These two foods get a boatload of press these days. But consumer beware: Many times reporters and “nutrition experts” repeat the same old mantra over and over. For years you heard eggs were bad, then the experts changed their mind. For years they said a high carbohydrate diet was good, then it was bad. And so on. Doesn’t anyone really know? Yes, but it is hard to cut through all the marketing hype.
Machete in hand, lets get down to what you need to know about red meat and salmon.
Salmon is supposedly chock-full of healthy omega-3s, and you can’t eat enough of it. Right?
Most of the salmon you get in restaurants is farmed because it is cheaper than wild caught. Since September 2004, U.S. supermarkets have been required to label salmon as farmed or wild. Many supermarkets carry just farmed salmon because the wild caught can cost $20 a pound or more.
What are you getting when eat farmed salmon?
Where does the chemical contamination come from? Some, like the PBDEs, have become ubiquitous in the environment. Others tend to be concentrated in the food fed to farmed fish.
Farmed fish are typically fed a diet of fish flakes made from corn, cereal grains, oil, ground up fish - and sometimes ground up cow parts - plus additives like red dye to give them a stronger orange color.
Farmed fish are raised in the watery equivalent of a feedlot; they call them aquafarms and there is much discussion about how aquafarming may be polluting the oceans and therefore the wild fish as well. What we do know is that the crowded conditions require farmed fish to be dosed with antibiotics and exposed to more concentrated pesticides than their wild kin. Sulfa drugs and tetracycline used to prevent infectious disease epidemics are added to food pellet mixes.
In the wild, salmon absorb carotenoids from eating pink krill. In the aquafarm, their color comes from canthaxanthin, a synthetic pigment manufactured by Hoffman-La Roche.5
It is an unnatural diet which causes the farmed salmon’s omega-3 levels to drop way off. And here is a very important piece of information to take away from this discussion: farm-raised fish contain much higher amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats than wild fish.
Inflammation plays a big role in many of today’s chronic illnesses including arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, obesity, stroke, lupus and cancer.
When you have an injury or when germs get to you, the body responds with inflammation to sanitize and heal. Nature designed inflammation to be a valuable coping mechanism for those few occasions you would need it in life. Mankind was originally a hunter-gatherer society and he routinely ate lots of omega-3s which kept inflammation in check.
But today, we eat far too many omega-6s. How many salads did you eat in the last 20 years thinking you were doing a good thing? Chances are, the salad dressing was made with a vegetable oil and these oils are naturally high in omega-6s. So, too, are many fried foods and convenience foods. So our omega-6/omega-3 balance is way off. Most researchers agree that if you have been eating the Standard American Diet, you have an omega-6/omeg-3 ration of 20:1. The hunter-gatherers of long ago had something much closer to 2:1 or 1:1.
When your body is constantly irritated, there is a proliferation of white blood cells that eventually starts to attack organs and tissues. Inflammation takes on a life of its own and becomes a permanent condition. This type of chronic inflammation often has no outward symptoms that conventional medicine will detect for you. You may never know you have problem until one day you are diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease or suffer a heart attack. But in the meantime your body looks around for something to help you - and it chooses cholesterol.
Inflammation at work inside your blood vessels is a bit like hitting a golf ball in a tile bathroom. Lots of nicks. The body says, “Quick, we need Band-Aids here, send out the nurse!” And the nurse arrives in the form of cholesterol to lay a soothing layer over those nicks. Now you have a situation where all those omega-6s you ate in your salmon and salad dressing are raising your cholesterol level. Too often, conventional medicine prescribes a statin drug to merely stifle the body’s ability to produce cholesterol. Better to look at why the body needs so much cholesterol and lessen the need.
Red meat is supposedly bad for you because it is full of saturated fat and “gives you cholesterol.” There are two very fundamental facts to keep in mind:
Those who blamed beef for health problems overlooked the implications of feeding of grain to the animals we eat - red meat, fowl, and fish. Grain causes a dramatic reduction of omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet. You could say saturated fat is a modern man-made creation. The much-reviled but naturally-occurring saturated fat found in red meat and eggs is what mankind has eaten for centuries. It has no strong links with disease, while industrially produced trans fats do.
Cholesterol levels are also wrongly blamed on naturally occurring saturated fats. Foods high in omega-6 fatty acids or arachidonic acid, like farm-raised salmon or commercially raised beef, irritate the lining of blood vessels. This triggers an inflammation response and the body sends white blood cells and other immune fighters to the scene.
As early as 1906, Upton Sinclair’s classic book The Jungle made many people realize the shameful way in which animals raised for human consumption meet the end of their lives. Some would say it hasn’t gotten much better.
