National Beef Association
For everyone with an interest in the British beef industry

The Value of Beef - For Your Body and Your Bank Account

11th October 2010

Category: Health Fact Sheets

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There are beef choices to satisfy all tastes, schedules and budgets. Planning menus, creating shopping lists and knowing what to look for on the label when buying beef will help consumers stretch their food budget, without sacrificing the health benefits of a high-quality diet.

Naturally nutrient-rich foods, like lean beef, help people get more essential nutrients in fewer calories. Lean beef is one of the most efficient sources of nutrients there is, so one serving goes a long way toward providing ten essential nutrients. Because beef is such good value in terms of useful calories, lean beef is always a worthwhile investment.

Over the past ten years, consumer concerns and changes in legislation have encouraged the beef cattle industry, to set up or improve schemes that manage primarily product safety and animal welfare. For British beef producers, managing food safety is now seen as not just a legal responsibility, but also sound business sense.

Beef producers are recognising that a reputation for producing safe food creates customer confidence and allows better access to the marketplace. A diverse range of regulation, including animal welfare and environmental legislation, is already imposed on farm businesses. Pressure has also increased from the customers in the supply chain. Because of this need, ""food assurance"" schemes have developed for all major sectors of the agri-food industry, setting foundation standards of production that are checked by independent inspectors.

Previous the Government’s advice for a healthy diet was based on targets specifically relating to fat consumption, but significant changes in patterns of food consumption are required and a ‘whole diet approach’ is crucial to achieving the aims, particularly in dealing with the rising incidence of obesity.

Some 92 per cent of British consumers eat red meat and it is therefore a major component of the diet. To the consumer, beef is versatile, convenient, good value and enjoyable. It is a food commodity that has served us well throughout human evolution. Anthropological research suggests that if man had not eaten meat, we may not have developed as we are today because there is a clear relationship between diet and the size of the brain.

Beef has a high nutrient density, in other words it contains a wide variety of nutrients in useful amounts. It is also an important source of B vitamins, including B12, which is not found naturally in foods of plant origin. Beef also contributes minerals and trace elements to the diet, particularly iron and zinc. No one food contains all the nutrients needed for good health and the aim must be to include a wide variety of foods in the diet.


Iron is a vital mineral needed for red blood cell formation. A deficiency of iron in the diet is the most common dietary cause of anaemia. Evidence is now strong that there is a major problem of iron deficiency in the British diet. Certain groups of the population are particularly at risk because of poor iron intakes.

Iron is an essential component of two blood proteins: haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body and myoglobin, which holds oxygen in the muscles. Iron deficiency reduces oxygen supply to muscles and slows down metabolic reactions required for energy. This can decrease physical performance, as the active person can suffer fatigue, cramps headaches and shortness of breath. Therefore an adequate iron intake is vital for people involved in sports and exercise.

Females are at higher risk of iron deficiency due to regular loss in menstruation. It is important they choose foods rich in haem iron like beef. Dietary iron is found in two forms:

Haem iron is only found in animal products. It is easily absorbed and used by the body. The body will absorb more haem iron if iron stores are low. Generally the redder the meat, the higher the iron content. Beef and lamb are two of the richest sources of haem iron.

Non-haem iron is found in plant products and is poorly absorbed by the body. For example, iron absorption from plant foods can be increased by up to four times by combining beef and vegetables together. However, Tannins in tea and coffee, phytates in wholegrain cereals, oxalates in some vegetables (e.g. spinach) and some types of fibre inhibit absorption of non-haem iron.

Iron supplements should only be taken under medical supervision. In the long term, food is the safest and healthiest way to maintain iron status. Frequent use of iron supplements may reduce the absorption of zinc, copper and calcium, increasing the risk of deficiencies.

Why is iron important for babies?

In babies and toddlers, iron is vital for physical and mental development. Babies have very high iron needs, because they are growing so rapidly - in the first 12 months birth weight triples.

Between birth and two years, the human brain grows to 80% of its adult size. Iron is deposited in the brain - it is part of the brain structure and is therefore an essential nutrient for mental development.

Infants who are severely iron deficient suffer from:

Altered behaviour. Reduced immunity and therefore more frequent infections
Slower development of fine and gross motor skills (like balance and coordination)
Slower language development
Small reductions in IQ (a few points)

Research has shown that even when the iron deficiency is treated, some of these effects can be permanent. Some studies show that up to 30% of infants are iron deficient and up to 20% have the more severe form of iron deficiency anaemia.

Providing babies are not premature, most are born with good iron stores. When combined with an infant formula or breast milk, this iron is sufficient to last 4 to 6 months. Breast-fed babies rarely lack iron, although the iron content of breast milk is not high, this iron is very well absorbed. By around six months of age the baby~s iron stores are beginning to run out, and iron needs are increasing.

The following table gives the recommended dietary intake of iron for infants and toddlers:

Recommended Daily Intakes for Iron:
Iron per day (mg)
Infants 0-6 months 0.2
Infants 7-12 months 11.0
Children 1-3 years 9.0

Iron needs are particularly high in the six to nine months period and this is the time when solid foods are gradually introduced. It is important that these early foods are good sources of iron that is easily absorbed and parents are encouraged to introduce complementary foods rich in iron, such as purée beef, to ensure that breastfed infants consume adequate amounts of these important nutrients.

Because beef contains haem iron, as children progress through the feeding stages, serving beef along with plant and iron-fortified foods helps children absorb more of the non-haem iron than if they ate these foods alone.

Zinc is essential for growth and development and is involved in the creation of DNA and helps the body break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins so they can be used for energy. Zinc boosts immunity and also helps the body heal wounds and maintain normal blood glucose levels.

Research suggests that zinc also has a role in improving recall skills, reasoning and attention. The zinc content of breast milk gradually decreases over time, so it’s important to introduce foods rich in zinc when infants progress to solid foods. Animal and plant foods supply zinc, but as with iron, zinc is better absorbed from beef, which is the number one food source for zinc.

It is not just babies and young children that are at risk of developing iron deficiency leading to anaemia, but also rapidly growing teenagers, the elderly, women with heavy periods and people who stop eating meat without thinking carefully about what should take its place.

Dietary studies have shown that iron intakes among adolescents are often well below the recommended daily allowance. Evidence has suggested 93 per cent of 16 to 18 year old girls were consuming less than the recommended intake of iron. Whilst intakes below the RNI do not necessarily indicate iron deficiency, they could mean that individuals may be entering their adult years at risk of anaemia.

These vulnerable groups should at least be made aware of the relationship between lean beef and iron intake if they are choosing not to eat meat. Indeed one in three women have been found to be iron deficient in this country and beef as part of a balanced diet is one way to improve iron intakes.

National Beef Association
Mart Centre
Tyne Green
Northumberland NE46 3SG
Tel: +44 (0)1434 601005
[email protected]
Registered Charity No. 1115366

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