If you want to see a lot of people become unhinged, try floating this: why not include meat alternatives such as plant-based burgers to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended foods? Especially, since the recently released report from the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee extols the health benefits of eating a lot of vegetables and fruits.

Going one step further, why not offer these meatless burgers in school cafeterias and nursing homes? That way the children and old people could get yet another way to dine on produce.

While this line of thinking might make perfect sense to some people, especially those agreeing with the federal departments that people should limit how much meat they eat, it would, of course, cause fireworks among groups that raise livestock such as cows, pigs, chickens, and lamb. After all, in their minds — and in the minds of many consumers —meat is the backbone of a healthy diet.

This has long been a firm dietary belief in the United States. Glance through the Farm Journal’s “Famous Country Cookbook: Great Cooking for Everyday,” published in 1971, and you’ll quickly see that meat was a culinary “shining star.” In fact, the first section is titled simply “Meats.” There’s no need to adorn it with any gustatory adjectives.

Farm Journal’s “Famous Country Cookbook: Great Cooking for Everyday,” was published in 1971.

Let’s read the first paragraph of that section: “Farm women carry platters to the table for just about every meal they serve. Meat takes the spotlight three times a day in their homes, for that’s country custom, and many farmers think they haven’t had a square meal without it.”

Want to kick your appetite into gear? Try the next part of that paragraph: “Breakfast brings crisp bacon ribbons, ham slices dappled with brown, (glaze) or expertly seasoned sausage cakes — and eggs. Dinner, still served at noon, as a rule, features such favorites as roasts and steaks, with satiny smooth gravy. Supper platter specials are countless — ground beef in dozens of dress-ups has its share of champions.”

And while there are chapters devoted to “Chicken and Other Poultry,” “Potatoes,” “Eggs,” “Butter and Cream,” “Milk and Cheese,” there is no chapter strictly devoted to vegetables. How about kale? Not even an afterthought. It doesn’t seem like the recipes in this book, as delicious-sounding as they may be, would serve as a benchmark for the recent dietary guidelines.

While most people don’t even know that the federal government puts out dietary guidelines every five years, they do benefit from them. This year, the advisory team of health and nutrition experts’ report is actually a review of the latest dietary and nutrition research that the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services will use to develop the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Updated every five years, the guidelines help determine federal nutrition policies and healthy eating recommendations for the nation.

Our eating habits change

Without a doubt, people’s eating preferences do change as time goes by. Doctors’ advice also changes.

In earlier years, for example, urban moms were perplexed about how they would go about persuading their children to drink 3 to 4 cups of milk each day, as was recommended by government nutritionists. Back then, milk wasn’t a common household drink, at least not in the cities.  Now milk is not only cow’s milk but also almond milk, oat milk, even hemp milk. In fact, these alternative milk have grabbed 14 percent of the entire milk category— to the tune of $2 billion in the 52 weeks ending Dec. 2019, according to SPINS, a food-related data technology company.

And it wasn’t that long ago that vegetarians and vegans were brushed off as people “who ate rabbit food.” But vegetarian meal options are now offered on airplanes and at conferences. That would have been unheard of 20 or so years ago. Back then, the reaction would be “Who would want to eat a meal without meat?”

The bottom line is that federal dietary guidelines help determine federal nutrition policies and form the basis for programs such as the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs. Starting over a century ago, the government has helped Americans make healthy food choices by providing a number of publications, food guidance symbols, and, more recently, a suite of interactive online tools.

Not that everyone will abide by the guidelines. After all, french fries and Dorito chips are tempting. But the hope is that people will substitute healthy foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, and lean meats for junk food — at least for some of it. This, in turn, according to the dietary guidelines, will improve people’s health.

These sensible changes will mean healthier school lunches for our children, better nutritional advice for all, and progress in the fight against climate change,” said Erik Olson, Senior Strategic Director of the Health Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Plenty to improve

According to the recently released advisory report, the committee’s work took place against a backdrop of several significant health issues related to nutrition in the United States.

Top of the list is overweight and obesity. The report points out that more than 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. More alarming than that: the prevalence of severe obesity has increased over the past two decades.

And while the high rates of overweight and obesity are a public health problem in themselves, says the report, they also can lead to prevalent diet-related chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.

The report says that 6 in 10 Americans have a chronic condition and 4 in 10 Americans have 2 or more chronic conditions. And while various conditions contribute to the prevalence of these chronic diseases, prominent among these are unhealthy dietary patterns and a lack of physical activity.

We’ve heard it before. We have to eat healthy foods and exercise. Some people do that — and, of course, they’re usually healthier for it. Maybe there’s something to it. Maybe we should pay more attention to what we eat. Maybe we should check out the guidelines.

Another health-related problem is that many low-income people simply don’t have access to affordable healthy food. According to the report, in 2018, more than 37 million people, including 6 million children, lived in households that were uncertain of having or unable to acquire, enough food to meet their needs.

What they found

The good news is that you’ll reduce the risks of all causes of death if you’re an adult whose diet is higher in vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, whole grains, lean meats and seafood, appropriate dairy foods and unsaturated vegetable oils while being lower in red and processed meats, saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, and beverages and foods with added sugars.

