Putting Beef Hormones into Context (AKA “How do you Make a Hormone…?”)

No Twinkies!Disclaimer – the alternative title is the start of one of my favorite jokes – in the interests of keeping this post PG-13, I’ll post the punch line at the end.

It never ceases to amaze me how selectively paranoid we are as a society. I know I’m not alone in avoiding certain behaviors because they seem too risky – I always wear my seatbelt (even in a pick-up driving at 10 mph through a pasture), I don’t put my phone in my lap (who knows what invisible radio waves are frying my internal organs?) and I’m convinced that if I eat a Twinkie (RIP?) it’ll instantly turn me into 400 lb couch potato. Yet I also drive too fast on the interstate, drink enough coffee to keep a polar bear wired for days and have the misguided impression that I can survive on 4 hours sleep per night (thank you NCBA Cattle Industry Convention 2013 for proving me right last week). There’s no doubt that I’m more likely to come to harm from the latter set of behaviors than the former, so why the dichotomy?

It appears to comes down to two main factors:

  • The perception of relative risk – am I more likely to be injured from driving fast or from not wearing a seatbelt?
  • The extent of our knowledge about the subject – I know what risks come with caffeine consumption and I accept them in exchange for improved work productivity, but who knows how addictive Twinkies really are? There’s a reason they’re sold in multi-packs…

Thanks to the preponderance of media articles and books about food production, we’re more educated as a society than we were 10 years ago, yet we still fail to understand the concept of relative risk:

  • Environmentally, the Meatless Mondays campaigns appear to make people feel good about saving the planet even as they drive their Hummer to Whole Foods to buy quinoa and kale salad for dinner
  • Socially, reusing grocery bags reduces waste, yet appears to come with a far higher risk of contracting E. coli (thank you David Hayden)
  • Healthwise, I have lost count of the conversations I’ve had with highly educated, health-conscious women who have stopped feeding beef or milk to their kids because of the hormones used in beef or dairy production. Yet this is one area where we have a huge amount of data, we just need to put it in context.

The birth-control pill contains almost 7,000x more estrogen than a steakYes, an 8-oz steak from a steer given a hormone implant contains more estrogen than a steak from a non-implanted animal. 42% more estrogen in fact. That’s undeniable. Yet the amount of estrogen in the steak from the implanted animal is minuscule: 5.1 nanograms. One nanogram (one-billionth of a gram or one-25-billionth of an ounce) is roughly equivalent to one blade of grass on a football field.

By contrast, one birth-control pill, taken daily by over 100 million women worldwide, contains 35,000 nanograms of estrogen. That’s equivalent of eating 3,431 lbs of beef from a hormone-implanted animal, every single day. To put it another way, it’s the annual beef consumption of 59 adults. Doesn’t that put it into perspective?

If birth-control is a sensitive subject, let’s compare it to vegetables: one 8-oz serving of cabbage = 5,411 nanograms of estrogen, over 1,000 times more estrogen than the same serving size of steak from a steer given a hormone implant. Yet Huffington Post, TIME magazine et al. aren’t up in arms about the dangers posed by cabbage consumption (NB. ~4,000 cabbage producers in the USA, please don’t send me hate mail, this is just an example).

Hormones are directly or indirectly responsible for everything that we do each day, from waking up to going to sleep, from the mundane to the life-changing. Yes, they are an intrinsic part of childhood development, yet the earlier ages at maturity we’re currently seeing in children have been attributed to increased levels of body fat (i.e. childhood obesity), not to exogenous hormone consumption. I’m not downplaying the consequences that hormones have on our long-term health and survival, just asking for a little balance – after all, where’s the risk in that?

*Oh, and the punchline to the joke above… “Don’t pay her!” (Sorry….)

Meatless Mondays.. or More Veg Mondays?

I consider myself to be an omnivore. I love meat – the smell of grilling beef or lamb turns me into a human version of Scooby Doo drooling and begging for a Scooby snack, and I’ve been known to arm-wrestle people for the last bratwurst. I love vegetables even more than meat – anyone examining my grocery-shopping list might conclude that I have an entire colony of rabbits to support with radishes, asparagus and zucchini, and I simply don’t understand those people who don’t find immense pleasure in eating “green stuff”. Given that the Meatless Mondays campaign apparently aims to “introduce consumers to the wide variety of healthy, delicious plant-based foods available”, you might think I’d be all over it like butter on a baked potato (be still my beating heart). Yet the very phrase causes my blood pressure to rise. Snacking on carrots, celery and olives in Delta Airlines’ Sky Lounges rather than buying deep-fried Taco Bell at the airport fills me with joy, but when I order a pizza, it’s always the vegetarian supreme…with added Italian sausage.

