Much ado about mutton

Lamb is lekker. Lekker healthy. This message should be strongly conveyed to consumers and health professionals and that is exactly what nutritionist, Nicolette Hall, plans to do. Susan Botes reports.

Much ado about mutton
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South Africa’s economy and population is booming, but this growth isn’t reflected in mutton sales figures. What is the reason and what is being done to change the tide?
Consumers have a skewed perception about lamb and mutton. They are concerned about their health, enjoyment, and the environment. They want delicious food that is easily prepared while having a positive impact on their health, and a minimal effect on the environment. Most meat-eating South Africans love a chop on the braai, but there are numerous misconceptions about the product.

Even doctors and dieticians are not well informed about the true value of lamb and mutton. This is where the consumer education programme of Lamb and Mutton SA has a major role to play. We need to translate recent scientific evidence into consumer-friendly messages. Research has shown that mutton isn’t nearly as unhealthy as previously thought. In order to set the record straight, we have started a consumer education programme which aims to pro-actively and re-actively convey the message that mutton can be part of a healthy diet.

What type of ‘misconceptions’ are you referring to?

The red meat industry of SA conducted a consumer research study in 2004 and found consumers felt that mutton and lamb were not healthy. Some also thought meat was not a rich source of protein or vitamins such as iron and zinc. Health professionals use the Medical Research Council’s National Composition Tables to determine nutritional values of diets that they prescribe to patients. The previous values used for the composition of mutton available to South Africans were based on the USDA’s Food Composition Databank, and American mutton was used for the analysis.

Nicolette Hall

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South Africa did not have figures available to determine the nutritional composition of local mutton. This changed when the red meat industry of SA commissioned a research study to determine the nutrient composition of sheep meat (mutton and lamb). The studies were conducted by the University of Pretoria and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), and found that sheep meat had much less fat than previously thought. In fact, when the fat is trimmed from the lamb, it is left with less fat than a similar portion of chicken (such as a drumstick) without skin would have.

The reality is that the fat content of sheep meat has decreased over time. The Heart Foundation and Cancer Foundation both stipulate that food needs to have a fat percentage of less than 10% and the good news for the red meat industry is that red meat does contain the required percentage. In order to convey up-to-date information about red meat within a health context, we have compiled a concise reference book with 10 summarised chapters on some of the most current nutrition topics. These include weight management, cancer and high blood pressure. The book has been distributed among doctors and dieticians.

You also mentioned that consumers want a product that won’t destroy the environment, which is an ethical matter. Why do you argue that sheep meat is an ethical product?
We are working with a very ethical product and this is based on the product itself, as well as its environmental footprint.
Sheep meat is a fresh product. Consumers know exactly what they are buying. Because a piece of meat has not been processed, there is no fear of water buffalo, donkey or soya being added. Furthermore, the majority of South African sheep are free-range and free from any growth hormones.

Can the product be incorporated in an environmentally friendly diet? Simply put – yes. Diet-associated greenhouse gases correlate positively with the quantity of food and energy consumed. Humans need to obtain all nutrients essential for growth and survival from the food they consume. For example, a 75kg male needs a daily average of 0,66g protein per kilogram to maintain his weight. This boils down to about 50g of protein per day. If the man consumes 50g dietary protein, which comes from meat, about 2kg of CO2 would have been used during the production cycle.

The difference in nutrient content found in mutton from the United states (previous) vs. South African mutton per 100g of meat. Courtesy of the University of Pretoria

If he tried to obtain the same amount of protein (50g) from apples it would produce more than double (4,5kg) the amount of carbon emissions. A study conducted in France found that when fruits and vegetables with a similar energy content as meat were used as a substitute, it either had no effect or increased the emission of greenhouse gases. Therefore, it could be argued that red meat does have a huge role to play within a healthy environmental context.

You mentioned that consumers want a product that is easy to cook.
But no working mother has the time (or money) to stand in the kitchen for hours preparing a leg of lamb. Besides chops, what else is there to a sheep carcass? This is a common misconception among consumers, and industry organisations are trying to remedy it. The University of Pretoria recently launched a book entitled Back to Basics – Cooking South African Lamb and Mutton Perfectly.

The book is endorsed by the red meat industry of SA and its aim is to showcase various easy-to-cook lamb and mutton recipes. It not only focuses on popular cuts such as chops and the hind quarters, but also looks at other cuts which are rarely used. The book goes back to basics and contains a lot of information and pictures to show consumers exactly how to handle a carvery roast. Modern consumers have, for instance, forgotten how to use offal and we’re aiming at rectifying the matter. In order to do this, there is a section in the book that focuses specifically on the fifth quarter.

You may be educating the current economically active population, but what about the next generation? Isn’t that the reason so-called modern consumers have lost touch with the various options of meat available?
Indeed. We have a programme for schools in line with the national curriculum. The programme consists of working charts and information that focuses on healthy eating habits, nutrients, the red meat industry of SA and the industry within a green environment. We are currently compiling a database of teachers to convey the message about the programme. Interested teachers are welcome to contact me.

Contact Nicolette Hall at [email protected], or visit