Notice that they didn’t cut out meat altogether. But when it comes to beef, it needs to be lean. And a portion should be no larger than the palm of your hand or your cellphone, advise folks at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Producers Association.

As for plant-based burgers such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat burgers, Danielle Beck, a policy guru, and Shalene McNeill, one of the association’s nutritionists, warn that those types of options are processed — made with a lot of ingredients. And they contain a lot of sodium.

McNeill said that while a 4-ounce hamburger has 75 mg of sodium, the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat burgers have anywhere from 370 to 390 mg.

Burger King’s Impossible Whopper is 19g of protein, which it gets from soy and potato proteins and its fat from coconut oil and sunflower oil.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, diets higher in sodium are associated with an increased risk of developing high blood pressure, which is a major cause of stroke and heart disease.

When you hear “sodium,” think “salt,” a mineral composed primarily of sodium chloride. The bottom line, go easy with the saltshaker. Too much salt is bad for you.

McNeill and Beck also pointed out that American consumers are increasingly seeking out “natural” foods — that is, foods without a long list of ingredients. Meat fits right in with that.

In an earlier interview with Food Safety Website, Washington state cattleman Rick Nelson, who has a degree in animal science, said that beef is usually “nutrient-dense,” while plant-based meats can be deficient in some nutrients.

Nutrient-dense foods are foods that are naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, and other substances and that may have positive health effects. All vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, eggs, and nuts prepared without added solid fats or sugars are considered nutrient-dense, as are lean or low-fat forms of fluid milk, meat, and poultry prepared without added solid fats or sugars. Nutritionists say that nutrient-dense foods provide substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) and relatively few calories compared to forms of the food that have solid fat and/or added sugars.

On the other side of the fence, Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown said that the critics of plant-based meats are missing the point;

“Our product is substantially better for the consumer than what it replaces,” he told CNBC.

These new plant-based burgers and other meat options are actually directed toward meat-eaters, especially since vegetarians make up only 3 percent of the U.S. population. Many consumers say that although they eat beef, they also say they’d like to cut down on how much beef they eat.

According to a long-term study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, researchers found that swapping only 3 percent of total calories in the diet from animal to plant protein was linked to a 10 percent decrease in the risk of death.

The two most popular meatless burger alternatives are the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger, both of which are 100 percent plant-based and made without any animal products. The Beyond Burger’s 20 grams (g) of protein comes from peas, mung beans; its fat contents come from canola oil, coconut oil , and cocoa butter. The Impossible Burger has 19 g of protein, which it gets from soy and potato proteins and its fat from coconut oil and sunflower oil.

Plant-based meats are not a passing fad. In fact, they’re a fast-growing segment of the food market. Investment firm UBS projects that the plant-based protein and meat alternatives market will increase from $4.6 billion in 2018 to a whopping $85 billion in 2030.

As for the committee’s report, Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant-Based Foods Association said she is pleased to see the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee follow the science on recommending a mostly plant-based diet while reducing saturated fats as well as red and processed meats.

“The science on such recommendations has been clear for decades,” she said. “We hope that science will carry the day and look forward to submitting our comments and seeing the final report.”

But when asked if the dietary guidelines should include recommendations in favor of plant-based meats, Simon said the ball is in the consumer’s court.

“We are pleased that the recommendations follow the science that we should all reduce our meat intake,” she said, “however consumers choose to make that change in their diets.”

What about food safety

Food safety is part of this, especially when considering the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which takes a preventive approach to safeguard people’s health.

Consumers play an important role in food safety. Health and nutrition experts agree that individual behaviors, along with sound government policies and responsible private-sector practices, are needed to reduce foodborne illnesses.

As for hamburgers, they have been linked to E. coli and other food pathogen outbreaks, but that’s usually because the raw meat (if it was contaminated with E. coli or other pathogens) came into contact with things like cutting boards and other foods before being cooked. Also, some people don’t cook the burgers to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, which kills the pathogens.

But raw produce — romaine lettuce, spinach, and onions, for example — has also seen its share of outbreaks and recalls associated with foodborne pathogens.

However, because plant-based meats are cooked, they don’t present the same potential health problems as raw produce.

Even so, Jaydee Hanson, Center for Food Safety, said that when it comes to food safety, consumers should treat the plant-based burgers like meat. They should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees, and they shouldn’t be eaten raw.

Washing your hands before preparing the meatless burgers and making sure the burgers don’t get contaminated by touching meat or other possibly contaminated foods, is also important.

“Pathogens that you might pick up in a kitchen could grow and contaminate the burgers,” he said.

Weighing the risks of falling ill from eating foods contaminated with foodborne pathogens, Simon of Plant-Based Foods said that “it seems pretty obvious that the risk of outbreaks we tend to see in burgers such as E.coli and salmonella is far less with plant-based burgers.”

Read the report

USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services plan to release the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans by the end of this year. The next edition will include advice on healthy eating from people from birth into older adulthood. The whole report can be read here.

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