Is It Time We Stopped Shouting About The Dietary Guidelines?

The recent report by the advisory committee to the USDA dietary guidelines has certainly caused a media stir in the past week or so. There’s a lot of nutritional common sense in the report – eat more fruit, veg, and dairy, reduce carbs and sweetened drinks/snacks, and moderate alcohol intake. Yet there’s a kicker – from both a health and a sustainability perspective, Americans should apparently be guided to consume less animal-based foods.

10982813_934682089898559_3461048965358255082_oWhen the report was released, my Twitter notifications, Facebook feed and email inbox exploded. Memes like the one to the left appeared on every (virtual) street corner, and the report was mentioned in every online newsletter, whether agricultural or mainstream media. It’s this press coverage rather than the content of the report, that really concerns me.

Individuals don’t pay a lot of attention to a government report on nutrition. Despite the fact that six updates to the guidelines have been released since their inception in 1980, we are all still eating too many Twinkies in front of the TV and super-sized takeout meals in the car, rather than chowing down on broccoli and lentil quinoa bake.

Headlines CollageYet people do pay attention to headlines like “Less meat, more veggies: big food is freaking out about the “nonsensical” new dietary guidelines” and others shown to the left. The media sub-text is that big bad food producers (so different from the lovely local farmer who sells heirloom breed poultry at $18/lb at the farmers market) are appalled by the release of this governmental bad science that’s keeping them from their quest to keep you unhealthily addicted to triple cheeseburgers washed down with a 500-calorie soda, and will do anything to suppress it.

This makes me wonder – at what point do we need quiet, stealthy change, rather than loud protests that attract the attention of people who would otherwise never have read about the guidelines? At what point does industry protesting seem like a modern version of “The lady doth protest too much“?

Rather than posting on Facebook or Twitter that the report is nonsense because the committee of nutritionists ventured into the bottomless pit that is sustainability; why don’t we instead extol the virtues of producing high-quality, nutritious, safe and affordable lean meat, and aim to reach the people who haven’t seen the hyperbolic headlines or read the guidelines simply because they’ve seen a lot of talk about them on Twitter? The old showbiz saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity certainly applies here – the extent of the reporting on the industry backlash against the report means they have probably been noted by far more people that they otherwise might.

The impact of the dietary guidelines recommendations upon purchasing programs is far higher than on individuals, and does give rise to concern. Globally, one in seven children don’t have enough food, and school lunches are often the only guaranteed source of high-quality protein available to children in impoverished families. I may be being overly sceptical, but I suspect that if meat consumption in schools is reduced, it’s unlikely to be replaced with a visually and gastronomically-appealing, nutritionally-complete vegetarian alternative.

Sustainability doesn’t just mean carbon, indeed, environmentally it extends far further than the land, water and energy use assessed by the dietary guidelines advisory committee into far bigger questions. These include the fact that we cannot grow human food crops on all types of land; water quality vs. quantity; the need to protect wildlife biodiversity in marginal and rangeland environments; the use of animal manures vs. inorganic fertilisers; environmental costs of sourcing replacements for animal by-products in manufacturing and other industries; and many other issues. Simply stating that meat-based diet X has a higher carbon footprint or land use than plant-based diet Y is not sufficient justification for 316 million people to reduce their consumption of a specific food. Indeed, despite the conclusions of the committee, data from the US EPA attributing only 2.1% of the national carbon footprint to meat production suggests that even if everybody reduced their intake of beef, lamb and pork, it would have a negligible effect on carbon emissions.

Could we all reduce our individual environmental impact? Absolutely. Yet as stated with regards to dietary change in the advisory report, it has to be done with consideration for our individual biological, medical and cultural requirements. As humans, we have biological and medical requirements for dietary protein, and some would even argue that grilling a 16-oz ribeye is a cultural event. I have every sympathy for the USDA committee*, who were faced with a Herculean task to fulfill, but in this case, they only succeeded in cutting off one head from the multi-craniumed Hydra – and it grew another 50 in its place.

