“Broccoli has more protein than steak”—and other crap

Of all the asinine things that I read about nutrition—and let me tell you, I read a lot of them—this one has got to be the asininniest: Broccoli has more protein than steak.

I’ve seen this idiotic meme repeated many times, but the primary source of this stupid—see also: delusional, ludicrous, and absurd—notion seems to be Dr. Joel Furhman. My mom—bless her little osteoporotic soul—keeps his books down at the beach cottage. I don’t think she does it to taunt me, but you never know. I was a bad kid, and payback may be in order. My family has forbidden me to read Dr. Furhman’s books, to pick them up, or to even glance at the covers because the resulting full-on nutrition-rant kills everybody’s beach buzz.

However, as of last week, I have officially maxed out my tolerance for just ignoring this nonsense. So, note to my family: Read no further, it will kill your beach buzz.

According the Dr. Furhman’s book, Eat to Live, a 100-calorie portion of sirloin steak has 5.4 grams of protein, and a 100-calorie portion of broccoli has 11.2 grams of protein. This is rubbish. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service’s Nutrient Data Laboratory database, 100 calories of broiled beef, top sirloin steak has exactly 11.08 grams of protein and 100 calories of chopped, raw broccoli has exactly 8.29. I’m not sure what universe Dr. Furhman lives in, but in my universe, 8.29 is less than 11.08.

I can explain the discrepancy in numbers by the simple fact that Dr. Furhman and I used different sources for our information. Dr. Furham wrote his book—the one that contains the piece of drivel under consideration—in 2005, but he chose to reference a nutrition book written in 1986 (Adams, C. 1986. Handbook of the Nutritional Value of Foods in Common Units, New York: Dover Publications). Just to put things in perspective, in 1986, the internet and DVDs had not yet been invented, no one knew who Bart Simpson was, and it would be another couple of years before Taylor Swift even draws her first ex-boyfriend-bashing breath.

Here’s what I can’t explain: Why, oh why did he dig up a reference nearly two decades old and not just use the USDA internet database, which is—and has been since the 1990s—available to anyone with a library card and a half a brain? While I do not wish to speculate on exactly which of these tools Dr. Furhman might be lacking, suffice it to say that it would take less than 10 minutes for any blogger interested in the truth of the matter to find a more recent source of information—assuming of course that bloggers who perpetuate this particular fiction are interested in the truth.

But wait—before you foam at the mouth too much, Adele—8.29 grams of protein is fair bit of protein.  There is only a difference of a couple of grams of protein between broccoli and steak.  Yes, I would agree, those numbers are a lot closer than you might expect, and this might actually be nutritionally important, if—Big If—all protein were created equal. Which it isn’t.

While I am a big fan of coming at nutrition from an individualized perspective, and I am aware that nutrition scientists don’t have any monopoly on truth, we have managed to nail down a few essential things that human must acquire from the food that they eat. In terms of essentiality, after calories and fluid comes protein—or more specifically, essential amino acids (there are more essentials, but they are not the topic of this particular rant). Because these amino acid requirements are so important (a particular form of starvation, kwashiorkor, involves not overall calorie deprivation, but protein deficit in the context of adequate or near-adequate calories), the World Health Organization has established specific daily requirements of the essential amino acids that are necessary for health.

Let’s see how similar caloric intakes of steak and broccoli stack up when comparing how these two foods provide for essential amino acid requirements. A 275-calorie portion of steak (4 ounces) has 30.5 grams of protein and comes very close to meeting all the daily essential amino acid requirements for a 70 kg adult. A 277-calorie portion of broccoli is not only way more food—you’ll be chewing for a long time as you try to make it through 9 ¼ cups of broccoli—exactly NONE of the daily essential amino acid requirements for an adult are met:

EssentialAmino acids (g) Daily requirement 70 kg adult (g) Essential amino acids (g) in 275 calories of steak (4 oz or 113.33 g) Essential amino acids (g) in 277 calories of chopped, raw broccoli (9.25 cups)
histidine 0.70 0.975 ( +0.275) 0.48 (-0.22)
isoleucine 1.400 1.391 (-0.009) 0.643 (-0.757)
leucine 2.730 2.431 (-0.299) 1.05 (-1.68)
lysine 2.100 2.583 (+0.483) 1.099 (-1.001)
methionine 0.70 0.796 (+0.096) 0.309 (-0.391)
cysteine 0.28 0.394 (+ 0.114) 0.228 (-0.052)
threonine 1.050 1.221 (+0.171) 0.716 (-0.334)
tryptophan 0.280 0.201 (-0.079) 0.269 (-0.011)
valine 1.82 1.516 (-0.304) 1.018 (-0.802)

In reality, it takes twice that much broccoli, or over 18 cups, containing nearly twice as many calories, in order to get anywhere near meeting all essential amino acid requirements.  While I’m willing to concede that individual amino acid requirements may vary considerably, I am not willing to concede that similar caloric amounts of steak and broccoli provide a similar supply of those requirements.  I’m no broccoli basher (it’s sooo yummy baked with cheese & a little bacon on top), but as a protein source, even a lot leaves a lot to be desired.

