For the record, and to save comments from carnivores, I’m not a vegetarian. I am a nutritionist, and as such, I’ve taken a look at Meat and Livestock Australia’s (MLA) latest ads.

Actor Sam Neill has previously spruiked for MLA, running the line that humans developed their unique brain size and intelligence by eating red meat. Sam’s at it again in the latest campaign, this time teaching Dennis, an orang-utan, that red meat is an ‘amazing food’ that helps the brain perform everyday activities such as thinking clearly, concentrating, remaining alert — and even staying happy! To demonstrate the happiness, Dennis and Sam ride their bikes and dance together under the trees.

From a scientific perspective, these MLA campaigns run on decidedly shaky ground, and vegetarians and those who choose fish and chicken over red meat can feel justifiably insulted by the unfounded implications.

It’s true that the human brain has grown much faster than that of other animals over the last 2 million years, but if that were due to carnivorous habits, why aren’t the super cats ruling the world? A new tome, Hominid Brain Evolution by David Geary and Drew Bailey, draws in data from 153 hominid skulls dating back over 2 million years and concludes that increased cranial capacity has come about largely through social competition.

Sam Neill takes a simpler approach and says it’s all due to five nutrients. Sam spells them out for us.

  1. “Iron: wonderfuel for brains” MLA correctly notes that iron’s major function is to carry oxygen to cells so they can produce energy. They then extrapolate to imply that since the brain needs lots of fuel, it must need red meat to supply iron.

    Fact: Every cell in the body requires energy and yes, iron is needed for making haemoglobin, the red pigment that carries oxygen to cells. But even the most brilliant of brains doesn’t know (or care) where its iron comes from. The iron in seafood, poultry, legumes, vegetables or grains will do nicely, thank you very much. BTW, the iron in red meat is a prime suspect for why a diet high in red meat is related to many problems, including a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

    Verdict: misleading

  2. “I Zinc therefore I am” MLA correctly notes that zinc is a vital part of brain cells and assists in growth and repair.

    Fact: Zinc also helps growth and repair in the skin, liver, pancreas, kidneys, eye and the prostate gland. Zinc deficiency occurs in some regions of the world where people have very little food and even less food of high nutritional quality. It is extremely rare in Australia (except in chronic alcoholism), probably because zinc is widely distributed in foods. The top sources — by far — are oysters and mussels. But you’ll get plenty from any other kind of seafood, or chicken, legumes, rolled oats and other cereals, dairy products and nuts.

    Verdict: misleading

  3. “Omega-3s: mega brainy” MLA is correct to note that omega 3 fats contribute to the structure of the brain, although they didn’t add that these fats are most important during pregnancy and infancy.

    Fact: There’s a family of omega 3 fats (why does MLA omit the word “fat”?). The main one in the brain is DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), found in fish and all Aussie seafood. Red meat contains DPA (docosapentaenoic acid), probably useful, but under-researched. But we need labels on meat because DPA is only found in the meat of animals that graze on grass — grain-feeding doesn’t cut it. Studies where pregnant women and babies have been given supplements of DHA show no extra cleverness. But one study did show that brainier kids were more likely to choose a vegetarian diet!

    Verdict: misleading

  4. “Amino acids: food for thought” MLA is correct that meat contains amino acids — they’re part of all proteins, but why do they lump the 20 or so amino acids into a single nutrient.

    Fact: MLA tells me they mention “amino acids” rather than protein, because amino acids are part of neurotransmitters in the brain. Actually all protein must be broken down to amino acids before it can be used anywhere in the body. Aussies don’t suffer from protein deficiency and the brain has no idea if amino acids come from meat, milk or muesli.

    Verdict: misleading

  5. “B12: the B in Brain” MLA correctly notes that vitamin B12 is needed for electrical impulses to be transmitted along nerve fibres.

    Fact: Vitamin B12 is supplied only by animal foods, but chicken, fish, milk, cheese, yoghurt or eggs can supply it. Dennis would get it from the insects on his favourite fruit.

    Verdict: OK

MLA says that if we don’t get these five critical nutrients the “brain can feel the strain”. Perhaps MLA thought we weren’t smart enough to digest the fact that the brain needs many more nutrients than the five Sam discusses. And you don’t need to eat red meat to get them.

Perhaps the bottom line is that it’s just not smart to expect truth in advertising.