With all the press lately around pink slime and now the new study about the health impacts of red meat, let’s talk about making better meat choices.
Unless you’re a vegetarian whose health is thriving, you most likely need to pay more attention to your animal protein selections. While it is possible to get everything you need to be healthy purely from plants, it’s difficult to do so. Almost every civilization has included some animal protein in its diet, even if it was only insects and bugs. While most of us do need to consume some animal protein to maintain optimal health, it’s likely that you are eating too much meat in general as well as too much unhealthy meat.
If you haven’t read the books The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, or seen the movie Food, Inc., I strongly encourage you to check them out. I could easily write a book on factory farming and the challenges it poses to our food supply. But I’ll save most of that for another day. However, I do want to tell you a little bit about hormones and antibiotics, as well as pesticides, in meat and why eating them can be bad for your health.
Hold the Hormones
For decades, the meat and dairy industries have been using hormones to help young livestock gain weight faster. More weight means more meat means more profit. A pellet is typically implanted in the animal’s ear that releases hormones, commonly synthetic estrogens and testosterone, throughout its life.
The hormones remain in the animal’s fatty tissue and are present in the meat we eat, albeit in smaller doses than the human body typically produces. But even small amounts of hormones have been shown to have big effects on some body processes. It’s long been known that excess exposure to estrogen increases breast cancer risk and now we know it increases prostate cancer risk too. Hormone-treated meat has been suspected of contributing to early puberty and male breast development.
The European Union has banned all hormones in meat. But there aren’t any studies underway in the U.S. to evaluate hormone safety in meat and milk, so this practice will likely continue. Perhaps if we were not so heavily exposed to estrogenic compounds in our daily environment, this might not be so problematic. But estrogenic compounds are hard to avoid and eating hormone-laden meat just adds to the burden on your body.
Rising Antibiotic Resistance
We know the benefits of taking antibiotics when we have a bacterial illness, but most livestock in the U.S. are fed antibiotics even when they aren’t sick! Antibiotics are primarily used to make animals gain weight. But now researchers are becoming concerned with this practice, as they fear it is giving rise to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which could pose a serious health risk.
In fact, a number of studies have shown growing resistance to antibiotics, including one in the New England Journal of Medicine that revealed that 84% of the salmonella bacteria found in supermarket ground beef was resistant to some antibiotics. Another study showed that pork that came from animals that had been fed the antibiotic ciprofloxacin led to people catching resistant strains of salmonella. The FDA estimates that 11,000 people caught intestinal illnesses in 1999 from eating antibiotic-resistant bacteria in chicken.
Pesticides: Not Just a Concern with Produce
We hear a lot about pesticides with respect to produce, and they are a concern. But pesticides in our meat supply may pose an even greater danger. You can ingest far more pesticides on a meat-heavy diet than you would from consuming fruits and vegetables. Today’s livestock are not fed a traditional diet, but rather a feed that is loaded with pesticides. (The feed also often contains meat from diseased animals that die before slaughter.)
Pesticides accumulate in the flesh of animals and have been shown to cause cancer, nerve damage, birth defects, and to inhibit the proper absorption of food nutrients. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 90% of fungicides, 60% of herbicides and 30% of insecticides are known carcinogens.
The EPA does set limits on how much pesticide can be used (according to what they deem as safe) and how much is allowed to remain on food. However, the only way to know for sure is to have the food tested, which does not occur today. So it’s really a guess as to how much is left behind and whether that amount of pesticides is “safe” or not. The EPA also states that in certain cases, such as economic loss to farmers, unauthorized pesticides (those known to be unsafe) are knowingly allowed to be used.
Making Better Meat Choices
Thankfully, in most supermarkets today you can find meat labeled as hormone free, antibiotic free and pesticide free, and that’s what I buy. (This does not alleviate all the problems associated with today’s farming practices, but it’s a step in the right direction.)
Because the food supply of the livestock is a big part of the problem, whenever possible, I look for grass-fed meat or chicken raised on something other than vegetarian feed. It can be hard to find, and it can be expensive, but I think it’s worth it. (While you can order grass fed meat online directly from the farms, if you look around, you can find grass-fed ground beef in some grocery stores too. If you are lucky enough to have a Trader Joe’s near you, they sell grass fed ground beef for $5.99 a pound and it makes yummy pink-slime-free hamburgers and ground beef dishes). My kids also think it tastes much better; they can tell the difference!
Many people eat too much meat in one meal, so cutting back on portion size is another way to make eating meat more economical and healthy. Meat portions should never be larger than the palm of your hand. (Yes, that does mean those with bigger hands get a slight advantage!) But no one has a hand large enough to accommodate a 16 oz. porterhouse steak: a little meat protein goes a long way.
Another good food swap is to substitute bison for beef. Bison are fed grass instead of grain and are typically not given hormones, antibiotics or pesticides. Bison meat also has very little intramuscular fat, so it is low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol versus beef, pork or chicken. Venison is also a good choice.
Lastly, a comment on luncheon meats. In addition to the concerns already mentioned about hormones, pesticides and antibiotics in the meats, most packaged meats (bacon, salami, ham, pepperoni, hot dogs, etc.) contain nitrates as a preservative. Sodium nitrate is converted into nitrosamines, which are chemicals that can cause cancer.
While nitrosamines can cause virtually any kind of cancer, the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that people eating more processed meat were 50% more likely to develop lower colon cancer. Nitrosamines have also been linked to a 68% higher risk of pancreatic cancer, and increasing consumption of processed meats by 30 grams resulted in a 15% to 38% increase in risk for developing stomach cancer.
Consumption of nitrates has been shown to cause an increase in brain tumors in children and to result in DNA mutations. The food industry calls nitrates a color fixer, as they turn meats bright red and can make old, gray, unattractive meat look healthy and delicious.
But the good news is that most major grocery store chains have some nitrate-free meat in their organic sections and you can find them at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods as well. Again, they can cost a little more, but I’d rather see my meat as it really is and skip the cancer risk, especially for my kids, as their developing bodies can handle fewer toxins.
While these changes won’t fix the problems in our food supply, they will help you make healthier meat choices. Becoming an educated consumer and voting with your wallet is a step toward getting better meat options in our stores that are free of hormones, pesticides, antibiotics and nitrates.
To your wellness and health: your true wealth!
Author: Inger Pols is the Editor of the New England Health Advisory and Author/Creator, Finally Make It Happen, the proven process to get what you want. Get a free special report on The Truth About Sugar: It’s Not All Equal at www.IngerPols.com
Photo Source: Microsoft Clip Art