It’s as common as a snowstorm in January for activists to put some serious spin on their rhetoric.

They exaggerate (if not outright fabricate) instances of alleged abuse of livestock, threats to food safety and the supposed negative impact of meat-eating on human health and the environment. Those who work in and believe in the industry understand that such criticism, like a political attack ad, unfortunately comes with the territory.

What shouldn’t be part of the media landscape, though, is a similar stretching of the truth when it originates with health officials who lay claim to scientific credibility. Thus, the standard nutritional “wisdom” that consumers encounter when they access the Harvard School of Public Health’s guidance is beyond offensive: It’s a deliberate distortion of the facts to make red meat appear much worse, health-wise, than the protein alternatives Harvard’s anti-industry partisans think we should all be eating instead.

(It’s spelled L-E-N-T-I-L-S, in case you’re interested).

Here’s what you find if you’re an ordinary consumer seeking some insight into eating healthy and you search online for an “authoritative” source:

“Animal protein and vegetable protein probably have the same effects on health,” the Harvard School of Public Health states. “It’s the protein package that’s likely to make a difference. A 6-ounce broiled porterhouse steak is a great source of protein—38 grams worth. But it also delivers 44 grams of fat, 16 of them saturated. That’s almost three-fourths of the recommended daily intake for saturated fat.”

Let’s leave aside for the moment the fantasy that Americans are sitting down to a 6-ounce porterhouse steak with any regularity—current market prices range from $42 to $48 a pound, and good luck finding it at your local supermarket.

Instead, let’s compare the actual values from USDA’s nutrient database (www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/cgi-bin/list_nut_edit.pl) for raw porterhouse steak. First, subtract 21% of the one-pound standard comparison weight, which represents bone and is thus inedible. That leaves 12.8 ounces of edible meat, including visible fat, which not everyone eats. Even without adjusting for weight loss from cooking, calculating USDA’s values for a 6.4-ounce serving of porterhouse steak yields the following data:

  • Protein              33.2 grams (132 calories)
  • Total fat             31.2 grams (280 calories)
  • Saturated fat      12.0 grams (108 calories)

Even comparing USDA’s 6.4 ounce serving to Harvard’s 6-ounce serving, and even before accounting for shrinkage during preparation, Harvard’s values are at least 25% over-inflated for fat and saturated fat.

That’s not a case of “rounding up,” that’s an example of fraudulent data.

White makes right

Of course, Harvard’s nutritional “gurus” hate red meat and are unabashed advocates of substituting vegetable sources of protein—beans, nuts and whole grains—for animal protein. However, if you must consume the flesh of dead creatures, Harvard suggests that, “The best animal protein choices are fish and poultry. [A six-ounce] serving of salmon gives you 34 grams of protein and 18 grams of fat, 4 of them saturated. If you are partial to red meat, stick with the leanest cuts, choose moderate portion sizes and make it only an occasional part of your diet.”

Kind of the same approach health authorities recommend for liquor consumption: It’s no good for you, but if you must indulge, please limit it to an occasional departure from good sense and healthy living.

And do we really need to go down the absurd line of reasoning that suggests salmon is a better alternative than beef? Are you kidding me?

Price-wise, you’re not going to find fresh salmon on anyone’s dinnertime menu any more often than porterhouse steak. And the same activist camp that decries meat production as a plague upon the Earth are also the staunchest opponents of fish farming, which is where most salmon comes from—unless you feel okay about contributing to the imminent demise of natural fisheries, or if you just don’t care that your “healthy” salmon was flash-frozen on some factory trawler north of Norway and jet-freighted to the upscale seafood counter at your local supermarket.

Then again, instead of beef, how about a nice, savory lentil stew I’m sure your family would absolutely love? And it makes a great entrée when you’re hosting guests at you next dinner party.

Just tell ’em the culinary experts at Harvard University highly recommend it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.