BLUE HILL — Thank goodness Nebraskans have good common sense, Diane Karr says.
The Blue Hill resident, who owns a cow-calf operation with her husband, Mike, was a little concerned when the World Health Organization announced last fall that red meat “probably” caused cancer.
After all, the beef cattle industry is the state's single largest industry. Nebraska ranks second in total number of cattle behind Texas, and first in number of cattle in feedlots.
The WHO's announcement could have been detrimental to beef producers like the Karrs,but in the end there seemed to be little to no fallout, save for a bevy of initial media attention.
“I feel like it's fairly frequent that there's something in the news about food issues,” said Karr, who blogs about farming for CommonGround Nebraska and at realfarmwifeonthecountyline.com. “I think most people realize that if you use common sense and eat foods in moderation, you can enjoy a wide variety of healthy foods, including red meat. Especially in the Midwest, I think people really appreciate that beef is a really healthy protein.”
In October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the WHO, convened 22 experts to review more than 800 studies on associations
between a dozen types of cancer and red meat or processed meat. No new research was conducted, and the experts were unable to reach a consensus on the data.
In the end, the IARC classified red meat consumption as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” mainly in association with colorectal cancer but also in connection with pancreatic and prostate cancer. It also classified processed meat (products like bacon, hot dogs, ham and sausages) as cancer-causing to humans.
Mitch Rippe, director of nutrition and education for the Nebraska Beef Council in Kearney, said the WHO's announcement created a colossal stir, but quickly fell by the wayside.
“It had a billion social media impressions within the first 24 hours,” he said. “The conversation decreased 95 percent within the first 72 hours. We probably did about 12 different media interviews, but since then - nothing. It really hasn't had the profound impact you might have expected it to have.”
The Nebraska Beef Council's stance is that cancer is so complex a disease, it is nonsensical to blame it on a single food item.
Of the 985 agents the IARC has evaluated since 1971, 481 have been identified as carcinogenic, probably carcinogenic, or possibly carcinogenic to humans, according to the WHO's website. Meanwhile, 503 are not classifiable, the WHO states, and only one agent was ruled as probably not cancer-causing to humans. Among the other agents the IARC considers as probably or possibly cancer-causing are coffee, alcoholic beverages, aloe vera, pickled vegetables and outdoor air pollution.
Rippe argues that beef is part of a healthy diet, especially when paired with fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
“For 155 calories you get 25 grams of protein, fuel throughout the day, and repair and maintenance for your body,” he said. “It's a nutrient powerhouse.”
Nutritionist Pat McCoy, director of nutrition services at Mary Lanning Healthcare, echoes that sentiment. Eating too much of anything isn't good; balance is the key.
“If you go haywire with your consumption of anything, it's going to cause problems,”she said.
Americans need to get back to the basics of good, healthy eating, she said, and red meat plays a big part in that.
“We need red meat - there are vitamins and nutrients there that we can't get anywhere else,” McCoy said.
And that's good news for Nebraskans, who have made beef a regular part of their diet. Rippe said the Nebraska Beef Council conducted a local consumer beef index
that determined 83 percent of Nebraskans prefer beef as their No. 1 meat source, and 50 percent had it three or more times a week.
Karr and her family are among those. She regularly serves red meat to her husband and four boys alongside vegetables, whole grains and fruit.
“At the end of the day,” she said, “red meat is a really healthy protein source.”