Animal foods needed for nutrition and health, FAO report

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Foods of animal origin are necessary to ensure human nutrition and health, according to a recent FAO report. (1) Indeed, they provide proteins of high biological value, valuable fatty acids and a rich supply of vitamins and minerals.

At the same time, animal husbandry faces a number of challenges in a One Health approach that cannot neglect the close relationship between human health, animal health and welfare, and environmental protection.

1) Food of animal origin, the FAO assessment.

The FAO report ‘Contribution of terrestrial animal source food to healthy diets for improved nutrition and health’ (2023)-on the utility of animal source foods in nutrition-is the first of four documents requested in October 2020 by the FAO Committee on Agriculture.

The objective of the assignment is to achieve ‘a comprehensive, scientific evidence-based global assessment’ on the contribution of foods of animal (farm) origin to food security and nutrition security, also taking into account their environmental, economic and social sustainability. In line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in UN Agenda 2030. (3)

2) ‘The double burden of malnutrition’

The double burden of malnutrition is the leading theme of the landmark ‘Global Syndemic’ report by the EAT Commission – The Lancet (2019. See footnote 4):

  • on the one hand, at least one-tenth of the world’s population suffers from hunger and acute malnutrition. While three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet,
  • On the other hand, the serial and widespread consumption of ultra-processed foods with poor nutritional profiles, junk-food, causes one in three people globally to be overweight and obese.

Malnutrition is also associated with childhood constipation (affecting a quarter of children under the age of five) and anemia, which affects more than half a billion women.

‘While all forms of malnutrition have multiple causes, a healthy diet is key to preventing them all,’ the FAO reminds us.

3) The role of foods of animal origin.

FAO experts conducted a systematic review of scientific evidence on the role of foods of animal origin. To conclude that-as part of varied and balanced diets-the consumption of such foods is helpful in achieving the global nutrition goals for 2025 endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO), in line with #SDG3(Ensure Health and Well-being). That is, to reduce:

  • The low birth weight,
  • stunting of growth among children under the age of five,
  • overweight and obesity among children under the age of five,
  • Anemia in women of reproductive age (15-49 years),
  • obesity and diet-relatedNon-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in adults.

3.1) Unparalleled nutritive value

Animal foods provided by animal husbandry (and game) have outstanding nutritional properties. Indeed, their consumption provides:

  • higher quality protein than other foods, with some nuanced differences in digestibility,
  • essential amino acids and bioactive factors with a role in human health (carnitine, creatine, taurine, hydroxyproline, and anserine),
  • long-chain fatty acids and essential fatty acid profiles to the nervous system at all stages of human life,
  • Iron and zinc (in red meat), bound in more bioavailable and more easily digestible compounds than those available in plant-based foods (5,6)

Milk is known for its high concentration and bioavailability of calcium, as well as other nutrients. (7)

Eggs have high concentrations of choline and some long-chain fatty acids. (8)

In general, foods of animal origin are a rich source of selenium, vitamin B12 and choline. Consuming it also counteracts the effects of antinutrients in plant-based foods. (9)

4) The scientific evidence in favor

The scientific literature attributes significant nutritional value to the consumption of these foods. Milk and dairy products are the most studied foods, followed by beef and eggs. Fewer, however, are the studies on pork and poultry meat, wild animals, insects and meat of other minor species.

The assessment conducted by FAO experts traces and recalls the evidence on the benefits that foods of animal origin can enable throughout the various stages of life, from birth to old age, because nutrient requirements vary with advancing age. The following are the main evidences.

4.1) From the fetal stage to adolescence.

Consumption of milk and dairy products during pregnancy increases infants’ birth weight and may also increase birth length and fetal head circumference.

School-age children and adolescents, through regular intake of this food group, can increase stature and reduce overweight and obesity.

4.2) The benefits for adults

Adults, by consuming milk and dairy products (such as yogurt and cheese, in recommended portions) reduces the risk of all-cause mortality, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, and fractures.

Egg consumption, contrary to what has long been theorized, does not increase the risk of stroke or coronary heart disease. As shown in the first large study on the topic (Abdollahi et al., 2019), conducted in Finland with a 21-year follow-up useful clarification in light of widespread fears and evidence that struggles to sweep them away.

