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Learning about nutritional benefits of protein adds value to beef products

Written by Natasha Wheeler

Deadwood, S.D. – Holly Swee, South Dakota beef checkoff director of nutrition and consumer information, told producers they should be ready to talk to consumers because consumers want to know about where their food comes from and about the folks who raise it.

“We should have some basic nutrition information to share with them or at least know where to go for resources,” she remarked at the Joint Wyoming and South Dakota Farm Bureau Young Farmers and Ranchers conference in Deadwood, S.D. on Jan. 22.

“Protein is one of the most underappreciated macronutrients. It is so important for optimal health,” she explained.

Although the United States has been focused on nutrition for many years, Swee feels that protein has been left out of the conversation, and she hopes the trend is changing.

Nutrition history

“During World War I and World War II, we had to keep our people strong and healthy and we had to keep our country strong and healthy so nutrition scientists were looking at ways to fight disease,” Swee described. “One of the things scientists found out was that certain nutrients could prevent diseases.”

At that time, scientists discovered relationships between disease and nutrition, such as iodine deficiencies causing goiter and vitamin D deficiencies causing rickets. To prevent disease in Americans, products such as iodized salt and fortified bread were added to the marketplace.

By the 1950s, the population soared, the Great Depression had ended and the science shifted from what was missing from the diet to what people were eating that they shouldn’t be.

In 1977, the U.S. Senate Committee for Nutrition and Health Needs published a report asserting that sugar, salt and fat were directly linked to obesity, heart disease, stroke and many other diseases.

“Even though sugar and salt were mentioned, they were basically taken out of the story, and there was one main focus – it was fat. It wasn’t just fat and oils, it was animal fat as well. Fat became a villain,” described Swee.

Diet recommendations

The report was also one of the first stepping stones to the Dietary Guidelines, and as time went on, experts continued to encourage diets high in carbohydrates and low in fats.

“Protein wasn’t really in the conversation, even though the National Livestock and Meat Board had done much research in positive terms for protein since the 1920s. It wasn’t a focus, and people weren’t talking about it,” said Swee.

In the 2000s, people were starting to look at diets in new ways and scientists acknowledged the need for more research about protein. In 2007, the beef checkoff met with 50 different protein scientists from around the world to talk about optimum protein levels in the diet, muscle management, prevention of disease and quality of various protein sources.

“From there, we had eight research papers that were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in May 2008,” commented Swee. “A three-ounce serving of lean beef has about 180 calories and 10 essential nutrients. We can get almost 50 percent of our protein requirement for the day from that three ounces.”

Breeding and processing techniques have also lead to leaner products. Eight cuts of beef now meet approval criteria for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Checkmark program.

Percent of calories

In a study done by the Institute of Medicine in 2000, scientists developed an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Rate (AMDR) to look at diet through percentage rates. Based on the AMDR scale, they determined that between 10 and 35 percent of calories should come from protein.

“There is a big difference between preventing a deficiency and maximizing optimal health, which is what the AMDR wanted to do. They also noted that most of the benefits from protein would fall between the 20th and 35th percentile,” Swee continued.

Data from other studies support similar conclusions, including the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA), which suggests approximately 15 to 20 percent of dietary calories should be consumed as protein.

“The quality assessment of protein is especially important when we work with patients for weight loss and management. There is a place for plant protein – it has fiber and other nutrients,” she remarked. “But what is the caloric cost of different foods?”

To obtain 25 grams of protein, a person could eat three ounces of cooked, lean beef for 154 calories. To obtain those 25 grams with peanut butter, they could eat six tablespoons for 540 calories, or they could eat two cups of black beans for 25 grams of protein, totaling 382 calories.

“Most people are surprised to know beef only contributes 10 percent of saturated fats to the American diet and most of it comes from grain-based desserts, pizza and cheese,” she adds.

Sharing good news

Swee encouraged beef producers to use available resources to learn more about the nutritional benefits of beef and the importance of protein in a healthy diet.

“Emerging research shows protein, like beef, is associated with positive health outcomes,” she stated.

Consumers would rather know what they are allowed to eat versus being told what they can’t have, and they are looking for specific nutrients, such as whole grains, fiber and protein, she added.

“This puts beef producers at a really exciting moment. We need to take advantage of this because we have an awesome product,” stated Swee.

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..