*Many people have already commented on the suitability (or not) of the committee to evaluate diet sustainability, but to give them their due, they do appear to have looked beyond greenhouse gases to land, water and energy use. They are nutrition specialists, not sustainability experts, but it would be difficult (impossible) to find a committee comprising people who were all experts in nutrition, sustainability, economics, policy, behaviour and all the other facets of the report. Nonetheless, the sustainability recommendations appear to be based on a small number of papers, many of which are based on dietary information from other regions (Germany, UK, Italy) which will also have different levels of animal and crop production. As somebody who was born and bred in the UK before moving to the USA I find it difficult to believe that the average American’s diet uses substantially more land (for example) than the average UK person, as cited in the report.

Got Ebola? Just Take Some Vitamin C.


It appears that the lunatics are taking over the asylum. This is another post about “things that irritate me” – just a short rant this time about bad science and fear-mongering. The current irritant is the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH; as publicized by the Organic Consumers Association), which claims that Ebola can be prevented and treated naturally, but that these remedies are being (gasp!) “ignored by doctors and the government”.

If you’re really concerned that you may catch Ebola, the easiest way to avoid it is not to have intimate contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids; but never fear, if you do, the ANH have a list of “proven” natural remedies that will stop Ebola dead in its tracks. For example, Ebola is selenium-dependant, making people who’re already selenium-deficient more vulnerable to the disease, so if you just load up with mega-doses of selenium, you’ll be fine. Equally, both silver and vitamin C are antiviral, so add these to your selenium cocktail and you won’t just be fine, you’ll be invincible!

There’s just one problem – none of these miracle remedies have actually been tested against Ebola, which ANH claim is because of government/big drug conspiracies. It’s true that increasing your intake of selenium and vitamins C, D and E should boost your immune system to a degree, but you can’t then have a long smooch with somebody who’s infected with Ebola and expect to be immune. More importantly, given the ANH’s claims of natural “treatment”, there is zero evidence that any of these purported remedies provide a cure.

Most worrying of all is the final tagline: “Alert! Write to both FDA and Congress. Ask them to review natural treatments for Ebola without the lengthy drug approval process“. This lengthy drug approval process exists to ensure that drugs are safe, efficacious and do not cause unexpected or severe side-effects. It costs drug companies millions of dollars to get a single drug to market through this process, which is required for every new drug in order to protect our health. Furthermore, “natural” chemicals are not safe or effective simply because they exist in nature. Arsenic, cyanide and mercury are all inherently natural, as are deadly nightshade and death cap mushrooms. The “action alert” above is an example of bad science and fear-mongering at its worst – a dangerous remedy that will do nothing to halt the spread of the disease – and will probably hasten the patient’s death in the process.

One In Five Children Who Contract Diphtheria Die – Are Anti-Vaccination Activists Dangerous, Or Simply Misinformed?

vaccine1I had the pleasure of speaking in the plenary session at the 2014 AAVLD/USAHA Annual Meeting this week, where, among other topics, we discussed risk. One of the other panelists made the best point that I’ve heard in a long time – activists hate denominators.

Think about the last few scare stories you’ve seen – there’s no doubt that it is frightening to read that 3,000 people die from food poisoning each year, or that, to date, 4,546 people have died from Ebola (one in the USA). Yet if we put this into context, one person out of 315 million in the USA dying from Ebola is a tiny tiny fraction, and a correspondingly tiny risk.

Activists hate denominators because they provide us with context, a way to assess whether we’re really in danger. Statistically speaking, you’re  more likely to die from a traffic accident (one in 71 deaths), flu (one in 1,642 deaths), or syphilis (one in 55,866 deaths) than Ebola (one in 2,515,458 deaths). Which brings me to my current favorite activist, anti-vaccine zealot and proponent of “well-researched” bad science, Modern Alternative Mama (MAM). Thus week, she’s been promoting what she optimistically calls a “risk:benefit analysis” of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine.

