Do you know what beef is? According to the late, great, hip-hop artist, Notorious B.I.G., “beef is when you need two gats to go to sleep”. For American consumers, beef is corn fed and potentially just as dangerous to your health. From USDA Prime, to the crème de la crème, USA Waygu, the best cuts are well “marbleized” showcasing veins of intramuscular fat running throughout the meat. The more marbleized and evenly dispersed the fat is with lean muscle, the higher the grade of beef. Therefore, the more marbling, the more expensive the cut. Chefs and foodies alike can deeply appreciate this marbling for the juiciness and flavor it brings to culinary delights. Beef farmers achieve highly marbleized meat by feeding cows extensively and bringing them to slaughter young. Cows are fed corn, cow fat (tallow), and antibiotics so that within 12-16 months, a cow goes from 80 pounds to over 1,000 pounds; ready to be served up with a bun and fries on your plate.
Corn feeding expedites the fattening process of a cow, insuring that the beef is sufficiently marbleized and the supply of meat in the market is abundant. However, there are many health problems for cows fed a corn-based diet, increasing the dietary health risk of those who consume corn fed beef. In his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan, discusses some of the issues with the American diet beginning with corn. Pollan explains how corn being less expensive and readily available, has become a staple in the Western diet. Corn is hidden in a lot of processed foods. (Just read the labels.) We’re eating corn even when we think we’re having a steak, drinking a soda or eating a piece of bread. Just think of all the foods that have high fructose corn syrup as a primary ingredient. I’ll be sharing more insight from The Omnivore’s Dilemma in future posts. But for now, let’s focus on corn fed beef.
Cows have a second stomach called a rumen. Its function is to extract protein from grass, as grass is the staple of a cow’s natural diet. A corn diet, on the other hand, is not only unnatural, it’s also toxic to a cow’s health. Corn causes extreme bloating within the rumen, expanding the stomach which compresses the cow’s lungs, resulting in potential suffocation. Veterinarians on cattle farm are constantly monitoring cattle herds, identifying sick cows and reliving them from this possibly fatal bloating.
Digestion of corn changes the acidity of a cow’s stomach, by decreasing the PH, and causing the stomach to be more acidic. This high acidity results in a problematic breakdown of the cow’s stomach lining. From here, bacteria are able to seep from the compromised stomach compartment into the cow’s bloodstream. A cow’s liver is now working overtime to clear toxins that normally would be eliminated from the body through the gastrointestinal track. Very quickly, this overworked liver becomes diseased and begins to fail. At this point, you essentially have a sick animal that probably would succumb to death due to health issues if not brought to slaughter within 12-16 months of its life.
As consumers of corn fed beef, this bacteria proves problematic for us as well. American beef cows spend most of their short lives cramped amongst thousands of other cows in a sea of their own manure, which leads to the need be pumped with antibiotics in order to the fight the constant attach of super germs growing and evolving in such unsanitary conditions. The PH of our stomach is higher than that of a cow’s allowing us a natural defense to kill off bacteria found in beef. However, with the acidity of a cow’s rumen being closer to our own due to a corn based diet, super strands of bacteria like e-coli are ever evolving. These strands can withstand the higher acidity of a human stomach leading to higher risk of food poisoning. Makes you think twice about that medium rare rib eye, doesn’t it?
Another issue with corn fed beef is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fats only supplied to the human body through dietary sources. Among several key functions, these essential nutrients support heart and neurological health. Ideally you want your ratio of omega-6 to Omega-3 to be 1:1 but getting and as close to 4:1 or 5:1 have proven health benefits. The American diet is already high in Omega 6 due in part to increased consumption of processed food containing corn derived oils and byproducts. Many individuals are consuming diets with omega ratios as high as 17:1. Not surprisingly, corn fed beef has a ratio of about 14:1. Studies done by institutions like the National Institute of Health, have linked higher ratios of omega-6 to elevated risks for cardiovascular disease, cancer and inflammatory disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. Some researchers link cow’s corn fed diet to the epidemic of heart disease in the United States. On the other hand, cows fed a grass fed diet tend to have a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 about 1.5:1, very similar to fatty fish like salmon.
In addition to having a more balanced ratio of omega polyunsaturated fats, grass fed cows are raised for 3-4 years, before being brought to slaughter, and without the use of antibiotics reducing the risk of growing super strands of bacteria. Grass fed beef does tend to have a different retail cost, taste and texture than that of corn fed beef but essentially you’re eating a food your body is going to use and process differently. This difference extends also to other cow products like milk and butter.
So, the next time you go out to celebrate some special occasion at your favorite high-end steak house, think twice about the corn fed cowboy rib eye, costing upward of $100 sans a la carte side dishes. What are you really paying for?
*If you’re in the Washington D.C. area and interested in trying grass fed beef, check out Elevation Burger for a cost efficient option. For those of you with deep pockets, try Bourbon Steak, at the Four Seasons Hotel. Let me know what you think!