Beefing Up The National Diet While Keeping Fit
Lean Red Meat Is Just As Heart-Healthy As Chicken Or Fish
July 30, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--Give thanks, beef lovers. Researchers have recently discovered the genetic path to producing lean but tender beef.
Fancy steak houses can already guarantee tender beef. They buy carcasses heavily marbled with fat and age them for weeks in a big refrigerated "chill cooler." This process is expensive, as the restaurant's menu will inform you.
Consumers usually can't buy this choice beef. Few retail stores will pay the premium to get it, or tie up their expensive cooler space with beef carcasses being aged.
Meanwhile, your doctor is telling you that leaner beef is better for you, even if it's tough.
Fortunately, research breakthroughs at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore and the Agriculture Department's beef research center in Nebraska are pointing the way to breeding cattle with naturally leaner and still-tender beef.
The first step in this cattle-breeding phenomenon came in the early 1800s, with the introduction of the Belgian Blue "double-muscled" cattle breed. These cattle are born with large muscles, causing them to resemble bovine Arnold Schwarzeneggers.
However, this can be a serious reproduction problem, because the calves are often too bulky to clear the mother's birth canal. Few farmers can afford to have their calves delivered by Caesarian section.
But genetic research has recently discovered that normal-sized cattle have a gene that codes for a protein called myostatin. A mutated version of the gene produces inactive myostatin and more muscle fibers.
A calf with two copies of the gene for inactive myostatin becomes "overmuscled," like the Belgian Blue.
But researchers found that cattle with only one copy of the gene look normal but carry 7 percent more beef and 14 percent less fat. That's a breakthrough.
Cattle breeders will now be able to guarantee production of these leaner, meatier animals by testing blood samples to make sure each calf is born with just one copy of the gene.
Contrary to public opinion, less fat won't mean less tender beef. Heredity also plays a big role in tenderness. The Nebraska researchers will next search for the genes that control tenderness.
Some people blame meat, and especially red meat, for causing heart attacks. Will lean but tender beef lure too many people into eating heart-unhealthy meals? Perhaps just the opposite.
A recent study found that eating 6 ounces of lean red meat per day, even five or more days per week, lowers heart attack risks by about 10 percent!
In fact, eating moderate portions of any low-fat meat reduces heart attack risks, according to the study by Johns Hopkins University, the University of Minnesota and the Chicago Center for Clinical Research.
The study, paid for by the beef industry and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that people who were allowed to eat red meat were more likely to follow their lean diets than people who restricted their food choices more narrowly. The keys were low-fat and moderate portions.
Eating lean beef lowered the levels of "bad cholesterol" (low-density lipo-proteins) in the study participants, and raised the levels of "good cholesterol (high-density lipo-proteins).
It's the most comprehensive study providing "evidence that the case against lean red meat has been misrepresented," said Michael H. Davidson, research director at the Chicago Center for Clinical Research.
Consumers looking for leaner cuts of beef should note that they often have the words "loin" or "round" in their names (like sirloin and round steak).
Trimming excess fat before cooking reduces fat up to 50 percent. Fat can also be minimized by low-fat cooking methods like broiling, grilling, roasting, braising and stewing.
That means we can look forward to a future with a wider variety of leaner, more tender meats. This is just one way that genetic engineering, medical research and a fuller understanding of human evolution will help us all live longer and healthier lives.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.