Interestingly, she appears to consider all vaccine risks equal: death is no more of a minor inconvenience than redness at an injection site, and she earnestly notes that there is “no known benefit to getting diphtheria“. That sentence alone causes the mind to boggle. On a positive note, she does use valid CDC data, reporting that there were 3,169 adverse effects attributed to DTaP in 2011, which she claims is an underestimate of up to 9-fold.

So let’s run the numbers. Each year, approximately 3.95 million babies are born, of which 82.5% are given the DTaP vaccine. Between birth and 6 years of age, 5 doses of DTaP are recommended, so each year, 5 x 3.95 million x 82.5% = 16,293,750 doses are given (note that babies will have three each in that year, but older children (18 months and 4-6 years) will also receive a dose). Let’s give MAM the benefit of the doubt and assume adverse vaccine events are actually 5x the cited CDC number, at 15,845 events. The CDC classifies 10% of these events as “serious”, which equals 1,585 serious events per year.

So what is your child’s chance of having a serious reaction to the DTaP vaccine? 1,585/16,293,750 = 0.0000973, or one in 10,277 children will have a serious reaction to DTaP.

By contrast, we could take our chances in not vaccinating and hope that our child doesn’t contract diphtheria, which carries a risk of death of up to 20% in children under five years old. That means one in five children who contract diphtheria will die.

Given MAM’s antagonism towards vaccines, it’s not altogether surprising that she concludes “Although diphtheria is serious, it appears that the risk from the vaccine is much greater.” Yet let’s be realistic about this. One in 10,277 children will have a serious reaction to DTaP (serious reactions does not mean death, although that is one possible outcome) versus one in five children who will die after contracting diphtheria.

Admittedly that’s assuming that all unvaccinated children will get diphtheria. They won’t, but even if only 5% do, the risk is still overwhelmingly lower in the vaccine category (one in 10,277 suffering a serious reaction to the vaccine vs. one in 100 dying from diphtheria).

The site carries a disclaimer that writers are neither education professionals nor providing medical advice, yet the suggestion (by the author herself) that this is a well-researched, scientific post will no doubt cause some parents to congratulate themselves on their choice to not vaccinate.

This pseudoscientific scaremongering is dangerous, potentially lethal. All parents are concerned for their children’s health and welfare, but propounding nonsensical “risk:benefit analyses” that do not consider the denominator but simply the total adverse effects does not allow any parent to make a rational and well-considered decision. If my child is the one in 10,277 who suffers a serious DTaP vaccine reaction, I’m unlikely to care whether she is one of few or many, but at least I can make the decision whether or not to vaccinate (my answer is an overwhelming “yes”) based on risk. We all want our babies to grow up healthy and happy – in this case, it’s time to be a mainstream vaccinating Mama, rather than a “modern alternative” one.

Hyperbole, Hysteria, and a Sample Size of One – Where’s the Science?

IMG_9219I often describe this blog as a place where I write about things that irritate me. Today, is a case in point. There’s a new princess of technology paranoia on the block: move over Jenny McCarthy, because Modern Alternative Mama (MAM) is out to smother your crown with homemade liver pills and tweak it off your head. Billed as “a community of supportive people and well-researched information” the site is full of useful hints and tips on how to keep your children healthy – which in this case means unvaccinated, with unbrushed teeth and breast milk squirted up their noses to cure congestion. I wish this were my hyperbole – it’s not.

One of the common themes in the litany of anti-vaccination posts is the fact that vaccine scientists need funding to do experiments  (gasp!) and that such funding comes from companies that manufacture vaccines (gasp!). Obviously these scientists are the epitome of corporate shilldom and would sell their first-born child for a microscope and box of latex gloves. Best not to trust their pesky peer-reviewed science.

Don’t worry though, MAM is here to do the research for you and write about in a balanced and fair way. This translates roughly as: “Science (pesky corporate shills) shows there is no harmful effect of X, but if you allow the dastardly medical profession to force it on your defenseless bundle of joy they have a 756% increased risk of <insert scary disease here>, will be in therapy (blaming YOU) till they’re 45, and will never pass third-grade algebra. Oh, and did we mention that X has been linked to leukemia/childhood obesity/autism/type II diabetes/ADD/teenage pregnancy/atheism/voting Republican (delete as appropriate)“. They helpfully highlight the scary messages on the website in bold, so that you don’t miss them.

