Our Beefy Beefs About Beef

BeefBeef is seriously yummy food….but the sad truth is that is bad for you and for our environment.  The next time you take a big bite out of a juicy burger or mouth-melting filet mignon, consider the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) conclusions.  This reputable non-profit science organization estimates that emissions directly tied to beef production amount to emissions from 33 average-sized coal-fired power plants, each year.   If only the environment, and nothing else, was damaged by beef.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  Not only is beef harming our planet’s health, it is harming humans.   New studies are revealing an alarming link between numerous diseases and beef consumption.   But first, it is becoming increasingly clear that global climate change is being accelerated due to eating beef.

Beef is Accelerating Climate Change

Beef is what scientists call an “inefficient protein, in that it requires substantial resources to produce compared with what it contributes to the human diet.  In another 2012 UCS study called “Grade A Choice? Solutions for Deforestation-Free Meat,” researchers found that beef production uses about 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land, but produces less than 5 percent of the protein and less than 2 percent of the calories that feed the global population.  It gets worse.  A recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which focused specifically on the United States, found that beef requires 28 times more land and 11 times more water to produce than the equivalent calories from pork or poultry, and produces at least five times more carbon pollution.

The contrast between beef and such staples as wheat, rice and potatoes is even more stark. Beef requires 160 times more land and results in 11 times more heat-trapping emissions than other agricultural crops.  Not only does beef production consume disproportional land, but it is a water hog as well.   According to the government, it requires about 450 gallons to produce a 1/4 pound burger.  Naturally, estimates vary a lot due to different conditions of raising cows. The number also varies depending on how far back in the production chain you go. But there’s little dispute over this fact: it takes a lot of water to grow grain, forage, and roughage to feed a cow. Water is also needed for drinking supplies as well as for servicing the cow.  However, of all protein sources, beef requires the most water, at 1,847 gallons per pound of beef.  

That’s right…..it takes almost 2000 gallons of water to produce that one-pound rib-eye steak you are coveting.   Compare this to chicken at 518 gallons of water per pound or eggs, which take 395 gallons per pound. Americans’ love of beef has consequences beyond our borders. According to the UCS study, U.S. beef consumption helps drive tropical deforestation, which is now responsible for about 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. As demand for beef goes up worldwide, so does deforestation. If U.S. consumers ate less beef, U.S. producers would have more to export to other countries. And those exports would displace exports from Latin American beef producers, reducing incentives to cut down tropical rainforests for cattle pasture land.

Beef is Causing Gut Inflammation

And now for the really bad news…..beef is just not all that healthy for human bodies.  Recent evidence shows that red meat causes cancer  and the culprit may be a sugar molecule called Neu5Gc, found in beef, pork and lamb. The link between cancer and red meat has been known for decades. After a systemic review of scientific studies, an expert panel of the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research concluded in 2007 that “red or processed meats are convincing or probable sources of some cancers.” Their report showed evidence of a link between red meat, processed meat, and colorectal cancer, and limited but suggestive for links to lung, esophageal, breast, prostate, stomach, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers.  A clear link to colon cancer was confirmed by two 2005 studies that showed that the risk of colon cancer increased by over 30% for red meat eaters.

Recent studies by the highly-esteemed Cleveland Clinic revealed new mechanisms that demonstrate why and how regularly eating red meat can increase the risk of heart disease, and the role gut bacteria play in that process.  They found that a  rich in red meat as the primary protein source significantly increases circulating TMAO levels, compared to diets with white meat or non-meat as protein sources.   (TMAO is trimethylamine N-oxide – a gut bacteria byproduct formed during digestion—that has been shown to lead to the development of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes).  Frequent red meat consumption enhanced the production of TMAO by gut microbes and reduced the kidneys’ efficiency of expelling it. 

This most recent study supports findings published in the 2015 online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  In that study, the scientists found that feeding Neu5Gc to mice engineered to be deficient in the sugar (like humans) significantly promoted spontaneous cancers. They claim that this is first time scientists have directly shown that mimicking the exact situation in humans – feeding non-human Neu5Gc and inducing anti-Neu5Gc antibodies – increases spontaneous cancers in mice. The study did not involve exposure to carcinogens or artificially inducing cancers, further implicating Neu5Gc as a key link between red meat consumption and cancer.

The researchers theorize that when you consume red meat, the body sees it as a foreign substance – and the immune system attacks it. This leads to inflammation in the body, which over time is known to promote the formation of tumors.  The research indicates that dairy products contain this same suspect sugar molecule.  Neu5Gc naturally occurs in most mammals but not humans, this also explains why humans are more at risk cancer while other carnivores are not.

For red meat consumers, this new study suggests that long-standing warnings about reducing consumption of red meat may have more merit than had been previously thought.  The body’s response to the Neu5Gc molecule appears to be causing inflammation which leads to cancer causation.  This molecule is not found in poultry or fish, so those meats appear to be safer to consume. 

Beef is a Splurge, Not a Staple

No surprise, then, that even the National Institute of Health warns that eating red meat on a regular basis may shorten your lifespan.  This unbiased information agency points to a Harvard School of Public Health investigation into the association between red meat intake and mortality.  They studied over 37,000 men and found clear health risks of eating high amounts of red meat;  there were higher rates of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.   Eating beef has also been linked to increased Alzheimer’s risk and heightened susceptibility to bacterial infection. 

These findings are probably the reason why the World Health Organization announced in October 2015 that red and processed meats are probably carcinogenic!  This conclusion was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but clear associations were also seen for pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer.

Few would deny that red meat tastes great but it is becoming clearer that it may be better as an occasional splurge than a staple of one’s diet.

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