"To beef, or not to beef - that is the question..." Okay, so Shakespeare is twitching a little in his grave right now; but punning aside, this is a valid and hotly-debated question in food and nutrition circles, and invites discourse in the environmental arena as well. I could produce reams of prose with all the pros and cons and ramifications and caveats and arguments about the eating of red meat, and still not begin to encompass the scope of the topic; so let's just concern ourselves with a quick review of the undisputed nutritional aspects, and learn why small amounts of lean organic beef can very rightly be part of a healthy and beneficial diet. Of course organic is the only way to go here, as it will ensure that you are getting no residue of hormones, pesticides and antibiotics in your meat.
First of all, let us address portion size. A nice big one-pound porterhouse steak may dazzle you, but it's a big no-no - unless you're sharing it with a couple of other people! Four ounces is the recommended amount to be consumed in any given meal - that's about the size of a pack of playing cards. And that amount will still furnish you with 64% of your daily protein requirement, along with other nutrients necessary to enhance cardiovascular health and to aid in the prevention of certain cancers.
Red meat is an excellent source of Vitamins B12 and B6, both of which reduce homocysteine levels in the body and thereby reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. Your four-ounce portion will provide almost half of your daily requirement for B-12, and 25% of your B-6 needs. And a diet high in B-12 has been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer. That risk is further reduced by the trace mineral selenium, a generous amount of which is to be found in beef; and selenium also contributes to reducing inflammation, thereby guarding against such ailments as rheumatoid arthritis and asthma. Yet another trace element, zinc, assists in strengthening the immune system, fighting atherosclerosis, and warding off osteoporosis.
So if you're craving a bit of red meat, go right ahead - just follow a few simple guidelines:
1) Choose leaner cuts and grades of beef. Choice is better for you than prime, as it has less internal marbling of fat, and round or sirloin will be leaner than rib-eyes or tenderloin. Buy your ground beef with the least percentage of fat - preferably 5%.
2) Slow moist cooking is often best (can you say "crock pot"?) - it'll turn the leanest, toughest piece of meat into a meltingly tender treat.
3) If you grill, marinate first. Studies have shown that a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic & onions can reduce the carcinogenic effects of grilling by up to 70%.
4) Surround your meat with whole grains and vegetables, to make a complete and satisfying meal.
5) Meat must be kept chilled at all times - never let it sit at room temperature. Larger pieces can be refrigerated for 2-3 days; ground meat should be eaten within one day.
6) Once a week is ideal. Fish, white-meat chicken and legumes should take care of your protein needs the rest of the week.
Red meat has gotten a bad rap over the last number of years, I know, but positioned as one element in a balanced diet, there's no reason it can't be rehabilitated and thoroughly enjoyed.
Organic, Grass-Fed, Humane
What does it all mean?
With the increased awareness and concern of the American consumer in recent years relating to the sourcing and production methods of food, the designations for types of red meat have become vital. But what exactly do these terms mean, who determines that, and where do they overlap?
"Organic" is probably the easiest to describe, because here in the U.S., in order to label beef organic, the USDA posits these requirements: cattle must be born and raised on certified organic pasture, and never receive antibiotics or growth hormones; they must be fed only certified organic grains and grasses, and they must have unrestricted outdoor access.
"Grass-fed", according to a recent USDA designation, is even simpler - cattle must have continuous access to pasture, and never be fed grains or grain-based products.
You might conclude from this that organic and grass-fed are interchangeable terms, but look closely at the requirements - organic cows may be fed grains, and only need "outdoor access"; grass-fed cows may be eating non-organic grasses during their "continuous access to pasture". Thus a corn-fed feedlot cow could be labeled organic, and a pastured grass-fed cow could be ingesting pesticides.
So the solution? Organic grass-fed beef. Get the benefits of both: the organic tag guarantees no additives, hormones or nutraceuticals, and the grass-fed label indicates a leaner and more nutritious meat. Numerous studies have shown that grass-fed beef has a lower percentage of saturated fats and greater amounts of omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed, while the benefits of organic foods have been very thoroughly debated in endless reams of health literature.
"Humane" is a little more tenuous term. The very nature of organic husbandry and grass-feeding contributes to the increased well-being of the animal - no confinement, natural foodstuffs, no unnatural additives or chemicals. There are a few small organizations that offer "certifications" for this, but there is no national or industry-wide standard. Nevertheless, chances are decent that beef labeled "organic" and "grass-fed" is more than likely to be the beneficiary of reasonably humane raising.
And that leads us into the quagmire that is the unresolvable conflict between those who believe in "humane animal husbandry", and those who believe that "meat is murder", and all the gray areas in between - not to mention the convoluted and much-disputed environmental aspects of beef production.
But that's a discussion for another day... In the meantime, a few recipes for those of you who wish to take the plunge...
Asian Grilled Strip Steak Salad
Serve this tasty and refreshing salad with crusty whole-grain bread and a local organic beer for a perfect summer supper...
2 8-ounce organic NY strip steaks, well-trimmed
2 teaspoons Spice Hunter Thai Seasoning* (approx.)
8 cups torn organic romaine lettuce
2 cups shaved carrot curls
1 cup shredded red cabbage
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
1/3 cup fresh cilantro leaves
For the dressing:
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons nam pla (Vietnamese fish sauce)
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon shredded fresh mint leaves
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
¼ teaspoon sambal oelek (chili paste) (or more if you like it hot!)
Make the dressing: combine all ingredients in a jar, shake well to combine. (Best if made a few hours or more in advance.)
Pre-heat the grill to high. Sprinkle steaks on both sides with Thai Seasoning. Grill to desired degree of doneness (about 5-6 minutes a side for medium-rare). Let sit for five minutes, then slice on the diagonal into thin strips about 1/4 inch in thickness.
Toss together romaine, carrot curls, red cabbage, scallions, and cilantro. Divide among four dinner plates. Arrange steak slices over the top, drizzle with dressing. Garnish with a sprig or two of mint and enjoy!
*available at most markets, or online at www.spicehunter.com.
Sunday Morning Steak & Eggs
A luxurious indulgence for a special morning - maybe breakfast in bed for that special someone?
2 4-ounce filet mignon steaks, about 1 inch thick
2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon truffle oil
6 organic free-range eggs, three yolks removed & discarded
1/8 teaspoon thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
2 ounces crumbled goat cheese
Press cracked pepper into one side of filets. Whisk together eggs, thyme & parsley.
Heat canola oil in a skillet over medium-high heat; cook filets to desired degree of doneness, about 3 minutes a side for medium rare. Transfer to two plates, drizzle with truffle oil.
In the same pan, scramble the eggs until just softly cooked through, about 2 minutes; at the last minute, stir in the goat cheese. Divide between two plates, throw in a whole wheat English muffin, and present with pride!
A version of this post will appear in my "Eat Smart" column in Better Nutrition Magazine.