For a number of years, beef took a hit on the health front as low-fat diets became popular as a way to prevent heart disease and obesity. While a diet low in saturated fat is beneficial, beef as a whole was put into the high-fat category and labeled by some as bad.

Those blanket recommendations overlooked many cuts of beef that fell under the government’s guidelines for lean. In addition, beef contains a number of essential nutrients, such as zinc, B12, riboflavin and thiamin. To counter the misinformation, the industry worked to educate health professionals about the nutritional benefits of lean beef, and checkoff dollars were used for research and communication to expand that effort. The industry also looked for leaner cuts of beef from the carcass, going from seven cuts over 11 years ago to 19 lean cuts today.

Now the Atkins and South Beach diets have became popular and tout the benefits of eating fewer carbo-hydrates and increasing protein as a way to lose weight, a boon for the beef industry.

“What is good about those diets is that they help people feel better about eating beef again,” says Mary Young, a registered dietitian and executive director of nutrition for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “But the reality is that beef has always fit into healthy diets.”

Beyond fad diets
Ms. Young says that the industry avoids jumping behind fad diets since there inevitably is a backlash. “We’re already seeing a backlash on these low-carb diets. That’s why we stick with what we know from science about nutrition, but we also explore important issues like the role of protein in weight management.”

What the research is beginning to show is that moderate protein diets do play a role in weight loss while maintaining muscles, but more research is needed to fully understand protein’s benefit to weight loss.

With the increase in beef demand over the past few years, it is evident that beef is gaining favor in American diets. That’s good for everyone in the industry.

“What I find when talking with consumers and health professionals is people like to eat beef and they are very receptive to the nutrition news that tells them that one of their favorite foods is something they can enjoy,” says Dayle Hayes, a nutrition consultant based in Billings, Mont., and a member of the Council for Women’s Nutrition Solutions. “This message goes beyond fad diets.”

Naturally nutrient rich
The message that Ms. Hayes refers to is “naturally nutrient rich.” This concept is a way to help Americans build healthier diets by choosing naturally nutrient-rich foods first.

Beef has always been nutrient rich or nutrient dense — a 3-ounce serving contains nine essential nutrients that people need while contributing less than 10 percent of calories to a 2,000-calorie diet.

“What naturally nutrient rich means is that you get a lot more bank for your calorie,” explains Ms. Hayes. “That’s an excellent position for beef because it has so many nutrients. When you can position a food as being full of nutrients and lean, it becomes almost the perfect answer to the weight-management dilemma that Americans are facing.”

In March, nutrition experts and researchers met at a Naturally Nutrient Rich scientific symposium. The purpose was to review research and evaluate the concept of “choosing naturally nutrient-rich foods first as a cornerstone in dietary guidance.” Twelve food organizations participated, representing five of the nutrient-bearing food groups from USDA’s food guide pyramid.

More research is expected to look into the naturally nutrient-rich area to determine if there is a way to develop a nutrient-rich index to help people understand which foods contain more nutrients than others. For example, there are differences between spinach and iceberg lettuce in terms of vegetable servings and available nutrients. It’s the same for beef compared to other proteins.

The obesity issue
This naturally nutrient-rich message comes at a time when government agencies are working to address the obesity epidemic. Last year, FDA released an obesity-working-group report stating it was time to focus on calories.

“They’re looking at making changes to the food label that will focus on calories,” says Ms. Young. “While we agree that calories do count, we think it’s time to look at making those calories count more because the reality is that we are eating more, but getting less nutrients.”

A quick survey of consumers by NCBA found that they are more willing to make adjustments to their diets if they have heard the naturally nutrient-rich-food message, points out Ms. Young. Consumers want to eat beef for its flavor and are happy to hear the message that they can eat something they like and feel good about it.

Taste is still the No. 1 reason consumers pick certain foods, points out Ms. Young. Nutrition, however, is creeping up in consumers’ minds due to the obesity issue and changing demographics. Baby boomers want to stay as active and vital in their golden years as they were in their 30s and 40s, and they are looking to nutrition and exercise to achieve that.

The message the beef industry needs to purvey to consumers is that beef is leaner than what many perceive and is an excellent source of many essential nutrients. Checkoff dollars are used to fund research and communication programs that do just that.

“Beef producers should feel really good about what their checkoff dollars have done over the last 10 years,” adds Ms. Young. “Beef producers and the organizations they support are the only ones speaking out on beef’s behalf; you’re not going to see the poultry industry talking about the health benefits of beef.”