When meat producers try to make beef healthier, they can run into some odd challenges. Like one facing professor Shawn Archibeque at Colorado State University: How do you keep a filet mignon from tasting like salmon?
Archibeque, a "ruminant nutritionist," is part of a small cadre of researchers and business people working to make pork and beef healthier by pumping them full of the same omega-3 fatty acids that are found in most fish.
Their interest is fueled by research suggesting these fats cut the risk of heart problems and are critical to brain development. The hype around omega-3's has food companies adding them to everything from eggs to milk to Wonder Bread. So why not the meat counter? Packages of grass-fed beef already declare they have omega-3's, but it's just a fraction of the amount recommended by the American Heart Association.
That's attracted the attention of a few entrepreneurs, including Don Smith. The former energy executive is working with Archibeque and several other Colorado State scientists on ways to feed algae rich in omega-3's to cattle. The goal is to get omega-3 levels in the meat much closer to salmon, without triggering the fishy flavor that can come with these oils. A serving of grass-fed beef, for example, contains up to 50 milligrams of omega-3s; Smith says a serving of his beef will come closer to 140 milligrams of o-3s. That could help people get the healthy fats they need, even if they aren't seafood fans. "Not everybody likes fish. That's really what it comes down to," said Archibeque.
But don't fire up the grill yet. Right now, omega-3 infused meat is about as rare as salmon at a Texas barbecue. Smith has had so much trouble finding investors that he's resorting to crowdfunding to raise $800,000 to finance the research needed to get the beef into stores. Another company that feeds omega-3-rich flax seeds to its cattle just started distributing it's GreatO ground beef through a grocery chain in the Lone Star State. Some processed meats with omega-3 mixed in, like sausages, are sold in Europe and Japan.
Perhaps the most successful outfit in North America so far is a small hog farm near Toronto, Canada. Paul Hill, whose family owns the Willowgrove Hill farm, feeds fish oil to his pigs to produce omega-3 enriched pork. A quarter pound pork chop from Willowgrove has roughly 450 milligrams of omega-3's—about one-fifth of what you'd find in an equivalent portion of king salmon. The heart association recommends getting at least two servings of fish per week.
Hill swears his pigs taste the way pork is supposed to. Apparently his customers think so, too. His pork is sold at several fancy Canadian restaurants, and his bacon and sausage was served to world leaders at the 2010 G8 summit in Canada attended by President Barack Obama. Hill plans to expand to the Chicago area later this year.
Even though this industry barely exists, there's already feuding over whose meat is best. Most of the studies about the benefits of omega-3 focus on DHA and EPA, the kind of fatty acids found in ocean-going organisms like fish. There's less research on the omega-3 from plants like flax, called ALA, though it's thought to have benefits, said Penny Kris-Etherton, a Penn State nutritionist and vice-chair of the heart association's nutrition committee. That has the meat producers using algae and fish oil declaring their products superior. But they can't escape these facts: enriched burgers won't ever deliver the amount of omega-3s found in a salmon fillet, and the meat still has relatively high levels of saturated fat. In other words, if you take your beef with a side of fries and a beer, your health gains may wind up a wash.