In 2006, Michael Pollen gave us a first-hand account of a modern day feedlot and its impact on human health in his wonderful book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
“Cows raised on grass simply take longer to reach slaughter weight than cows raised on a richer diet, and the modern meat industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef calf’s allotted time on earth. What gets a steer from 80 to 1,100 pounds in 14 months is enormous quantities of corn, protein and fat supplements, and an arsenal of new drugs. … The feedlot is a city built upon America’s mountain of surplus corn - or rather, corn plus the various pharmaceuticals a ruminant must have if it is to tolerate corn. … Cows fed corn get fat quickly. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass. A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn fed beef. Modern day hunter-gathers who subsist on wild meat don’t have our rates of heart disease. In the same way ruminants are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn. … The economic logic behind corn is unassailable, and on a factory farm there is no other kind. Calories are calories, and corn is the cheapest, most convenient source of calories on the market. Of course it was the same industrial logic - protein is protein - that made feeding rendered cow parts back to cows seem like a sensible thing to do, until scientists figured out that this practice was spreading mad cow disease. … Compared to all the other things we feed cattle these days, corn seems positively wholesome. And yet it too violates the biological or evolutionary logic of bovine digestions. … Virtually all of the cows are sick. Between 15 and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed livers; Dr. Mel told me that in some pens the figure runs as high as 70 percent. … Most of the antibiotics today end up in animals feed. … In this new man-made environment, new acid-resistant strains of E. coli have evolved. … The problem with these bugs is that they can shake off the acid bath in our stomachs - and then go on to kill us.”6
Pollen does a very artful job of connecting the dots that reveal how the health of these animals is inextricably linked to human health. A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn fed beef. As Pollen says, “In the same way ruminants have not evolved to eat grain, humans may not be well adapted to eating grain-fed animals.”
“Nutrition experts” blame the rise in heart disease on red meat because of saturated fat. But other cultures who ate meat from grass-fed cattle didn’t know what heart disease was. Red meat is not bad, it’s the grain-fed, commercial cattle with 20:1 ratios of omega-6s to omega-3s that are the problem.
A landmark study reported by Harvard researchers in 2010 [i] found that eating processed meat such as bacon, sausage or processed deli meats, is associated with a 42% higher risk of heart disease and a 19% higher risk of type 2 diabetes. In contrast, the researchers did not find any higher risk of heart disease or diabetes among individuals eating unprocessed red meat, such as from beef, pork, or lamb.
Processed meats contained, on average, 4 times more sodium and 50% more nitrate preservatives. "This suggests that differences in salt and preservatives, rather than fats, might explain the higher risk of heart disease and diabetes seen with processed meats, but not with unprocessed red meats," the study's authors wrote. Dietary sodium (salt) is known to increase blood pressure, a strong risk factor for heart disease. In animal experiments, nitrate preservatives can promote atherosclerosis and reduce glucose tolerance, effects which could increase risk of heart disease and diabetes
For the first time, the research establishment is clearly being told they need to study natural meats and adulterated meats as two different entities. You can't paint 'em all with the same brush of blame.
Additionally, conditions in big feedlots are also breeding grounds for E.coli and superbugs, especially in the resulting hamburger where a single animal infected with E. coli can contaminate tens of thousands of pounds of ground beef.
The hormones fed cattle for growth are also very suspect. It is thought children are entering puberty earlier than ever before because of all the hormones they consume from commercial cattle and chicken.
Corn fed, commercial beef also has lower levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). You might notice when you go into the health food store, CLA is something they sell you for weight loss. The meat of grass fed cattle contains CLA; the meat of grain-fed cattle does not. It is thought this is one of the many links in the obesity epidemic.
So…. Before the days of modern industry, meat and fish had abundant supplies of omega-3s. But these days, most of the available salmon and the grain fed beef have but a tiny amount of this important nutrient. The Essential Fatty Acids like omega 3 are sort of like Vitamin C - your body can’t make it so you must get it from what you eat. And without it, your risk of disease skyrockets.
If your health is important to you, think twice before you say that grass fed meat or wild salmon is too expensive. What is good health worth to you?
4 Jeffery A. Foran, Carpenter, Hamilton, et all, Risk-Based Consumption Advice for Farmed Atlantic and Wild Pacific Salmon Contaminated with Dioxins and Dioxin-like Compounds, Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol 113, May 2005
4a Robert P. Friedland, Robert B. Petersen, Richard Rubenstein; Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy and Aquaculture, Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Volume 17, Number 2, June 2009, pages 277-279
5 George Mateljan Foundation, Is there any nutritional difference between wild-caught and farm-raised fish? Is one type better for me than the other?, http://whfoods.org/genpage.php?tname=george&dbid=96
6 Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma-A Natural History of Four Meals, Penguin Press, 2006, pages 72-82