There it is – the added sausage. Meaty, spicy goodness that adds another layer of flavor to my pizza and that, as meat, I consider to be an essential component of my diet. In the US we are more food-centered than ever before – Facebook albums are titled “food porn” and chefs are celebrities. Yet we also seem to be moving towards a culture where individual foods or nutrients are demonized. “Fat-free” and “sugar-free” are marketing terms that imply that specific nutrients are undesirable in our diet; whole aisles are devoted to gluten-free foods despite the fact that celiac disease found in less than 1% of the population; and who doesn’t have a friend who is diligently avoiding carbs, dairy or red meat on “health grounds”? Why has our society evolved to the point where those who can afford the greatest variety of foods are the most likely to demand a gluten-free, dairy-free, low-carbohydrate, macrobiotic diet as a mark of their elite status?*

Abstinence, whether on dietary or moral grounds, has always been synonymous with purity, sacrifice, and a certain level of sanctimoniousness. I am purer than you because I don’t give in to my dark desires for <<insert your sin of choice here>>. The Meatless Mondays campaign plays the abstinence hand beautifully – give up your selfish meat-eating habits for one day per week and you too can save the world by eating a bean burrito. The Humane Society of the United States inevitably supports the Meatless Mondays campaign, their comment (expressed verbatim in almost every press-release) being that it “helps spare animals from factory farms, helps our environment, and improves our health”. If “meatless” is the way forwards, meat must be an undesirable food and vegetarian diets must be healthier, just as fat-free Oreo cookies would be presumed to be a wiser nutritional choice than regular Oreos (interestingly, their calorie contents are almost identical). Yet the national carbon footprint would be reduced by less than half of one percent if everybody adopted Meatless Mondays for an entire year, and the propounded effects of meat consumption on health have not been borne out by science.

When a school district or college campus adopts the Meatless Mondays campaign, I don’t hear the buzz of black helicopters and see the hand of Wayne Pacelle on the throttle. However, I am deeply disappointed that a campaign demonizing meat consumption, suggesting that eating a hamburger is comparable to the environmental equivalent of driving at 120 mph in a Hummer or the health effects of smoking 20 cigarettes per day, is considered by so many to be a positive move forwards in feeding a hungry world. I am not suggesting that we should all eat a 16 oz T-bone steak for every meal, or that vegetarianism or veganism are not valid dietary choices. Indeed, I propose that meat-eaters be afforded the same courtesy as vegetarians or vegans – to choose foods according to their individual or religious beliefs.

So what is the future for Meatless Mondays? It’s very simple. If this campaign really aims to expose people to a wider range of vegetables and plant-based food choices, let’s simply christen it “More Veg Mondays”. Have an extra helping of broccoli with your steak, try eggplant parmegana alongside your hotdog, or replace crackers with raw celery and radishes. Rather than demonizing individual foods, let’s celebrate the fabulous variety of choices that are available to us and that allow us the opportunity to eat a balanced diet every single day. Ironically, yesterday my Monday was almost meatless – I spent the day traveling and subsisting on dried mango, chocolate-covered coffee beans and vitamin water in Chilean airports. However, I made up for it once I reached Córdoba – the Iberian ham on my pizza was the best I ever tasted, and made better by the rocket, tomatoes and olives that accompanied it (see picture above). Eat more vegetables? In an instant. Give up meat on Mondays? As Charlton Heston would say: only when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

*Please note that I do not include those who have demonstrable food allergies in this group

Vegan is Love. So Omnivore is…Hate?

When I visualize vegans* with kids (and I apologize in advance for the stereotyping but after all, this is a visualization), I have an image of a couple similar to my childhood friend Molly’s** parents. A pair of liberal arts majors, in favor of trying to have rational discussion with a toddler who’s beating her fists on the floor as she has a tantrum in the middle of Safeway, he had a huge beard, she wore hemp and they were both passionately devoted to both Molly’s education and her right to make rational choices as she developed into a miraculous human being.

So imagine my surprise when the latest kids book de jour isn’t the beautiful and life-affirming “Guess How Much I Love You“, but “Vegan is Love” a charming tale that paints graphic pictures of the perceived violence that farm animals undergo during slaughter and effectively paints all omnivorous kids as Manson-esque murderers. Reviews on Amazon.com include “Leaping and bounding toward a more peaceable world…” from singer Jason Mraz and similar compliments from the founders of Animal Acres and Farm Sanctuary. Nicely done vegan activists – get the Mommy guilt going and start a “you eat meat so you’re a murderer, get out of my sandbox” clique going in kindergarten.