Meat has a favorable role in preventing iron deficiency. Poultry meat is less studied than beef, but evidence suggests nonsignificant effects on stroke risk, with a subgroup analysis suggesting a protective effect in women.

4.3) Seniors

The elderly are the emerging population group, although fewer studies have been devoted to their nutritional needs. However, the scientific literature points out that:

  • the ability to absorb protein decreases in the elderly population, and it is therefore essential to ensure adequate intakes of high biological value protein (11,12),
  • Milk and dairy products play a key role in alleviating sarcopenia, fractures and fragility, (13),
  • essential amino acids in meats play a role in brain protection and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. (14)

5) Red meat and processed red meat.

Red meats and especially more processed meats (cured meats) should be consumed sparingly, as part of varied and balanced diets. Indeed, the literature indicates a possible increased risk of chronic diseases in adults associated with the consumption of these food categories.

Nitrites and nitrates in some meat products (e.g., sausages, cured meats), in particular, are associated with colorectal cancer risks. (15) Indeed, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, 2023) has highlighted the toxicity of nitrosamines resulting from the use of such preservative additives. (16)

6) The challenges of animal husbandry

In any case, the production of food of animal origin faces some major critical issues that this FAO report, like the one published in 2019, (17) also highlights:

  • environment. Deforestation, land use change, greenhouse gas emissions, unsustainable water and land use, pollution, competition of crops to produce feed with food crops,
  • herd management, in relation to low productivity, cost reduction, lack of animal welfare,
  • animal health and consequent risks in terms of disease. With a focus on antimicrobial resistance and the need to reduce the use of antibiotics, (18)
  • food safety, with regard to the risks of zoonotic and foodborne diseases,
  • social equity, with a focus on the rights of farmers (UN, 2018) ranchers and workers.

7) Interim Conclusions

The work under review has the merit of restoring balance to an international debate on agrifood systems today dominated by an a priori rabid narrative against livestock and animal products. (6)

Plant-based foods cannot be understood as the solution to everything and everyone. Livestock supply chains on the other hand need to invest in animal welfare, agroecology and circular economy to better value their products.

Marta Strinati and Dario Dongo

Notes

(1) Contribution of terrestrial animal source food to healthy diets for improved nutrition and health. FAO, Rome, 2023. 978-92-5-137536-5. https://doi.org/10.4060/cc3912en

(2) Dario Dongo. One Health. Animal, human, planetary health and welfare. What can we do? GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 2.6.21

(3) Dario Dongo, Giulia Caddeo. Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs. The challenge of humanity. Égalité. 5.9.19

(4) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. Global Syndemic, the deadly mix of malnutrition and ecological crisis. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 7.6.19

(5) Dario Dongo. Fresh pork, nutritional properties and health benefits. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 6.6.20

(6) Dario Dongo. Red meat, the silent battle. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 7.6.20

(7) Paola Palestini. Milk and health, The Worldwide Study in The Lancet. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 3.12.18

(8) Dario Dongo, Alessandra Mei. Poultry and eggs, global demand on the rise. The challenge of sustainability. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 3.2.20

(9) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Plant-based alternatives to meats, the nutritional challenges. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 19.12.22

(10) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. An egg a day, green light from research in Finland. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 5.9.19

(11) Paola Palestini, Dario Dongo. Coronavirus and infections, how to strengthen the defenses of the over-65s with a good diet. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 15.3.20

(12) Marta Strinati. Nutrition of the elderly to prevent and cure. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 2.4.22

(13) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Dairy products and fracture risk reduction in the elderly, a clinical study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 1.11.21

(14) Giulia Pietrollini. The role of branched amino acids in Alzheimer’s disease. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 9.4.23

(15) Marta Strinati. Nitrites in processed meats and risk of colorectal cancer, new evidence. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 4.1.23

(16) Marta Strinati. EFSA opinion on nitrosamines in food. The population is at risk. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 30.3.23

(17) Dario Dongo, Marina De Nobili. Livestock, FAO proposes 5 areas of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 29.8.20

(18) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Animal husbandry, algae and microalgae to prevent antibiotic use. Algatan. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 9.9.20

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Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".

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Dario Dongo, lawyer and journalist, PhD in international food law, founder of WIISE (FARE - GIFT - Food Times) and Égalité.