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Research shows beef packs a nutrient punch for all ages

CroMary/Getty images Little girl eating grilled meat outdoors
FEED ME BEEF: The 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans now recommends including iron-rich foods, such as meat for babies, starting at around 6 months of age. Shalene McNeill, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association director of nutrition, explained during the Oct. 6 Beef Insights webinar that the beef industry is working to help parents understand that beef can benefit children’s development for their entire lives.
Beef Checkoff-funded research shows nutrient-dense beef supports health for all ages.

Ounce for ounce, beef packs a nutritional punch for consumers of all ages, according to Shalene McNeill, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association director of nutrition. Beyond zinc, iron and protein, new research shows beef is a nutrient-dense food that offers vital micronutrients for all stages of human development.

McNeill spoke to cattle producers and nutritional experts during the Kansas Beef Council’s Beef Insights Oct. 6 webinar. She outlined ways the industry is sharing Beef Checkoff-funded nutrition research with consumers, dietitians, health providers and cattle producers to show that beef should stay at the center of a well-balanced plate.

Consumer health

In the past 40 years, beef has seen the rise and fall of many diet fads from paleo to keto(genic), low-carb and more, McNeill said. And still, the beef industry’s principles regarding nutrition and health have emphasized that beef, in moderation, is part of a balanced and varied diet that includes physical activity, she added.

McNeill shared that on a Healthy Eating Index that measures diet quality, many Americans would receive a failing grade. Youth ages 14 to 19 have the poorest diet quality, with a score of 51 on a scale of 0 to 100. That’s an age bracket that needs the nutritional power of beef in the diet for healthy development.

This data may be alarming, but McNeill reminded cattlemen that this can be an opportunity for their messaging as well.

“COVID really brought nutrition back to the spotlight,” she continued. On one hand, those with chronic health conditions were more likely to have worse cases. On the other hand, many of the micronutrients in beef improve immune function.

Nourish and sustain

We talk a lot about the zinc, iron and protein in beef, but there’s also phosphorus, niacin, riboflavin, choline, selenium and several B vitamins, McNeill said.

“These are nutrients that you need for all kinds of body functions, just for basic health and for energy and metabolism,” she said. However, the American diet is short in these. Recent research shows that beef is a nutrient-dense food, with high-quality protein that the human body needs at all stages of life, she explained.

“Few foods nourish and sustain like beef,” McNeill said. It not only has essential amino acids, but they’re also in the right proportions for your body to use effectively. It has highly available and absorbable iron. It puts that in a package that has great flavor, and is sustainable.

Ruminant upcycling is a sustainability concept that some consumers are starting to understand.

“Beef cattle are ruminants, and because they’re able to eat things that humans can’t eat — that’s not in competition with the food supply — they upgrade that or upcycle it and make more protein out of it,” she said.

Not all proteins are equal

Recent North Dakota Beef Council-funded research shows that not all proteins are created equal, and that’s important to know for consumers who are following diet plans that encourage swapping one food for another, McNeill said. For example, you might see an ounce equivalent where 1 ounce of Protein A can swapped for 1 ounce of Protein B.

Researchers wanted to find out if 1 ounce of lean beef is the same for muscle development as another protein like beans.

“The research showed that, no, it’s not the same,” she said. For example, an ounce of sirloin is going to be better for anabolic efficiency, or the ability of the muscle to start to build.

Further research is looking at the nutrition labels of meat alternatives, which often add synthetic vitamins and minerals to match what a real beef patty offers in the way of nutrition.

McNeill said Duke University researchers ran metabolomic analysis of these ingredients to analyze the compounds. They show that there is a 90% difference in the metabolites between a beef patty and a meat alternative patty. While the research doesn’t say one is better than the other, it does show that these aren’t really alternatives because they are not nutritionally the same, she added.

When I get teeth

Beef provides nutrients that humans need across their whole lives — from 6 months, to adolescence, to middle age and older. In the past decade, Beef Checkoff-funded research has focused on when to introduce beef to children’s diets. The 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans now recommends including iron-rich foods like meat for babies starting at around 6 months of age.

“Six months of age is the time frame in which children start introducing feeding real foods, first foods — or complementary foods, they’re sometimes called in the diet,” she said. Research shows that when an infant reaches 6 months of age, a mother’s breast milk starts to naturally decline in iron and zinc content. And while there’s plenty of iron-fortified cereal, beef is a nutrient-dense source.

The Beef Checkoff now has resource materials available for pediatricians and parents that show them how to introduce beef safely to a 6-month-old’s diet. They can be found at

To see this and the previous Beef Insights webinars, visit

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