I never fail to be amazed by just how narrow-minded the focus is of those opposed to animal agriculture, despite their assumed “peace, love and tolerance for all living creatures stance”. Can you imagine the consequences if a similar children’s book was published detailing the horrible life of little Trevor, born with developmental problems due to a severely restricted maternal diet during pregnancy? There would be outrage – how dare the meat-eating majority pick on a vegetable-eating minority… The funny thing is, I’ve yet to hear any omnivorous acquaintance ever seriously assert that vegetarians or vegans should be made to eat meat. Yet the activist vegan contingent are determined to pass their “morals” (note that’s ethical morals, not the delicious fungal morels) onto omnivores and impose dietary choices upon them.

Some states already have abstinence-only sex education, and many schools have “Meatless Mondays”, so what’s next? Vegan-only high school nutrition classes? Herbivorous zoology (no carnivores  allowed)?  The tale of the loaves and fishes rewritten as the loaves and the three-bean-and-lentil-surprise?  Only 1.7% of the population may be actively complaining against modern food production, but they’re not just banging the drum, they’ve hired the whole darn band.

*Before I’m accused of being a meat industry zombie or other such nonsense, I should confess that I was a vegetarian and then a strict vegan from the age of 15-17. I actually turned orange from a sensitivity to beta-carotene.

**Names have been changed 

Eating Less Meat, May Not Help You To Live Forever…But It’ll Sure Feel Like It

I know Harvard researchers are smart, I really do. Yet I have to question the latest study reporting that eating red meat is associated with premature death. Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the paper analyzed the relationship between mortality and red meat consumption in a total of 121,342 healthcare professionals and concluded that:

Greater consumption of unprocessed and processed red meats is associated with higher mortality risk… replacement of red meat with alternative healthy dietary components may lower the mortality risk.

As a researcher, I know full well that it’s almost impossible to prove a cause-effect relationship. This is particularly difficult in human studies where other dietary and lifestyle factors have to be accounted for. After all, if you have ketchup on your steak, does the lycopene prevent against prostate cancer? “Associated with” is therefore absolutely the correct terminology for the paper’s authors to use. Alas, in the minds of so many, “associated with” translates to “causes” (especially when it’s a bad news story), and everybody panics accordingly.

The results of this report need to be put into context with our other lifestyle choices. If, as reported, eating unprocessed or processed red meat increases the relative risk of mortality by 13% and 20% respectively, how does that compare to all our other daily activities – driving a car, drinking a glass of wine or eating a candy bar? How do we weigh the risk of consuming a steak or slice of pepperoni pizza against the bottle of Mountain Dew or unwashed raw carrot? After all, during the BSE crisis in the UK, data suggested that the risk of dying from falling out of bed and suffering a fatal head injury was far greater than that from contracting vCJD, yet there was immense consumer concern relating to the perceived dangers of beef consumption.

Relative risk is not a measure that many people understand. Within this study, the absolute mortality risks (i.e. the probability of any one person dying) paint a rather different picture. Out of every 100 men, 1.23 men consuming three servings of unprocessed meat (the equivalent of one 9-oz steak) per week were likely to die, versus 1.30 men eating 6 oz of processed meat (bacon, sausage etc) per day (42 oz per week). Given the small difference in those mortality risks (which were similar for women) yet the huge difference (9 oz vs. 42 oz) in weekly meat consumption, we would be better served by focusing more on other factors (bodyweight, exercise, genetic propensity to specific diseases) that contribute the vast majority of our absolute mortality risk rather than assuming that we can live forever if we only replace a hamburger with a vegetarian meatloaf.

Since this study hit the headlines my Facebook newsfeed predictably been over-run by anecdotes about grandparents who lived to the ripe of age of 101 years while eating bacon and eggs for breakfast, corned-beef hash for lunch and three pork chops (with extra heavy cream in the whipped potatoes) for dinner. Without wishing to be flippant, the one certainty in this life is that we’ll all die at some point – if I restricted my meat intake to the suggested 3 oz per day (or less) I have a sneaking feeling that I might not live forever, but it’d sure feel like it.

Feed = Food? Do livestock really compete with humans for food?

Can we feed up to 10 billion people in 2100 by improving crop yields, reducing deforestation, and reducing meat and dairy consumption? These solutions are among those suggested by Jonathan Foley at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of the Environment to enable the increase in food production required by the future global population. These are logical suggestions, yet the proposal that meat and dairy consumption should be reduced is likely to be the most-debated, particularly as livestock industry stakeholders may regard this as yet another attack on animal agriculture.

