Jay Rayner turns protein nutritionist. Well if he can then me too.

I agree with Jay Rayner that where people can’t thrive without animal products then vegetarianism, or even free-range or organic farming, aren’t a price worth paying. But he’s not willing to ask whether we can.

In response to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s shattering experience as a battery chicken farmer, Jay Rayner is quick to defend intensive animal farming as a British necessity. ‘Sure, it might be cruel, but intensive farming saves lives’ he writes in today’s Observer.

But we live in one of the most industrialised countries on the planet – most of us have ample or surplus food and plenty of choice – so he’d need to go out of his way to account for his opinion.

HFW and others’ demand that we eat only free range chicken (the Chicken Out Campaign) a small step towards a significant (insufficient) improvement in the brief lives of chickens, the proletariat of the animal world. Jay Rayner should realise that intensive farming isn’t just cruel, it makes us less human. Being neither a nutritionist nor an economist, he’s not a good person to say whether we can or can’t do without meat. And given his perennial vegetarian baiting, anybody should take his pronouncements on the subject with two pinches of salt – he’s an untrustworthy commentator with an axe to grind.

From the assessment of Hugh Pennington (not a nutritionist or economist either, but a bacteriologist) that affordable animal proteins and the improved nutritional status they brought about helped to largely eliminate TB Jay Rayner extrapolates:

“The availability of those intensively reared chickens that go from egg to slaughter in just 39 days without ever seeing daylight is, therefore, not merely a question of taste to be pursued doggedly by a lovable TV chef. It’s a question of basic human health.”

Since we are no longer living in the 1950s this needs examining. How much protein do we need if we don’t eat animal? He doesn’t say. The British Nutrition Foundation says that on a daily basis, adult men in my age group (19-50) need 55g, adult women, 45g – this is known as the reference nutrient intake, or RNI.

How much protein are we eating each day, as a population? According to the BNF it far exceeds the RNI, at 88g per day for men and 64g per day for women. This is thanks to living in a country in a state of advanced industrial development. Good – what this means is that, in our particular British circumstances, many of us can afford cuts in our protein. There are many reasons to make these cuts in the animal food groups. Even if you don’t give two hoots about animal welfare, raising animals for food is, as a rule, hugely more resource intensive than just growing plants.

There are more questions though, and I’m a bit ropey on them. If we cut out animal proteins, can we be sure we’re getting protein with sufficient biological value – or in other words, how will we know if we’re protein imbalanced?

The biological value of a dietary protein is determined by the amount and proportion of the eight essential amino acids (the ones we can’t synthesise) it provides – namely leucine, isoleucine, valine, threonine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, and lysine. The biological value of dietary protein is estimated by the amount of these present, and the one in shortest supply in relation to need is known as the limiting amino acid.

If diet were all about getting enough protein, meats would be the best food. But our diet in Britain isn’t all about protein and calories anymore. The British Nutrition Foundation say there’s no reason why vegans who eat a sufficient range of plant-based dietary protein should be any worse off than people who eat meat, eggs and milk products (I’ve been eating a strange concoction called seed butter which claims to help out with amino acids. It tastes of cannabis – that’s the hemp – which is not a flavour I particularly enjoy on my morning toast). Enough beans, lentils, cereals, nuts, seeds, and protein from wheat and soya prevents protein deficiency. Problem solved.

Because protein from plant sources are thought to be slightly less bioavailable, the Vegan Society recommends that vegans should increase our consumption by the small factor of one tenth. Let’s face it, most of us wouldn’t reliably be able to estimate their protein consumption let alone increase it by a given factor – although there are online nutrient databases for looking up exactly how much protein different foods contain by weight.

What about diagnosing the mild or moderate protein deficiency we might expect from Jay Rayner’s scarey scenario? Protein deficiency leads to protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) the most extreme forms of which are kwashiorkor and marasmus. Basically the body begins to digest its own lean muscle and organs. Famine-stricken children’s bellies stick out because their bodies have digested all the muscles which would keep their intestines in place.

Look for:

  • thin discoloured hair
  • variable skin pigmentation and scaliness
  • loss of lean muscle (wasting)
  • fluid retention
  • susceptability to infections
  • lethargy

I’ve been vegan for 3 years and I don’t have any symptoms of even mild PEM. I had one day off last year and that was for what could best be described as fury. My friend R is vegan and he is positively blooming. And vegans who aren’t blooming – it might not be to do with the failings of veganism. Veganism is associated with anorexia.

There’s more to it than that, though – time, enough understanding of nutrition to get a sufficient range of foods onto the plates of your family, coping with people – maybe older people – who don’t have much appetite, sourcing of food, whether in fact animal welfare conflicts with looking after ourselves if we are also trying to look after the environment. For example, I rely on soya, pulses and nuts – they don’t grow anywhere near London but they do provide an income for people in developing countries. Questions.

At least I’m asking them. Jay Rayner should stop making baseless claims and concentrate on what he does second best (besides being offensive) – feeding his fizzog and opining about it in The Guardian and Observer.

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