shown in human participants before, Braakhuis says.  

Massey University investigator Lovedeep Kaur found that during digestion the pasture-raised beef released lower levels of saturated fatty acids or the saturated fats that are linked with adverse health outcomes, compared to the grain-finished beef. 

“The pasture-raised beef also released higher levels of omega-3 fatty acid such as DHA and EPA, which are linked with better health outcomes,” Kaur says. 

AgResearch senior scientist Scott Knowles says that what New Zealand does well is grow grass.

“We’ve got the sunshine, we’ve got the rain, we’ve got the land and so the animals are pretty low-impact on environment and low-impact on water usage.” 

Animal welfare benefits when the animals are free range. 

“When you look at it with the kind of depth that we were able to with our advanced analytics, that’s when you see that a whole food is full of things, all manner of compounds that are part of what our body needs,”  Knowles says.

“One of the trump cards for red meat is its mineral content. People think of it as a source of protein – well of course it is – but because it is a whole food it encompasses a number of nutrient categories,” Knowles says.  

The head of nutrition at Beef + Lamb NZ, Fiona Windle, says red meat is recognised for its nutritional quality, providing quality protein and essential micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12.

“These all contribute to health and wellbeing, things like energy levels, immune function, and growth and development in children. 

“New Zealanders and general consumers are getting a lot of messages about food and nutrition, and many of these messages are unfounded,” Windle says.

The initial stages of the programme were led by AgResearch and the Riddet Institute. 

AgResearch developed nutritional profiles and the Riddet Institute conducted lab-based digestive analysis of the products.

The plant-based alternative tested had lower protein digestibility than the grass-fed and grain-fed beef, the study found.

Results from these two studies provided baseline data about pasture-raised beef and lamb and its consumption in comparison to other foods.

University of Auckland researchers then oversaw the final two stages, which consisted of clinical trials investigating both the short-term and long-term wellbeing and health benefits of red meat consumption. 

The highlight of the programme, a sustained clinical study, had members of 40 households on a managed flexitarian dietary regime over 10 weeks. 

The participants were monitored over the course of the study and changes in health status, behaviours and attitudes and perceptual wellbeing were recorded.

Windle says the results from the research programme will help inform discussion on foods that fit in the diet today and diets in the future, all as a part of the New Zealand red meat story.

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