A new report issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) states that meat, eggs, and milk are vital sources of essential nutrients that are not easily obtainable from plant-based foods. The study, titled “Contribution of Terrestrial Animal Source Food to Healthy Diets for Improved Nutrition and Health Outcomes,” highlights that animal source foods are particularly crucial during critical life stages, such as pregnancy and lactation, childhood, adolescence, and old age.
The report is based on data and evidence from over 500 scientific papers and 250 policy documents, making it the most comprehensive analysis of the benefits and risks of consuming animal source foods to date. According to the report, meat, eggs, and milk provide a range of essential macro and micronutrients, including protein, fats, carbohydrates, iron, calcium, zinc, selenium, Vitamin B12, choline, and bioactive compounds like carnitine, creatine, and taurine that are difficult to obtain in the required quality and quantity from plant-based foods.
The report also highlights that globally, iron and vitamin A are among the most common micronutrient deficiencies, particularly in children and pregnant women. Over 1 in 2 preschool-aged children (372 million) and 1.2 billion women of child-bearing age lack at least one of three micronutrients: iron, vitamin A, or zinc. Furthermore, the livestock sector must address challenges related to the environment, herd management, animal health, human-livestock related issues, and social issues, including equity, while contributing to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals related to reducing stunting, wasting, low birthweight, anemia, and obesity and non-communicable diseases.
The report acknowledges the risks of consuming animal source foods, stating that even low levels of processed red meat consumption can increase the risk of mortality and chronic disease outcomes, such as cardiovascular diseases and colorectal cancer. However, moderate consumption of unprocessed red meat ranging from 9 to 71 grams per day is considered safe regarding chronic disease outcomes. The report also suggests that evidence of links between milk, eggs, and poultry consumption in healthy adults and diseases such as coronary heart disease, strokes, and hypertension is inconclusive or non-significant.
Finally, the report encourages governments to update national dietary guidelines to consider how meat, eggs, and milk can contribute to specific nutrient requirements during different stages of human life.