As with so many anti-technology sites, science is the enemy…unless it’s happy touchy feely science that backs up whatever theory is being propounded this week. Which is why it’s so funny to see them reporting that Baltic amber necklaces “really work” for preventing teething issues in babies.

One of the bloggers was sent a necklace by an amber company. She put it on her baby at 3 months of age (too early to teethe). 5 months and 5 teeth later  – no loss of sleep, no cranky baby, no teething problems whatsoever. Hooray! It’s a miracle! In her words: “Baltic amber is a win!” For the moment, let’s gloss over the fact that the necklace was provided free of charge and that the blogger was compensated for her post (ahem, Baltic amber shill).

So let me compare this to my experience. My baby is now 8.5 months old and also has 5 teeth. We’ve had no loss of sleep, no crankiness, no problems whatsoever with teething….and no amber necklace! Hooray! It’s a miracle! Wearing stripy Rainbow Brite-style leggings and pointing excitedly at next door’s dog (my daughter’s current favorite activity) are a win! Or maybe it’s the cucumber that she often eats for dinner! Or the fact that she can see the mountains from her crib! Or… some babies just teethe better than others.

Billions of children have been given vaccines that prevent disease with no ill-effects whatsoever, which the anti-vaccination activists appear to consider irrelevant. Yet one child given an amber necklace, with no control group or latin-square experimental design to test it’s efficacy – it’s a win! Baltic amber works! For goodness sake, try and be consistent MAM – you wouldn’t consider a sample size of one (my daughter for example, who has experienced no adverse effects from vaccines to date) to be proof that vaccines are ok – why do it with other issues that affect children’s health and wellbeing?

I’m not suggesting that teething pain is on the same scale of importance as the provision of vaccines, but let’s be realistic. If you’re going to this site (or others like it) for unbiased, sound information about vaccines or child health, just take a look at the other posts and products that are being promoted. Would I take cardiac advice from a surgeon who offered me three leeches and a tincture of wormwood to cure cancer*? No – and neither should you.

*Or eating tumeric and avoiding wearing a bra to avoid getting breast cancer, as MAM suggests

Would Being Vegan Really Solve Climate Change? Not if We Don’t Kill the Cows.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA friend of mine drew my attention to this NPR blogger, who makes the point that being “good” isn’t zero sum (a situation where what is gained by one side or cause, is lost by another). If you’re concerned about the environment, you can both recycle cans and buy a more climate-friendly car. If you are passionate about children’s education, you can volunteer in the classroom and financially support literary projects. In most cases, doing good is not an either/or.

Which made me think a little more about the definition of “good”. To that writer it meant being vegan or vegetarian, in the belief that such a diet would improve animal welfare and environmental impact. Yet this is exactly where the conflict arises for me – if we were all vegan or vegetarian, what would happen to the sheep, the cow, the pig and the chicken?

I posed that question to a vegan on Twitter recently and he, in all sincerity, answered that we, as a vegan population, would care for the animals, but would not enslave or control them. Imagine the beautiful utopia where we all have time to calve a cow or throw some grain to feral pigs before we set off to work, expecting nothing in return. Or in a more realistic scenario, we’d have more meat than we knew what to do with simply through car accidents if we suddenly let loose the USA’s 87.7 million cattle (never mind the 62.1 million pigs, 5.2 millon sheep and 9+ billion chickens).

Anti-animal agriculture activists often purport that a cow can live for 20+ years in her “natural” state compared to a farmed animal – so being a data nerd, I did the maths*. Let’s assume that 1) cows first calve at two years of age and that 90% of cows (38.3 million of them in the US at present) have a calf every year**; 2) 85% of those calves survive (mortality would go up due to predation, assuming we wouldn’t shoot wolves, coyotes etc.); and 3) each cow or bull lives for 20 years. Admittedly that doesn’t account for the cattle that would die from starvation through lack of available grazing in 5, 10 or 20 years time, but being good vegans, we’d feed them, right?

