FRAMINGHAM, Mass. — It was here in this thriving New England town that America’s love affair with beef started to lose its sizzle.
It was here a half-century ago that obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels were all identified as risk factors for heart disease.
Indeed, it was here that scientists coined the term “risk factor,” triggering the deluge of nutrition research that keeps beef from being “what’s for dinner” in many households.
But Big Beef is fighting back.
The beef industry has funneled millions into a public relations campaign to cast steaks and burgers as something akin to health food – something you can eat every day, even twice a day.
In its yearlong study of the issue, the Kansas City Star found Big Beef is:
• Attempting to influence the next rewrite of the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines in 2015. Big Beef wants them to include new research the industry paid for that promotes a beef diet intended to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. It also has paid for advertising and promotions, for example, getting lean cuts certified by the American Heart Association as “heart-healthy” food.
• Spending even more money influencing the nation’s dietitians, treating them to junkets and dinners. The industry arranges continuing education programs for nutritionists to spread the gospel immediately after beef-sponsored research is published in scientific journals.
• Stifling criticism of food or its production methods through what are called “veggie libel” laws now in effect in 13 states. The laws were promoted by the American Feed Industry Association, whose members include large beef packers and animal pharmaceutical firms.
In an effort to maintain market share, the beef industry has gone on the nutritional offensive. Its own marketing research shows that concerns about nutrition, and fat in particular, remain a major disincentive to consumers from buying beef as voraciously as they did a generation ago.
The average American maxed out on beef in 1976, eating a record 67.9 pounds that year. Since then, beef consumption in the United States has fallen by about a third. Chicken surpassed beef as the nation’s most popular meat nearly a decade ago.
“Everybody is competing for the same calories. The only way you can sell your product is by giving it a health aura,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and a regular critic of the food industry.
Despite a seemingly endless onslaught of medical research that implicates beef and other red meat in heart disease, cancer, diabetes and weight gain, the beef industry remains hopeful, citing marketing data that 94 percent of us eat beef at least once a month.
Industry-sponsored research, such as the diet study, is designed to “address important information gaps,” said Shalene McNeill, a registered dietitian and executive director of nutrition research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Yet other nutrition experts remain skeptical of the continuing marketing push to burnish beef’s public image.
“There’s just so much evidence that beef is related to heart disease,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the health advocacy organization Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The beef industry can “add a little confusion to the health message of eating less meat,” Jacobson noted. “But their propaganda and lobbying and advertising haven’t been that effective. They’re fighting a rear-guard action.”
That tectonic shift in America’s diet attitudes arguably began in Framingham, in homes like the Tostis’.
Mainstay on menus
Dinner at the Tosti household always was a big production. Joe, Dorothy and their five children gathered around the table every evening for a huge spread.
And in the 1950s and ’60s that meant beef practically every other day – roast beef, steaks and, true to their Italian heritage, meatballs.
That was then. Today, as has been the case for many health-conscious Americans, seafood, chicken, vegetables and even tofu have replaced most of the beef on the Tostis’ table and on the tables of their adult children.
“You kids all got older and realized that wasn’t a healthy diet,” Dorothy Tosti said as she chatted recently with her two daughters, Barbara Tosti and Paula Cuneo, at the offices of the Framingham Heart Study.
Since 1948, the heart study has used this middle-class town about 21 miles west of Boston as a virtual research laboratory. The Tostis and thousands of other people – continuing to this day into a third generation – have been surveyed about their lifestyles and undergone regular comprehensive medical exams.
Early findings from the Framingham Heart Study, and from other research at that time, helped set off the nation’s turbulent relationship with food and fat – and turned prime rib into a prime suspect.
The basic message has always been that having high cholesterol levels raises our risk of heart disease. And eating saturated fats – which are found in animal products such as meat and dairy – raises those levels.
Americans know a lot more about diet and health now than they did when the first studies started coming out of Framingham. And more nuanced nutritional messages are beginning to get through:
Not all fat in your diet is bad for you. Not all the cholesterol in your blood is unhealthy, and the cholesterol in foods such as meat and eggs generally isn’t the biggest contributor to the cholesterol in your blood.
Red meats like beef no longer are Nutrition Enemy No. 1 – that role has been assumed by sugary drinks, white bread and french fries. Refined carbohydrates can wreak havoc with heart health.
But that doesn’t mean red meat has won a total reprieve.
“Meat has got to be a rare experience, and whenever you can eat a plant protein over an animal protein, you’re better off,” is the advice William Castelli, former director of the Framingham study, gives his patients.
Big Beef, as might be expected, will give you different advice.
Beef is a different food from what it was in the 1960s, the industry maintains. It’s a lot leaner. On average, a well-trimmed sirloin steak has 34 percent less fat, 17 percent less saturated fat, than it did 49 years ago.
Big Beef’s diet
The BOLD (Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet) diet is a direct response to another diet plan with a catchy acronym, DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), that has become a mainstay of doctors and dietitians who want to lower their patients’ blood pressure or cholesterol.
One of DASH’s recommendations calls for curbing consumption of red meat.
The Star found that after DASH made its way into the federal Dietary Guidelines in 2005, Big Beef started formulating BOLD.
Doctors and dietitians were pushing people “toward choosing a dietary pattern that looked like DASH,” McNeill of the cattlemen’s association told members of the industry during a Jan. 19 webinar on BOLD that The Star accessed online.
“Why couldn’t we also have, for lack of a better word, a ‘beefy’ (DASH) diet?” she suggested.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, first published in 1980 and updated every five years by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, may be the nation’s most influential food document.
The Guidelines are used to determine nutrition standards for school lunch programs, how much assistance is provided through food stamps, and what goes on food product labels. They’re also used to write educational materials for schoolchildren and the curriculum of doctors and registered dietitians.
“They are the basis of everything where nutrition guidance is needed,” said Robert Post, deputy director of the USDA’s Center for Nutritional Policy and Promotion.
Big Beef set out to make the new guidelines friendlier to the industry.
Planning for BOLD began in 2006 “so that we can be prepared for future dietary guidelines and future advocacy,” McNeill explained during the webinar. They’re aiming for the next revision of the guidelines in 2015.
The Star found that to get the science it needed to back up a BOLD diet, the cattlemen’s association approached Penny Kris-Etherton, a prominent Penn State University nutrition expert who had been on the association’s dietary guidelines committee in 2000.
The cattlemen administer most of the research and promotion efforts funded through the industry’s Beef Checkoff Program.
“We knew that she was open to beef,” McNeill said during the webinar. “We went to her as a checkoff and said can you help us design a rigorous study of DASH and compare a beefy DASH diet to the DASH diet?”
Penn State researchers engineered BOLD to include amounts of calories, fat, cholesterol and fiber comparable to those in DASH.
But where the DASH diet skimps on beef, different versions of BOLD average 4 to 5.4 ounces per day. That means meatballs or chili for lunch and beef fajitas or pot roast for dinner.
Kris-Etherton put 36 people with above-normal blood cholesterol levels on a series of diets: BOLD, DASH and something called a “healthy American diet,” which was low in beef but had more fat and less fiber than the other diets.
The researchers found that, compared to a healthy version of a typical American diet, BOLD diets lowered cholesterol just as well as DASH. BOLD diets with the most beef also lowered blood pressure.
Kris-Etherton said that the source of her funding doesn’t affect how she conducts her research.
“As a scientist I wouldn’t do that. I design studies that make sense, that follow dietary recommendations,” she said.
There will be more findings coming out of the BOLD research, McNeill said, “to keep this story alive for longer than just the study of the day.”