Oh yeah? Well then, “how on earth do animals like elephants, gorillas and oxen get so big and strong eating only plants? A diverse plant-based diet can obviously support a big, powerful body.” Sure it can. If you’re an elephant or a gorilla or an ox.

In general, human bodies don’t work very efficiently without a regular dietary supply of all essential amino acids: “It would be difficult to find a protein that did not have at least one residue of each of the common 20 amino acids. Half of these amino acids are essential, and if the diet is lacking or low in even one of these essential amino acids, then protein synthesis is not possible” [Emphasis mine; reference: Campbell & Farrell’s Biochemistry, 6th edition]. Protein synthesis allows us to grow, heal, reproduce, and function in general. One of the specific outcomes of protein deficiency in humans is stunting, i.e. where humans who would otherwise grow bigger, don’t.

Dr. Furhman seems to think that those of us who “believe” that food from animals provides a more biologically complete source of protein than food from plants “never thought too much about how a rhinoceros, hippopotamus, gorilla, giraffe, or elephant became so big eating only vegetables.” Hmmm. I have to say, I’m thinking the same thing about Dr. Furhman. Maybe he is unaware that humans aren’t really all that much like rhinoceroses, hippos, gorillas, giraffes, or elephants. But then maybe he just hangs out with a different crowd than I do.

Once again, armed with a library card and half a brain, it is not too difficult to figure out—assuming you did think about how those animals got so big eating only plants and didn’t just mindlessly parrot Dr. Furham’s poorly-researched blather—that, as Gomer Pyle would say, surprise! surprise! Humans and other large mammals ARE different.

While non-ruminants (like humans) must get their essential amino acids from their diet, ruminants (like giraffes) “may also acquire substantial amounts of these amino acids through the digestion of microbial protein synthesized in the rumen” (see: Amino Acids in Animal Nutrition, edited by J.P. Felix D’Mello). This may come as a bit of a shock to Dr. Furhman and his readership, but humans don’t actually have rumens and utilizing this particular approach to the acquisition of essential amino acids from plant matter ain’t gonna work for us.

You can get plenty of protein from a plants-only diet by eating like a hippo.

Other non-ruminant grazers—see elephants, rhinos, and hippos—have a different eating strategy. They “eat for volume and low extraction.” In other words, the relatively low availability of protein in the food is overcome by the high volume consumed. In that regard—assuming you aspire to an elephant-like, rhino-like, or hippo-like bod—it may be possible to get sufficient protein from a strictly plant-based diet. If you don’t mind eating all the time. And pooping. Less than half of what is consumed by the high-volume grazers is utilized by the body; the rest—like a handsome stranger—is just passin’ through (see: Nutritional Ecology of the Ruminant, by Peter J. van Soest). If the idea of literally flushing over half of what you eat down the toilet doesn’t bother you, then this strategy actually might work.

ooooh! Can we? Please?

So what about gorillas? This particular primate-to-primate comparison has been tossed all around the internet. Why can’t we just eat plants like gorillas do? Gorillas, although not so good at Jeopardy, are big and strong and they’re vegans, so we should all be vegans too, right? Aside from the fact that we don’t really know exactly what gorillas are eating much of the time, it does seem that they eat a lot of bugs along with their plants. So unless you have a particularly fastidious gorilla, some dietary protein won’t be vegan. Compared to humans, gorillas also have a much larger proportion of the gut devoted to fermentation—again, another source for microbes to contribute to the nutritional completeness of a plants-only diet. And, again, a high volume of food is consumed to compensate for the low nutritional value of it. You won’t have to worry about half your food going down the toilet, though. Those who want to live like gorillas can just eat that poop instead of flushing it. This provides the body with another opportunity to extract nutrition from the substance formerly known as food and may also help explain the willingness of Dr. Furhman’s readers to swallow what he’s shoveling.

I have nothing against a plants-only diet—in whatever form it takes—if that’s what a person want to do and it makes him/her happy. I have no more interest in converting a vegan to omnivory than I do in having a vegan attempt to convert me to swearing off bacon. I am also aware that there is more—much more—to food choices than the nutritional content of the food chosen.

