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Study finds correlation between cognition, infant beef consumption

By John O’Connell

University of Idaho

MOSCOW, Idaho – A recently published University of Idaho study finds consuming beef during the critical first year of life strongly correlates with improved cognitive function among 3- to 5-year-olds.

The paper, “Early Life Beef Consumption Patterns Are Related to Cognitive Outcomes at 1-5 Years of Age: An Exploratory Study,” was published Oct. 26, 2022, in the scientific journal Nutrients.

Annie Roe, a UI Extension specialist focusing on nutrition and cognition research and an assistant professor in the Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences, was the study’s principal investigator.

The research team also included the school’s director, Professor Shelley McGuire, as co-principal investigator and Victoria Wilk, a Moscow resident who worked on the project to earn a master’s thesis in family and consumer sciences and is now enrolled in medical school.

The study was funded with a $50,000 grant from the Idaho Beef Council.

“From birth to 5 years old, what is fed is critical for brain development. There is reason to believe that what is eaten early on carries on through life,” Roe said. “There are times in brain development if we do not provide these key nutrients in the right amounts then there are deficits that can’t be overcome later in life.”

The researchers evaluated 61 children, about half of whom were 3 to 5 years old and the rest of whom were under 3.

Parents completed surveys explaining their perceptions about nutrition and the types of foods they fed their children between 6 months old and 1 year old.

The team also administered tests assessing the cognitive ability of children. They used the National Institute of Health Toolbox to assess cognition of children in the older age group, who played five different games on an iPad.

While results were inconclusive with children under 3, the researchers found a strong correlation between beef consumption during the second six months of life and the ability to pay attention and inhibitory control – the ability to demonstrate proper responses to stimuli -- in 3- to 5-year-olds.

Consumption of the key nutrients zinc and choline was also correlated with better cognition.

The team calculated nutrient values of diets using specialized software. Because infants eat small servings, it’s crucial to feed them nutrient-dense foods.

“We were really looking at food rich in those nutrients for brain development. Beef happens to be one of those foods,” Roe said.

While the study provides Roe and her colleagues with evidence that the benefits of feeding beef to infants warrants further research, it wasn’t designed to indicate causation.

It didn’t include a control group and socioeconomic status wasn’t factored. Other external factors, such as whether families dined together and engaged in conversations during meals, could also have influenced cognitive function.

“I’m really cautious in the conclusions of our study,” Roe said. “We’re not saying beef is the miracle developmental food everyone has to include. We’re saying beef, probably because it is rich in these nutrients that are important for early childhood development, is related to improved cognition later in life.

“I think this is the beginning of a series of studies that can help us have a bigger picture of how we should feed young children.”