Tuesday, March 01, 2005



Some of our readers will have seen the recent media hype about a research study carried out in Africa on under-nourished children. The reports claimed that the research had found that the children fared better if they ate meat and that the scientist concerned had stated that, in her view, raising children on a vegan diet was 'unethical'. Inevitably the scientific facts and the mass media reports are somewhat different.

The scientist concerned has since stated to an IVU member that her study was not about veganism but "the reporter's interest was about vegans as they are more newsworthy . . . The news reporter "hyped" my concern about vegan diets for pregnant/lactating mothers and infants/children by not adding the sentence I was emphatic they keep in, namely that vegan diets were unethical UNLESS those who practiced them were well-informed . . ."

Fair enough, IVU strongly supports the idea of everyone being well-informed about nutrition. But we could add that simply raising children in any way at all is unethical unless the parents are well informed about nutrition. Parenthood is a responsibility for all and a typical western child's diet of highly-processed factory-farmed meat-based junk-food is hardly the result of well-informed ethical choices.

The following press release was compiled for the UK Vegan Society by Dr. Stephen Walsh, IVU Science Co-ordinator and author of the definitive 'Plant Based Nutrition and Health' (see http://www.ivu.org/science ). Naturally Stephen's first priority was to re-read the original scientific paper instead of the journalistic spin :


The claim that milk and meat are vital to children's development, which swept though the media earlier this week, originated from an American press release based mainly on a two-year study of 555 undernourished Kenyan children, completed in December 2000 and published in the Journal of Nutrition in November 2003. (1)

As usual, the original information evolved beyond all recognition as it moved from scientific paper to press release to soundbite: "There's absolutely no question that it's unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans", proclaimed certain sections of the media. (2)

The scientific paper compared groups of Kenyan children given three food supplements: meat, milk and vegetable oil. Three measures of mental development were taken: Raven's visuo-spatial test, verbal meaning and arithmetic. On all three measures, the vegetable oil group beat the milk group and on two measures the vegetable oil group beat the meat group.

"Even on the paper cited, the soundbite attributed to Professor Allen is clearly far fetched" said Stephen Walsh, author of Plant Based Nutrition and Health.

But there is far stronger evidence than this that vegan diets support healthy development in children. In the UK a study of 39 vegan children found that "the growth and development of children reared on both vegan and vegetarian diets appears normal." (3)

In the USA, a study of 400 vegan children reached the same conclusion. (4)

Both these studies were carried out in the 1980s and the results should be well known to any scientist presuming to comment on vegan diets and child development.

The soundbite that went the rounds this week comes from taking the results of the one test on undernourished Kenyan children where meat seemed to have a better impact than vegetable oil and ignoring all the contrary evidence both from the Kenyan study and from direct studies of western vegans.

"This is not science but blatant spin", said Vegan Society Chair Alex Bourke, "and representatives of the media who have uncritically passed on the soundbite have been sadly misled."

For further information on the benefits of a vegan diet for animals, people and the environment – both in Africa and in the West – see Plant Based Nutrition and Health or contact a Vegan Society spokesperson ( http://www.vegansociety.com ).

1 http://www.nutrition.org/cgi/reprint/133/11/3965S.pdf
2 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4282257.stm
3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=abstract&list_uids=3414589
4 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_uids=2771551

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The following letter appeared in The Guardian (UK) Thursday February 24, 2005:
- it came from Tom Sanders, Professor of nutrition King's College London who stated at the end: "I am neither a vegan nor vegetarian." - presumably therefore unbiased.

"Professor Lindsay Allen wrongly claims that it is unethical to deprive children of meat. This claim ignores the plethora of research that shows that children in the US and Europe develop quite normally on a vegetarian diet. My own research, which has followed vegan children from birth to early adult life, has proved that children can be successfully reared on a vegan diet. Ms Allen's research was conducted on children in an impoverished community, consuming a corn-based diet, where micronutrient deficiency is likely. As meat is a rich source of micronutrients, the effect of small amounts of meat was not unexpected.

"Her pontification about the ethics of feeding children meatless diets in developed countries goes beyond what her data shows. In developed countries vegetarians and vegans consume more diverse diets, which are less likely to be deficient."