There are massive discrepancies in nutritional studies, especially those that are looking for correlations between what we eat and the risk of cancer and heart disease. An NPR report today talks about the fact that processed meats may be more to blame for health problems than what they are calling “fresh cuts.” What’s the major problem here? They aren’t looking at the right factors.
To be clear, there’s nothing especially fresh about store-bought meat: it’s been raised in the Mid-West or overseas, shipped off to slaughter houses usually a few states away, packaged, shipped again (1,000s of miles) to the store, where it waits to be purchased. And even then, once it’s purchased, consumers could feasibly pop it in the freezer for a good long rest. How is that fresh?
I’d have to agree with their assessment that those processed meats are worse than those cuts: processed meats contain a lot more of the additives (preservatives, flavorings, colorings), as well as a lot of salt and nitrates. It’s not a nice list when you really start looking at it.
But I believe it’s naive and misleading to give foods such as bacon and sausages a bad rap and to say that cuts of meat are “healthy.” It’s just not good science. Where, in these studies, are they actually getting down to the nitty-gritty of the issue and uncovering what so many people (and history) have been trying to tell us? It’s not about sausage vs steak, it’s about where it comes from and what goes into it.
When you are comparing store-bought meats, maybe the issue is clear. Store-bought meats are almost always from industrial farming. That means
- cattle who are virtually stationary and subsist on corn (which their bodies aren’t actually designed to digest), hormones, and antibiotics to fatten them up faster and keep them alive until slaughter;
- pigs raised by the thousands in hog barns where they spend their entire life never being able to turn around (Ever wonder why pigs get their tails docked? It’s because they chew their neighbor’s off in CAFOs);
- and poultry that has been selectively bred to reach processing weight at 9 weeks of age (chickens) or 18 weeks of age (turkeys), which means that they put on weight so fast that their organs and bones can’t keep up and they drop dead if not slaughtered on time (chickens can live naturally 5-10 years)
I’m not sharing this information as an animal rights argument (although I do believe that argument to a certain extent), but rather as a factor nutritional studies seem to be ignoring. How can one even begin to study the effects that meat has on health and not take these things into account? Why is data being skewed to make meat the culprit when humans have been eating it for millions of years? Yes, your typical person consumes more meat than is probably good for them, but you can’t lay the blame for every health problem on the meat itself- that is, if it’s “real” meat.
We need to define “real” meat then. I would argue that industrial meat is NOT real meat- the animals don’t live real lives or eat real food (meaning what they are biologically designed to eat) or even END UP as real food. Therefore, REAL MEAT™* is natural meat: animals that live natural lives and eat the good, healthy food that they are meant to eat, and then end up nourishing our bodies in natural ways.
The key word there is nourishing. An industrial hot dog doesn’t nourish your body- it fills your tummy and maybe pacifies your inner child. Animals that live non-natural lives do not develop into the same kind of meat. Corn is processed differently in cows than grass, their correct feed, would be, which can only change the nutritional profile of their meat.
An easily demonstrated example is the nutritional profile of eggs. Industrial, cage-raised laying hens are fed mostly corn, soy, and a mixture of other grains. They will never eat fresh grass or munch on bugs (which chickens LOVE). They also will never need grit- small stones that chickens use to grind up natural food since they don’t have teeth- which is believed to contribute healthy minerals to the chickens diet.
Pastured laying hens will spend 90% of daylight hours outside, eating grass and bugs, picking up those healthy minerals from grit, generating lots of Vitamin D, and being happy, healthy chickens. Their eggs will have
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids (which are good for you)
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
- 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D
Coincidence? Hardly. Now if we expand that kind of good nutritional science to include the animal itself we find similar results. Grass-fed beef is
- Lower in total fat
- Higher in beta-carotene
- Higher in vitamin E
- Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
- Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium
- Higher in total omega-3s
- A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84)
- Higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a potential cancer fighter
- Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)
- Lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease
Here are some graphs to peruse, taken from EatWild.com.
So, to get back to the original argument, what about sausages and bacon? Well, it’s all in the details. I’m willing to bet that if you start with REAL MEAT™, stick with traditional seasonings, and don’t overload on the salt, that you’d come up with some pretty healthy and TASTY “processed meats.” Of course, adding seasonings and salt is going to change the nutrition a bit, but surely not SO drastically that it would come even close to the unhealthiness of industrial processed meats.
Buy REAL MEAT™ from small, local farmers with whom you can develop a relationship. This means that you will know exactly how your meats are raised. Local farmers are usually very excited to talk to interested customers. Ask if you can tour the farm. Ask what their feed program is. Ask if they medicate and, if so, how they manage that program. And be a loyal customer- it keeps the good guys in business.
We also need to demand better, more honest nutritional studies. Don’t be swayed by hot new fads in food. Read as much as you can about the real issues and ignore hype. Your body will let you know when you get it right.
Oh, and enjoy the bacon!
*REAL MEAT™ is “trademarked” only to me. It is in no way meant to represent an existing business, organization, or idea. It’s just catchy, ok? 😉