Iowa State Students Gather Nutritional Data for United Nations

October 18th, 2012

AMES, Iowa -- Worldwide there's a variety of animal breeds raised for food, but the nutritional differences of those meats has never been documented -- until now.

Students from Iowa State University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences recently published an article about information they added to a food composition database developed for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations in Rome.

Students enrolled in the Dean's Global Agriculture and Food Leadership Program took a spring semester plus one month this summer to analyze, evaluate and document scientific literature regarding breed and production of beef.

The student team added beef nutritional information to the FAO/INFOODS Food Composition Database for Biodiversity. No meat data were available within the database until the Iowa State student team took on the scientifically rigorous job. The students collected and summarized information on meat nutrition and quality, adding more than 200 records to the database. The task required attention to detail.

"This is science-based information our students developed and articulated for the FAO that did not exist," said Steven Lonergan, Iowa State professor of animal science and one of the faculty leaders of the Rome program. "There has been a lack of readily available information of this type in breeds specific to the developing world. This will provide an understanding of food sources available to rural families throughout the world."

Lonergan said the database would aid in understanding variations in cattle genetics and a reason to conserve breeds that may be important to specific regions. Each record reflects research characterizing genetics, animal management, muscle characteristics and available meat cuts, plus data on nutrient composition of meat, such as protein and lipid profiles.

The database is a resource for nutritionists, scientists and agricultural officials in both developing and developed nations. Joe Colletti, senior associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, also led the Iowa State student team in Rome.

"Our FAO collaborators -- clients really -- told students that the database would help countries around the globe better understand the value of local breeds," Colletti said. "If they can sustain valuable breeds to benefit human nutrition, it will benefit future generations and contribute to food security globally."

During their time in Rome the students also learned more about global food issues. This included a visit to the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in Rome. The mission calls attention to global hunger, food insecurity and supports U.N. agencies that promote agricultural development, rule of law, cultural conservation and sustainable agriculture.

Heidi Reynolds, a senior in animal science who hopes to enter graduate school to study ruminant nutrition, said students started analyzing data before they left for Rome.

"We gathered very particular and precise information to ensure people using the database could make reasonable comparisons and understand variables such as diet, where the research took place and how fatty acids are alike or different," Reynolds said.

The study abroad program was a first for Reynolds.

"I didn't realize how much effort agencies like the U.S. Mission and the U.N. put into finding workable solutions to food security, water quality and other issues," Reynolds said. "There's an opportunity for young people to begin figuring out problems and to gather multiple ideas and approaches needed to make a system work. One brilliant idea often isn't what gets the job done."

In addition to their contribution, the students also co-authored a paper titled, "Importance of cattle biodiversity and its influence on the nutrient composition of beef," published in this month's Animal Frontiers Journal,

This was the fourth summer the Dean's Global Agriculture and Food Leadership Program went to Rome. The program offers students a unique, client-based international experience in analyzing and evaluating complex international issues in the areas of food security, world hunger, sustainable resource development and policy.

In 2010, students helped gather information to publish an e-learning module outlining the importance of genetic diversity in livestock. The student team became experts on asynchronous learning and presented information on cutting-edge genetics, genetic diversity and livestock breeds in a user-friendly e-learning module.

Paul Boettcher, an animal production officer with the FAO Animal Genetics Resources Branch in Rome and received his doctorate degree in animal science in 1995 from Iowa State, said the students were an essential part of developing the e-module into a teaching tool.

"The e-module would literally not have been finished without their contribution. We pointed them to sources of information and they developed the entire first draft almost independently," Boettcher said.

The e-module was developed as an educational tool to help raise awareness about the importance of genetic diversity in animals. Maintaining such diversity means long-term food security at the global level.

Viewers who use the module can work through a series of questions and increase their understanding of animal diversity and genetics. The four chapters focus on the importance of livestock to livelihood, genetic resources, animal diversity and future challenges. The e-module is available at


Joe Colletti, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, (515) 294-1823,
Steven Lonergan, Animal Science, (515) 294-9126,
Barb McBreen, Agriculture and Life Sciences Communication Service, (515) 294-0707,