CAVE PAINTINGS never showed people eating carrots – so the argument for meat eating goes. In fact, humans remained largely carnivorous until fairly recently. Today, our simple gut of a single stomach, medium-length small intestine and short colon is “typical of an omnivore”, explains the dietician Carrie Ruxton in her recent paper: “Micronutrient Challenges Across the Age Spectrum: Is there a role for red meat?”
Speaking at the Health of the Nation event, Ruxton explained meat’s role in providing essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals. “Red meats are an excellent source of B vitamins, phosphorus and zinc,” she said, adding that “integrating red meat into diets from infanthood to old age may help narrow the present gap between micronutrient intakes and recommendations”.
A third of the calories in the average British diet come from treat foods. “As a dietician, I think all foods have a place in the diet, but do we really want 30% of our calories coming from biscuits, cakes, crisps, soft drinks and so on?”
The make-up of a sustainable, bal- anced diet was the focus of a lively event organised by BPEX and entitled Sustaining the Health of the Nation: What role for red meat?
What constitutes a sustainable diet is a debate that has rumbled on for years, confused by simple messaging such as “meat-free Mondays”, and polarised by the interests of the food and agriculture lobbies on the one side and environmentalists on the other. Throw nutrition into the pot and this is a recipe for infinite debate.
The media hasn’t helped with “soundbites rather than science”, according to Professor Judy Buttriss, the director-general of the British Nutrition Foundation. She wasn’t alone in that view. And yet there appears to be little consensus among scientists, policy-makers and, at times, environmentalists about the role of meat in a sustainable diet.
Just before the conference the all-party parliamentary group for beef and lamb published a report claiming that there is no clear evidence of the environmental effect of livestock production and that more sci- entific data is required. The “eat less meat” message was therefore too simplistic, the group concluded.
Many speaking at the conference agreed with this sentiment, but the stalemate over whether meat consumption need to be reduced on environmental grounds is worrying the likes of Tara Garnett, who heads the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), and Anthony Kleanthous, a writer and consultant who has worked on WWF-UK’s One Planet Food team.
“Food accounts for between one quarter and one third of our entire ecological and greenhouse gas footprint,” Kleanthous explained. “We need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions for agriculture specifically by around 70% in the UK. Changing the way that we eat will have a bigger impact than almost anything other than flying.”
The problem is, how to change? Could chefs make sustainable food sexy?
The idea of eating less but better meat, promoted by the likes of the FCRN and WWF, is gaining momentum. Yet it is a message that is feared by politicians, often ignored by food companies and generally misunderstood by consumers.
Sue Dibb, who is co-ordinating a new initiative entitled Eating Better for a Fair Green Healthy Future, explained her experiences when working with ministers at the Sustainable Development Commission. The previous Labour administration said: “‘We cannot possibly talk about meat. It is far too sensitive’,” she said.
The coalition government, through its Green Food Project, has dabbled a little in the idea, and there were signs at the conference that there is “space for a sensible conversation”, said Dibb. “It does not need to be a fearful or radical conversation.” And the changes don’t need to be radical either, according to Kleanthous. “It does not matter if you use red meat in every meal; it is a question of how much red meat you use in total.”
Using meat as a “flavour enhancer” is a concept being considered by foodservice companies, with some looking to introduce more low-meat and vegetarian options in what are being referred to as “smarter menus”. They can also be cheaper. WWF-UK and the Rowett Institute compared the costs of a “healthy, sustainable diet” with the average diet and found the former was “considerably cheaper”. As Kleanthous concluded: “It is not a question of cost; it very much is a question of habit, education and accessibility.”