But I’m afraid this is just one of those situations where ideology has been sent to do the work of science. Ideology has its place, and science has its flaws. Truth, facts, and beliefs can be hard to define and harder still to separate. I get all that. But – to quote Neil deGrasse Tyson – “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” Unfortunately, for all those gorilla-wannabees out there, the reverse also applies: Believing in something doesn’t make it true. You can believe all you want that broccoli is a better source of protein than steak, but your ribosomes don’t have access to a keyboard and they might vote differently.

Now, dear readers, if you ever run across some library-card-challenged blogger out there perpetuating Dr. Furhman’s little myth, you have a link to help spill some sunshine on the matter.

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What Simon Doesn’t Say: An Expose with a Hidden Agenda

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is squirming over a recent report written by Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics that address ANDs corporate sponsorship program. The president of AND warns members not to believe everything they read and to mind the source (I supposed the assumption is RDs would be too sheep-like to do otherwise? Good thing Daddy Sheep warned us!), saying  ” . . . the majority of the report consists of publicly available facts filtered through the author’s opinions. She is of course entitled to her opinions. But opinions are not facts.”

I’m no fan of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), although they haven’t yet revoked my membership. I’m also no fan of industrialized food, although I do think the food industry has an important role to play in reforming our food-health system. I am also not a big fan of hypocrisy, which is why I have a good bit of trouble with the report, entitled Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?

The answer is—I believe—a resounding “yes,” and Healthy Nation Coalition has explored how this compromised position extends not just to the food industry but the USDA itself. Clearly, the AND is an industry-friendly organization, and the USDA relies on AND-trained dietitians to confirm its own industry-friendly guidelines.

While I applaud Simon’s efforts to hold the AND more accountable for its relationships with industry, AND leadership is correct in pronouncing Simon’s reporting as one-sided and biased.  Simon is happy to slam the health-washing, cultural insensitivity, and hidden agendas of food manufacturers and the Academy, but if the propaganda, insensitivity, and agendas are vegatarian*—well, then she’s just fine with it, thank you very much.

“Healthy” smoothies are okay with Simon; meaty cheesy Big Macs are not.

Simon complains that “the banners at the McDonald’s booth showed images of healthy foods like smoothies,” but didn’t show McRibs and Big Macs. The implication, of course is that “healthy” smoothies” (with 78 grams of sugar and 4 grams of protein) aren’t so bad—even if they are from McDonald’s—compared to those meaty, cheesy foods like a Big Mac. Never mind that your body actually needs the protein that a Big Mac can provide and has little use for the 78 grams of sugar in a smoothie, except for fat storage.

How dare the Dairy Council target lactose-intolerant African-Americans! Every one knows all African-Americans would be healthier on a vegan diet . . .

Simon quotes an RD who points out that it is culturally inappropriate for the National Dairy Council to target African-American and Hispanic communities, considering the high rates of lactose intolerance in those populations, a remark with which I fully agree. Simon then goes on to complain about the inappropriateness of the Pork Board handing out educational material at “a nutrition conference where almost no countering information could be found about how a meat-centered diet can lead to chronic disease”?  In fact it would inappropriate to provide such “countering information” as the declaration that a meat-centered diet leads to disease is an ideological stance and not a scientific one. I would go on to add that it is also a culturally-insensitive stance, as pork is at the center of not only African-American and Hispanic food culture (barbeque, chorizo), but Chinese and Eastern European cuisine as well (lup cheong and kielbasa). It seems cultural sensitivity is fine if it means we can take away meaty, cheesy foods—but not when such sensitivity would allow them.

It’s not culturally insensitive to ban pork products–like these lup cheong– from a healthy diet; we’re just doing everyone a favor.

Simon’s take on the not-so-hidden relationships between the AND and the food industry is well-trod ground as she herself acknowledges, but to Simon some associations are apparently more odious than others:

In 1995, New York Times reporter Marian Burros wrote about criticisms of the [AND] for taking funding from industry groups such as the Sugar Association, the Meat Board, and companies such as McDonald’s, CocaCola, and Mars. According to Burros: “Nothing negative is ever included in materials produced by the association, a fact that critics attribute to its link to industry.” In that same article, veteran sustainable food advocate and Columbia University Professor Joan Gussow noted that giving money to registered dietitians is how industry silences its critics.

Simon pointedly calls out the National Cattleman’s Beef Association as an “especially loyal” sponsor. But if giving money means AND will only say positive things about your food product, it’s difficult to explain AND’s resounding endorsement of vegetarian and vegan diets, with “tips of the day” like “Endless Meat-Free Options” and articles that show you how to “Build Muscle, No Steak Required,” plus the promotion of stories such as “All Red Meat is Bad for You” in their daily newsletter. If I were the Beef Association, I’d want my money back.

Private consulting firms that have a “good” agenda don’t need to be held to the same levels of transparency as the “bad” ones.

