Foods of animal origin are needed to ensure human nutrition and health, according to a recent FAO report. (1) In fact, they provide proteins of high biological value, precious fatty acids and a rich supply of vitamins and minerals.
At the same time, animal husbandry is called upon to face a series of challenges, in a One Health approach which cannot neglect the close relationship between human health, animal health and well-being, 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) - regarding the usefulness of food of animal origin in nutrition - is the first of the four documents requested in October 2020 by the FAO Committee on Agriculture.
Objective of the assignment is to reach 'a comprehensive, evidence-based global assessment' on the contribution of foods of animal origin (farmed) 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 the UN Agenda 2030. (3)
2) 'The double burden of malnutrition'
'The double burden of malnutrition' is the main theme of the historic report on 'Global Syndemic' by the EAT Commission - The Lancet (2019. See note 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 become overweight and obese.
Malnutrition it is also associated with childhood constipation (affecting a quarter of children under five years of age) and anemia affecting more than half a billion women.
'While all forms of malnutrition have multiple causes, a healthy diet is key to preventing them all', reminds FAO.
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 these foods is useful for achieving the global nutritional objectives for 2025 approved by the World Health Organization (WHO), in line with #SDG3 (Ensure Health and Well-being). That is to say, reduce:
- low birth weight,
- stunting among children under the age of five,
- overweight and obesity among children under five,
- anemia in women of reproductive age (15-49 years),
- obesity and noncommunicable diseases (Non-Communicable Diseases, NCDs) related to nutrition in adults.
3.1) An incomparable nutritional value
Foods of animal origin supplied by zootechnics (and game) have very important nutritional properties. In fact, 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 foods of plant origin (5,6)
The milk it is known for its high concentration and bioavailability of calcium, as well as other nutrients. (7)
The eggs they 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 anti-nutrients present in foods of plant origin. (9)
4) The scientific evidence in favor
The literature science attributes an important nutritional value to the consumption of these foods. Milk and dairy products are the most studied foods, followed by beef and eggs. Less numerous are the studies on pork and poultry meat, wild animals, insects and meat of other minor species.
The evaluation conducted by FAO experts, it retraces and recalls the evidence relating to the benefits that foods of animal origin can allow to obtain during the various stages of life, from birth to old age, because the need for nutrients varies with age. Here are the main findings.
4.1) From the fetal stage to adolescence
Consumption of milk and dairy products during pregnancy increases birth weight of infants and may also increase birth length and fetal head circumference.
Children and adolescents in school age, thanks to the regular intake of this food group, they can increase height and reduce overweight and obesity.
4.2) The benefits for adults
The adults, thanks to the consumption of milk and dairy products (such as yogurt and cheese, in the recommended portions) reduces the risk of mortality from all causes, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, breast cancer, obesity, osteoporosis and fractures.
The consumption of eggs, unlike what has long been theorized, it does not increase the risk of stroke or coronary heart disease. As demonstrated in the first major study on the subject (Abdollahi et al., 2019), conducted in Finland with follow-up 21 years of age useful clarification, in the light of widespread fears and the evidence that struggles to sweep them away.
The meat has a favorable role in the prevention of iron deficiencies. Poultry meat is less studied than beef, but the evidence suggests no significant effect on stroke risk, with a subgroup analysis suggesting a protective effect in women.
Seniors i am the band of emerging population, although fewer studies have been devoted to their nutritional needs. The scientific literature also highlights how:
- the ability to absorb proteins decreases in the elderly population, and it is therefore essential to guarantee adequate intakes of proteins of high biological value (11,12),
- milk and dairy products play a key role in alleviating sarcopenia, fractures and frailty, (13),
- the essential amino acids contained in meats play a role in protecting the brain and preventing Alzheimer's disease. (14)
5) Red meats and processed red meats
Red meats and above all the more processed ones (cured meats) must be consumed sparingly, as part of varied and balanced diets. In fact, the literature indicates a possible increased risk of chronic diseases in adults associated with the consumption of these food categories.
The nitrites and nitrates contained in some meat products (eg. sausage, cured meats), in particular, are associated with colorectal cancer risks. (15) The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA, 2023) has in fact highlighted the toxicity of nitrosamines deriving from the use of such preservative additives. (16)
6) The challenges of animal husbandry
Production of food of animal origin must in any case face some major critical issues that this FAO report, like the one published in 2019, (17) also underlines:
- environment. Deforestation, land use changes, greenhouse gas emissions, unsustainable use of water and land, pollution, competition of feed crops with food crops,
- farm 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 food-borne diseases,
- social equity, with attention to rights of peasants (UN, 2018) farmers and workers.
7) Provisional conclusions
The work under consideration it has the merit of restoring balance to an international debate on agri-food systems today dominated by an a priori fierce narrative against farms and products of animal origin. (6)
Foods of vegetable origin they cannot be understood as the solution to everything and for everyone. On the other hand, livestock supply chains must invest in animal welfare, agroecology and circular economy to better enhance their products.
Marta Strinati and Dario Dongo
(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 and planetary health and well-being. 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. Equality. 5.9.19
(4) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. Global Syndemic, mix deadly 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, growing global demand. The challenge of sustainability. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 3.2.20
(9) Dario Dongo, Andrea Adelmo Della Penna. Vegetable alternatives to meat, the nutritional challenges. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 19.12.22
(10) Marta Strinati, Dario Dongo. One egg a day, green light for 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 for 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, clinical study. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 1.11.21
(14) Giulia Pietrollini. The role of branched chain amino acids in Alzheimer's. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 9.4.23
(15) Marta Strinati. Nitrites in processed meats and colorectal cancer risk, 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. Animal husbandry, FAO proposes 5 intervention areas 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 the use of antibiotics. Algatan. GIFT (Great Italian Food Trade). 9.9.20