Meat is an important source of high quality iron, zinc and protein – vital nutrients for maternal health and child development, including growth, development and general well-being.
Meat is a source of vitamin B12, only found in animal source foods and contains a variety of other micronutrients including B vitamins, vitamin D, selenium as well as vitamin A in liver.
Meat makes it easy to get ‘a lot in a little’ providing an efficient package of essential nutrients, particularly for older people who have small appetites and high nutrient requirements.
Meat is a key dietary predictor of iron and zinc status in infants, toddlers and women of child-bearing age – two of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world.
Iron-rich foods such as meat are recommended as first foods from about 6 months of age to meet their high nutrient requirements.
Countries around the world recommend lean meat as part of a healthy, balanced diet because it is a good source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12 and helps to secure nutrient adequacy for most people.
The last national nutrition survey on New Zealand adults published in 2008/09, which is based on asking 4,500 people what they ate in the 24 hours prior to the questionnaire, showed an average intake of 41.1g/day beef, 9.3g/day lamb and 22g/day processed meat which were defined as sausages, luncheon, frankfurters, saveloys/cheerios, salami, meatloaf and meat patties. These levels are lower in all categories since the survey a decade beforehand.
Meat and plant foods provide different nutrients required for good health – meat is an efficient source of protein, iron and zinc required for growth, development and general well-being and plant foods are excellent sources of dietary fibre required for gut health. Together they make a satisfying and nutritious healthy, balanced meal.
Beef, lamb and pork are popular meats and available in a variety of products to suit different lifestyles, taste, cultural and nutritional needs. Convenience products such as bacon, cured and smoked meats help address food safety concerns when refrigerated conditions are limited or when time is limited.
When trimmed of visible fat, lean red meat is low in fat. For example, a 100g portion of cooked beef silverside or shin contains around 2% fat; and the average of lamb cuts at only 4.8%. All beef and lamb displaying the New Zealand Beef and Lamb Quality Mark will be trimmed to a maximum 5mm fat, which can be further trimmed at home. The Heart Foundation of New Zealand recommends lean meat as part of their guide to eating for a healthy heart.
Lean beef and lamb also contain some of the important oils found in olive oil and fish oils. These include the beneficial monounsaturated fat found in olive oil plus a small amount of omega 3. Only small amounts of fatty meat and meat products should be eaten by people with heart disease and all visible fat should be trimmed.
Eating lean red meat helps reduce hunger and helps you feel full for longer due to the satiating effect of its efficient protein source, so is great if you’re watching your weight. Lean red meat also provides iron, zinc and B vitamins without too much fat or too many calories.
Based on the headlines, you have probably been left feeling confused about the link between meat and cancer. Proving the causes of cancer is complex; as the Cancer Society of New Zealand highlights, lifestyle habits are more important than specific foods. This includes a combination of being sun smart, maintaining a healthy weight, being active everyday, minimising alcohol, eating a range of fruit and vegetables and moderating your intake of meat.
There is scientific evidence which shows an association between eating red meat and bowel cancer, but this does not mean it is a direct cause, nor needs to be eliminated from the diet, although some headlines may reflect this. As an analogy, wearing a bra is associated with breast cancer, and being a male is associated with prostate cancer, but bras nor being a man actually cause cancer.
In fact, the World Health Organisation, the World Cancer Research Fund and our own Ministry of Health here in New Zealand draws on the body of evidence of red meat's positive role in a healthy diet, recognising eating it lean and in moderation withing healthy eating and lifestyle patterns, contributes a range of valuable nutrients that are utilised by the body efficiently for well-being and energy.
In other words, red meat provides a lot in a little, with one serving providing an adult with at least a quarter of your iron needs, and half of your zinc, protein and vitamin B12 requirements - all playing a part in energy, focus and immunity.
Current recommendations state we can enjoy 500g cooked (750g raw) red meat per week, which in practical terms could be split across four meals during the week all served up with a big side of veges. Such as:
Based on current meat consumption patterns of the average New Zealander, we would all need to be eating twice the amount of meat every day to increase the risk by 1% for bowel cancer.
The key focus in terms of reducing cancer risk is to avoid smoking, being sun smart, limiting alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating balanced, varied fibre-rich diet which includes wholegrains, fruits and vegetables.
Protein is an essential macronutrient needed for many functions in the body including growth, immunity, healthy skin, nails and hair, and recovery. It is found in many foods including red meat, which is an excellent source of high biological value 'complete' protein, providing all of the essential amino acids our body needs. Including lean red meat in your diet is an efficient way to meet daily protein requirements.
Plant foods also contain protein but tend to lack one or more essential amino acids, yet are an important source of fibre, antioxidants and vitamins. This means a varied diet with a combination of both animal and plant foods provide an array of essential nutrients. People who don’t eat any animal products should plan their diet carefully to include a wide variety of plant foods.