The futility of the “Meatless Mondays” campaign has been discussed ad infinitum, yet in contrast to the EWG’s recent report, Foley does not attempt to promote a vegetarian or vegan ideology or to suggest that climate change could be reversed if only we all ate humanely-certified or organic meat. Instead, the report concludes that resources could be saved if we shifted to meat consumption towards pork and poultry production as:

…it takes 30 kilos [66 lb] of grain to produce one kilo [2.2lb] of boneless beef… We’re better off producing grass-fed beef or more chicken and pork, which requires far less grain feed

Based on those data, Foley’s conclusion is entirely logical. However, as Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” – and here the evidence is lacking. A recent review of feed efficiency by Wilkinson reports that monogastric animals require 4.0 kg (swine) or 2.3 kg (poultry) of feed per kg of gain. Monogastrics are indeed considerably more efficient than their ruminant counterparts as beef animals require 8.8 kg feed per kg gain – considerably more than swine or poultry, but far less than Foley’s estimate.

It would be convenient to argue that the errors in Foley’s feed efficiency data (not to mention religious limitations on pork consumption) negate the report’s conclusions. But isn’t it logical to argue that we should eat meat produced in systems that use fewer resources to produce animal protein? Personally, I spend more than half my time traveling to present precisely that message to the animal industry and to encourage livestock producers to improve efficiency. I absolutely believe that we need to improve productivity and efficiency in order to feed the growing population. However, traditional feed efficiency data have a major flaw – it’s assumed that all animal feed could otherwise be used to feed humans.

Wilkinson suggests that the traditional concept of feed efficiency be re-examined to reflect the quantity of human-edible crop inputs that are used to produce a unit of energy or protein from animal products. For example, humans cannot digest pasture, only 20% of the nutritional value of oilseed meals can be utilized for human food and yet 80% of nutrients within cereals, pulses and soybean meal are human-edible. By partitioning out the human-edible component of animal feed, Wilkinson demonstrates that the human-edible energy feed efficiency ratios for pork and cereal beef are similar (Figure 1*) and that dairy production actually produces twice the amount of human-edible energy than it uses (input:output ratio of 0.5). On a protein basis, cereal beef has a higher human-edible protein feed efficiency ratio (3.0) than pork (2.6), but suckler beef systems where cattle are grazed on pasture again produce more human-edible protein than they consume (input:output ratio of 0.9, Figure 2*). Not only are these revised feed efficiency estimates considerably lower than those quoted by Foley, but they underline the importance of herbivorous grazing animals in utilizing human-inedible forage to produce animal protein.


Numbers have power – it’s always tempting to base a suggestion around a single data point that “proves” the argument. Feed efficiency is a useful metric, but as we face an ever-increasing challenge in balancing food demand, resource availability and consumer expectations, it’s critical that we examine the bigger picture. The ruminant animal has a major evolutionary advantage in its ability to digest forages – we may be better acquainted with the human dietary advantages of probiotic bacteria than our ancestors, but until we are equipped with human rumens (humens?) we cannot hope to effectively make use of all crop resources.

*The importance of acknowledging the human-edible component of feed efficiency was part of my presentation at the Alltech Ruminant Solutions Seminar in Ireland this week – to go to a PDF copy of my presentation please click here.

Taking the pledge – Meat as the new Mephistopheles?

Post-prohibition, is meat the new devil?

My Grandpa, a strict Methodist, took the pledge to abstain from alcohol back in the 1940’s when the church was endorsing Prohibition via the Temperance movement in the UK. It was an entirely personal choice for him, one that he felt was right for his lifestyle and a cause that he didn’t try to recruit other people to join. Admittedly it filtered down to his children and even had some influence on his grandchildren, although for my brothers, cousins and me the effect is now somewhat akin to adding a single ice-cube to a tumbler of whiskey.

In 1889, George Sim described slum areas where drinking was commonplace thus:

The gin-palace is heaven to them compared to the hell of their pestilent homes… The drink dulls every sense of shame, takes the sharp edge from sorrow, and leaves the drinker for awhile in a fools’ paradise… It is not only crime and vice and disorder flourish luxuriantly in these colonies, through the dirt and discomfort bred of intemperance of the inhabitants, but the effect upon the children is terrible. The offspring of drunken fathers and mothers inherit not only a tendency to vice, but they come into the world physically and mentally unfit to conquer in life’s battle. The wretched, stunted, misshapen child-object one comes upon in these localities is the most painful part of our explorers’ experience. The country asylums are crowded with pauper idiots and lunatics, who owe their wretched condition of the sin of the parents, and the rates are heavily burdened with the maintenance of the idiot offspring of drunkenness.