Within five years we’d have 602 million cattle in the USA, within 20 years we’d have 3.7 billion – a 40-fold increase on our current national herd. That’s 40x more cattle belching methane, drinking water and producing waste, every single day, all as a result of our changing our diet in an attempt to reduce environmental impact.

It’s a nice, simplistic, oft-suggested argument that we shouldn’t eat meat or dairy products in order to save the planet, yet the conflict between veganism, animal welfare, and environmental impact is clear. Climate change will be solved by us turning vegan? Not unless we reconcile ourselves to killing animals without eating them.

*I’m British, and as such, cannot use the American term “math” as opposed to the British “maths”
**90% is the US average for cow-calf herds, in which few hormones or other reproductive aids are used

Vegetarians May Preach – But We’re Not All Members of the Choir

Less meatThe  suggestion that we should eat less meat in order to save the planet pops up with monotonous regularity in my twitter feed. Interestingly, those who make this claim are almost always vegetarian, vegan or profess to eat very little meat. This is rather like me asserting that we could mitigate climate change and save resources by eating fewer bananas and curbing our windsurfing habits. I loathe bananas, and if you ever see me windsurfing you’d better be sure that there’s a nearby hospital bed and neck brace with my name on it. As you can imagine, giving up either activity would have little impact on my life.

This is why I find it interesting and rather facile that those who do not eat meat proclaim fleshy abstinence as the way forwards. It’s easy to preach a solution that has no impact on your life – far harder to make a dietary or lifestyle change that actually impacts you.

The “eat less meat” movement would have far more credibility if it was promoted by a hunting, fishing, grilling, hamburger-lover who publicly declared his/her love for meat in all it’s many forms, and bemoaned the fact that they felt they should forgo the steak in favor of the tofu stir-fry. Yet this doesn’t happen. Why? Because the vast majority of us simply don’t feel that an intangible threat (we can’t see or feel climate change, or conceptualize the quantity of oil reserves remaining) is sufficient to make us give up our carnitas burrito. In reality, meat eating is only likely to decline if it becomes too expensive or subject to regulatory sanctions (e.g. rationing similar to that in Britain during WWII). The influx of papers suggesting that we should reduce consumption therefore fall on deaf ears.

So let’s face the facts. Neither the national or global population is likely to reduce meat consumption in the near future, and the rising income per capita in India and China will increase demand for meat still further. Instead of making recommendations based on notional utopias, let’s focus on areas where we can really improve.

Amazing gains in productivity have allowed the beef, dairy, pork and egg industry to considerably reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions over the last century. With a culture of continuous improvement and access to technologies that improve productivity, we can feed the future population using even fewer resources.

Let’s make better use of the multifarious by-products from the human food and fiber industry. Ruminants are blessed with the ability to digest fibers and plant materials that we either can’t or won’t eat – using by-product feeds to replace corn and soy refutes the claim that livestock compete with humans for food.

Finally, take a look at your own plate. Globally, 33% of food is wasted. Just think of the reductions in resource use we could achieve (and people we could feed) if all the crops planted, fruit picked, and milk, meat and eggs produced were consumed, rather than just 2/3 of them.

We evoke change by leading by example – I’m off to enjoy a steak, conventionally-raised using 12% less water, 19% less feed and 33% less land than its equivalent in 1977. You’d better believe that if there’s any left, it’s going in a sandwich tomorrow. As my Grandma used to say: Waste not, want not.

Beef is Killing the Planet…and Elvis is Riding a Rainbow-Belching Unicorn

BurgerMy Twitter feed just exploded. Yet another study has been released claiming that if we all just gave up beef, the planet would be saved, Elvis would come back from the dead, and rainbow-belching unicorns would graze the Northern Great Plains. I may have exaggerated a little with the latter two claims, but the extent of media coverage related to the paper “Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs and dairy production in the United States” seems to suggest that the results within are as exciting as seeing Elvis riding one of those unicorns…but they’re also about as believable.