A meatless diet can be adequate nutritionally but needs careful planning to ensure requirements are met. Iron, zinc, protein and vitamin B12 demand particular attention. Plant-based protein foods, such as beans and pulses, contain substances, such as phytates, which prevent iron and zinc being easily absorbed. Up to 80% more iron and 50% more zinc will be required when following a diet without meat.
There are two types of iron: haem and non-haem. Haem iron, found in meat and fish, is absorbed better than non-haem iron, found in legumes, cereals, fruit and vegetables. To look at how this stacks up to other foods, click here and for 10 tips on boosting your iron intake, click here.
Red meat is an excellent source of iron, but including it regularly in the diet will not lead to an excess iron intake for most healthy people. In fact, having too little iron is much more likely to be a problem. The most common iron overload condition in New Zealand is hereditary haemochromatosis, a genetic condition causing poor control of iron absorption and is considered the most common genetic disorder in the world. The disorder occurs most commonly in New Zealanders of Celtic, Anglo and Northern European descent. In New Zealand, approximately 1 person in every 200 has the condition, while approximately 1 in 10 people of European descent are carriers. This condition is managed by therapeutic phlebotomy - in other words, the removal of blood on a regular basis. It is recommended those with haemochromatosis avoid excessive consumption of red meat and liver.
The body is able to digest meat protein very easily, digesting around 94%. This is similar to eggs, milk and fish and much higher than protein in plant foods such as beans. Meat will generally leave the stomach within 2-3 hours and be fully digested in 4-6 hours. The human digestive tract is well designed to digest meat and absorb its wide range of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12.
You shouldn't re-freeze meat if it was previously cooked, frozen and thawed. If, however, the meat was frozen raw, thawed, cooked and then re-frozen, that is fine if used within 2 months. You should also ensure you re-heat food until it is piping hot.
All New Zealand beef and lamb sold by New Zealand retailers comes from animals raised on pasture. The New Zealand Beef and Lamb Quality Mark is your guarantee.
The Ministry of Health recommendations suggest women can eat up to 100g liver once a week during pregnancy. If using liver in paté form, it should be well-cooked and heated to over 75°C before before eating, which in practical terms, excludes shop-bought products.
The Ministry of Health advises pregnant and breastfeeding women should not eat raw or under-cooked meat. Cook meat until the juices run clear (no blood present). This would mean a steak would need to be cooked until at least medium.
Casseroles and stews, soups and mince are perfect for freezing, although most food should be used within three months for maximum benefit and eating quality. Mince, such as for spaghetti bolognaise, will make a quick and easy meal with freshly cooked pasta, tacos or nachos/burritos, or in a cottage pie. Beef stroganoff, lasagne, lamb casseroles or pot roasts are all suitable for freezing once cooked. Allow to cool thoroughly before freezing and ensure food is well wrapped or stored in a tight-fitting container to prevent freezer burn. It is best to thaw food overnight in the fridge and reheat thoroughly.
Iron requirements are highest for pregnant women due to the iron needs of the growing baby. During breastfeeding, women are unlikely to have started menstruating again following pregnancy, so need less iron than both pregnant and non-pregnant, non-breastfeeding women.
Every baby and toddler has a different appetite and fondness of meat. Start with ½ - 2 teaspoons of any new food. From around 6 months, meat will need to be pureéd to a soft, smooth texture, progressing to soft mince from 7-8 months. Once your baby is 8-12 months, offer chopped finger foods (wedges, slices or strips). Check out recipe ideas here.
Liver is a rich source of iron, but also high in vitamin A, which needs to be limited, therefore it is recommended young children have no more than 3 teaspoons or 15 grams of liver per week. Keeping a piece of frozen liver in the freezer, then grating a bit into other meat or vegetable casseroles or mince dishes while its cooking, is another way to boost the iron content of their meals.
Have a look at our babies and toddlers recipes section. The recipes using liver should work well with kidney, including the liver spread, which is like a pâté. Unlike liver, there isn’t any restriction on the amount of kidney you can give to your baby. It is better to be guided by your baby, rather than try and give a specific amount. Every baby is different. One kidney, weighing about 25g, provides about 3.5mg of iron.
The meat juices from which you can make gravy do contain a small amount of iron. Whilst you might be concerned about the fat content, fat is an essential part of your baby’s diet, as his energy requirements are so high, so any fat in the meat juices and subsequently the gravy are useful for your baby. Many parents find mixing in a little gravy helps babies enjoy their vegetables. The reason some commercial gravies are not recommended is due to the high salt content. Home-made varieties tend to be lower. Mixing pureed meat with some home-made gravy or juices would help to ensure the right consistency.