Given such strong words, it’s not surprising that alcohol was considered by many to be the root of all evil. In this modern world, where a myriad of organizations exist to help us with our addictions to the more insidiously hedonistic pleasures in life*, surely we are beyond taking the pledge?

Alas no, the Environmental Working Group is at it again, this time with a pledge that they aim to get 100,000 supporters to sign. That’s right, you can save the planet by simply clicking a button on the internet stating that:

I pledge to skip meat one day a week and to include more healthy fruits and vegetables in my diet. Not only will I be doing something good for my body, I’ll also be doing something good for the environment.

So, let’s assume 100,000 people sign up for this. That will cut the USA’s carbon footprint by 0.00014% (it would only be 0.44% if the entire population took the pledge *and* actually stuck to it). Hardly a significant environmental effect.

What would you replace meat with? Jack-in-a-Box Jalapeno poppers? A couple of Twinkies? A 1/2 lb soy burger? It’s rational to assume that giving up meat for one day a week will not suddenly cause everybody to have more time to cook, or to prepare fresh exotic salads from scratch – the basic food preferences will stay the same, simply without meat.

So the chicken breast, hamburger or pork chop is replaced by a vegetarian burrito – one from Chipotle no less, which has made a big play of not using rbST and other hormones. According to USDA’s nutrient database, the calorie content of an 8 oz steak is 581 calories with 35 grams of fat.  An 8 oz pork chop has 524 calories with 38 grams of fat. The vegetarian burrito? Chipotle lists nutritional information by ingredient, luckily the handy dandy My Fitness Pal website has put together all those ingredients –  750 calories with 27 grams of fat. Hardly a short-cut to becoming a lean, mean fitness machine.

Life is all about choices, and all dietary choices have environmental and health consequences. The Temperance movement believed abstaining from alcohol made for a better life and (via Methodism) a promise of a better afterlife. Can the same really said of abstaining from meat for one day per week? Should meat be renamed Mephistopheles – or is abstention simply another short-term panacea by which we can feel better about our health, environment and karma via bad science and vegetarian spin?

*Personally, I need a “Cinnabon Lovers Anonymous” help-group

Meatless Mondays don’t amount to a hill of beans – or do they?

Eat alfalfa, save the planet?

Today’s Thursday, so presumably we can all enjoy a hamburger without being made to feel guilty by the virtuous soy-eaters who are saving the planet (thanks Environmental Working Group). But what happens when the weekend is over, Monday morning appears in all it’s miserable beginning-of-the-week glory and we’re choosing lunch? According to many schools, universities, hospitals, retirement complexes and workplaces, Monday is the day when you can make a difference!

Simply by replacing that ham and cheese with a nice alfalfa and hummus wrap, we can all sleep safely knowing that our hummer driving and air-conditioning set at 65 degrees isn’t harming the environment – after all, we went meatless today! So what’s the real impact of Meatless Mondays?

If you believe the hyperbolic text of the EWG’s recently released report, animal agriculture is the root of all environmental evil. Yet buried on page 21 is the admission that animal agriculture only accounts for 4.5% of the US’s carbon footprint. The EPA has a somewhat smaller, but similar figure at 3.1% of total emissions. The original Meatless Mondays claim appears to have been derived from a paper from Carnegie Mellon that concludes:

Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.

So let’s do the math. Removing poultry and horses from the EPA’s animal agriculture total of 3.1% gives a red meat/dairy impact of 3.05%. Divide that by 7, and the impact of one meatless day per week is equal to 0.44% of the US carbon footprint – and that’s assuming that the US population of 311 million people all adopt this lifestyle change.

0.44% is minuscule. A tiny fraction of the impact that we could make on the carbon footprint. But if we put it in consumer-friendly numbers, it’s like taking 5.7 million cars off the road each year, or planting 4.5 billion trees. Sounds far more compelling now doesn’t it? But how does that compare to the impact of powering the MacBook upon which I’m currently writing this post during a 3 hour cross-country airplane flight, followed by a 90 minute drive home? Not to mention all the other environmentally-damaging actions I’ll execute before the day is out.

In a world where we have a wildly tenuous grasp on the immediate or long-term environmental consequences of the majority of our actions, we really need to assess the environmental impact of simply existing as a human. Forget demonizing specific foods, or pretending that one single action can save the planet – we need to understand and quantify how all our choices have consequences – and act accordingly.