Much as we’d all like to stick our fingers in our ears and sing “La la la la” whenever anybody mentions greenhouse gases or water footprints, we cannot deny that beef has an environmental impact. Yet, here’s the rub – so does every single thing we eat. From apples to zucchini; Twinkies to organically-grown, hand-harvested, polished-by-mountain-virgins, heirloom tomatoes. Some impacts are positive (providing habitat for wildlife and birds), some are negative (nutrient run-off into water courses), but all foods use natural resources (land, water, fossil fuels) and are associated with greenhouse gas emissions.

So is this simply another attack on the beef industry from vegetarian authors out to promote an agenda? Possibly. The inclusion of multiple phrases suggesting that we should replace beef with other protein sources seems to indicate so. But regardless of whether it’s part of the big bad vegan agenda, or simply a paper from a scientist whose dietary choices happen to complement the topic of his scientific papers, the fact remains that it’s been published in a world-renowned journal and should therefore be seen as an example of good science.

Or should it?

I’m the first to rely on scientific, peer-reviewed papers as being the holy grail for facts and figures, but there’s a distressing trend for authors to excuse poor scientific analysis by stating that high-quality data was not available. It’s simple. Just like a recipe – if you put junk in, you get junk out. So if one of the major data inputs to your analysis (in this case, feed efficiency data) is less than reliable, the accuracy of your conclusions is….? Yep. As useful as a chocolate teapot.

Feed efficiency is the cut-and-paste, go-to argument for activist groups opposed to animal agriculture. Claims that beef uses 10, 20 or even 30 lbs of corn per lb of beef are commonly used (as in this paper) as justification for abolishing beef production. However, in this case, the argument falls flat, because, rather than using modern feed efficiency data, the authors employed USDA data, which has not been updated for 30 years. That’s rather like assuming a computer from the early 1980’s (I used to play “donkey” on such a black/green screened behemoth) is as efficient as a modern laptop, or that the original brick-sized “car phones” were equal to modern iPhones. If we look back at the environmental impact of the beef industry 30 years ago, we see that modern beef production uses 30% fewer animals, 19% less feed, 12% less water, 33% less land and has a 16% lower carbon footprint. Given the archaic data used, is it really surprising that this latest paper overestimates beef’s environmental impact?

The authors also seem to assume that feed comes in a big sack labeled “Animal Feed” (from the Roadrunner cartoon ACME Feed Co?) and is fed interchangeably to pigs, poultry and cattle. As I’ve blogged about before, we can’t simply examine feed efficiency as a basis for whether we should choose the steak or the chicken breast for dinner, we also have to examine the potential competition between animal feed and human food. When we look at the proportion of ingredients in livestock diets that are human-edible (e.g. corn, soy) vs. inedible (e.g. grass, other forages, by-products), milk and beef are better choices than pork and poultry due to the heavy reliance of monogastric animals on concentrate feeds. By-product feeds are also completely excluded from the analysis, which makes me wonder precisely what the authors think happens to the millions of tons of cottonseed meal, citrus pulp, distillers grains, sunflower seed meal etc, produced in the USA each year.

Finally, the authors claim that cattle use 28x more land than pigs or poultry – although they acknowledge that cattle are raised on pasture, it’s not included in the calculations, which assume that cattle are fed feedlot diets for the majority of their life. This is a gross error and underlines their complete ignorance of the U.S. beef industry. Without cow-calf operations, the U.S. beef industry simply would not exist – efficient use of rangeland upon which we cannot grow human food crops both provides the foundation for the beef industry and creates and maintains habitats for many rare and endangered species of plants, insects, birds and animals.

Want to know how to reduce the environmental impact of food production overnight? It’s very simple – and it doesn’t involve giving up beef. Globally we waste 30% of food – and in developed countries that’s almost always avoidable at the consumer level. Buy the right amount, don’t leave it in the fridge to go moldy, and learn to use odd bits of food in soups or stews. Our parents and grandparents did it out of necessity – we can do it to reduce resource use and greenhouse gas emissions; and take the wind out of the sails of bean-eating anti-beef activists.