I fully commend Simon’s calls for transparency, but the transparency knife cuts both ways. The AND/industry report was authored by Simon under the auspices of Eat Drink Politics, a self-described (by Simon) “industry watchdog” group that is also a “private consulting firm.” As such, while Simon is willing to disclose some of its clients, she states that “Some of our clients and funders prefer to remain anonymous for various reasons and we respect those wishes” (emphasis mine). So while she accuses the International Food Information Council of being “an industry front group” (which I think is pretty accurate), we can’t really tell who or what Eat Drink Politics is a “front” for, although we can take an educated guess.

The Eat Drink Politics website alerts us to an alarming situation regarding Deceptive Health Claims:

“The food industry has a challenge on its hands. Most health experts agree that the optimum diet is one based mostly on whole, plant foods, the kind that come from nature and not a factory. So, to convince Americans they can still eat their favorite meat, cheese, soda and junk food, many companies are using meaningless labels such as “all-natural” and engaging in other deceptive marketing practices” (emphasis mine).

Yup, meat and cheese—that’s about as un-natural as it comes.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look through the science and figure out that “most health experts” don’t actually agree that the “optimum” diet is based mostly on whole, plant foods (actually I’m pretty sure it just takes a journalist, specifically Gary Taubes). It’s also pretty easy to figure out what Simon’s idea of a “whole, plant food” diet is:

“A diet based on whole plant foods minimizes or eliminates all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and their byproducts.”

Can you say—vegan?

Simon goes to great lengths in her book Appetite for Profit to deny that she has any vegan agenda, as she has been accused of by the Center for Consumer Freedom (a group Simon depicts—again, accurately, in my opinion—as a food and beverage industry front group).  She’s clearly sensitive to the fact that the word “vegan” is too loaded with negative connotations to actually use it when she suggests that “a diet that resembles my own would be optimal for most people.”

She accuses Center for Consumer Freedom of keeping its corporate sponsorship anonymous in order to engage in more provocative PR claims and of manipulating language to make it look like she’s pushing a personal agenda. But she seems pretty comfortable with keeping her own sponsors anonymous, with using provocative claims to alarm the public, and with using consumer-friendly language to gloss over aspects of her own personal biases that the public may find off-putting. I guess she figures it’s okay because she’s believes she’s got “decades of accepted nutrition science” and a “scientifically supported view” on the side of her personal nutritional biases.

I think Simon’s 5 recommendations to AND are long overdue. There is no doubt that AND would benefit from increased transparency; more input from members; sponsorship guidelines; an elimination of corporate-sponsored education; and stronger policy leadership.

But I cannot support is what I think is Simon’s most disturbing suggestion, that AND commit itself to policy action now—specifically taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages**—before a full review of scientific evidence and long-term implications can be ascertained.

According to Simon, “not every policy issue or decision can wait for months (or years) of committee review and analysis.” On the contrary, I would argue that more policy decisions that attempt to manipulate the health behaviors of Americans by relying on unproven assumptions about the relationships between food and health can and should wait for months or years or indefinitely, until consistent, quality experimental data is obtained or until observational data reveal consistent and unmistakably-high risks. Right now, the health crisis that Simon seems intent on addressing (and I applaud her intentions, if not her methods) is at least in part a result of sweeping changes made to our food system 35 years ago without such evidence in hand.

Simon’s unquestioning belief in her own nutritional agenda is a result of that policy experiment, but it isn’t the solution. It’s time we stop trying to change the eating habits of our fellow Americans—which is the underlying intention behind taxing soda and believing that a diet that resembles your own is best for everyone else—and start trying to change the regulatory, economic, and political framework that restricts access to both the food and the knowledge that individuals need to make their own decisions about their own health.

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In case you missed my interview with Bob Fenton, a fellow blogger who has type 2 diabetes, you can find it here: 

Adele holds forth on diabetes, dietetics, and why the refusal to admit the limitations of our nutrition knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Next up is a guest post from a friend and fellow graduate student, James Woodward, whose background in economics and public policy gives him a rather different perspective on how we might go about accomplishing the task of reforming our food-health system.  It will also provide a bridge to my next series on “Eatanomics” which will explore how food, health, and the economy are intertwined. 

*”Vegatarian” is a term I use to indicate veganism disguised as vegetarianism. While lacto-ovo-vegetarian dietary patterns are complete and perfectly healthy, vegan diets must rely on fortification or supplementation to be complete, as acknowledged by the promoters of such diets (just read the “fine print”).

**Sugar-sweetened beverages are usually pretty nutritionally useless, but we simply don’t know what sort of unintended repercussions a soda tax will have, or where to draw the taxation line. One study has shown that beer-drinking households responded to a six-month soft drink tax by buying more beer.