All forms of life are built entirely from the nutrients they consume. In order to thrive, every species in every kingdom on this planet needs a unique range of nutrients from specific foods. Natural selection has made it so. Straying from this evolution-defined menu is bad news. Not just for the critter that strays, but for everything above it in the food chain. What you eat is important. But what you eat eats determines whether what you eat is any good.
I’ve always been impressed by blue whales. Fighting weight of 200 tons. Lifespan of 100 years. Top speed of 20 miles an hour. Excellent navigation and communication skills. All that size, power and intelligence must require one seriously complex diet. Nope. Just krill. 4 tons of it a day. The blue whale derives all the nutrients it requires to build and sustain that incredible mind and body from minuscule shrimps. Impressive, isn’t it? Krill must be incredibly nutrient dense. They are. Because they eat phytoplankton. And phytoplankton are some of the most nutrient-dense organisms on earth. If krill suddenly disappeared tomorrow, blue whales would have to start eating other food. They wouldn’t get the right nutrients. They’d get sick, and eventually die. But equally, if krill were forced to switch from plankton to some other food, then its nutrient requirements would not be met, and, in turn, the blue whale would also become deficient. Same result. This majestic creature would wither. The same applies to us. Homo sapiens has a natural diet too. It’s more varied than the blue whale’s, but it’s still highly specific. Meat and fish are fundamental components. Specifically, meat and fish from animals that have eaten their natural diet, and lived their natural lives. Sadly, there is nothing natural about most modern day farms. Consequently, the animals are unhappy, and their meat is not providing us with the nutrients (or pleasure!) we require. And I’m not talking about the horrors of factory farming here. I’m talking about most farming. Regular farming.
Let’s take cows as an example. Cows, like blue whales, have a pretty limited diet. Grass. Actually that’s a bit unfair. It also includes other green leaves, sedges, rushes, shrubs and herbs. Stuff you find in fields. But we’ll call it grass for now. Grass is a nutrition powerhouse. Not for us. We don’t have the right machinery to extract the nutrients. But cows do. Two stomachs, very long intestines, specialised colonies of microorganisms, and a strange habit of (re)chewing the cud. The nutrient profile of cow meat (or beef, as it’s known) is, correspondingly, excellent. High in Omega-3 and another particularly beneficial fat called Conjugated Linoleic Acid (which is a naturally occurring trans fat). And loaded with B-vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin E, iron, calcium, selenium, sodium, potassium, phosphorous and zinc. Contrary to popular opinion, red meat is good for you. If the animals have freely roamed pastures eating grass. Just grass. From infancy to slaughter. This is seldom the case these days. And that’s tragic. In the UK, most calves wean onto grass, but are later fattened up to full size with cereal-grains. And often with grain by-products from the human food industry. Grain is cheap and very effective at piling weight onto the animals that eat it (cows, humans…). The perfect answer for the business-savvy beef farmer. Unless of course he or she is bothered about quality. Grains are nutritionally pathetic. And this is reflected in the beef. Omega-3 is practically nonexistent (which means the Omega-3 to Omega-6 balance is massively out of whack), and the levels of just about every vitamin and mineral are significantly lower. We shouldn’t be happy about this. The cows certainly aren’t. Their digestive systems are designed for grass, not barley. Grain-feed makes them sick. And to make matters worse, an unnatural diet tends to go hand-in-hand with an unnatural lifestyle. Less space. Less activity. Less outdoors. It’s hard to imagine that the cows are not utterly miserable. Bad diet and confined quarters also create a breeding ground for pathogenic bacteria (like E. coli). This means infections and habitual antibiotics for the cows. And food poisoning and antibiotic residues for us. The taste and texture of the meat is affected. Grass-fed beef is…beefier somehow. Gamier. And firmer. The fat is soft, smooth and full of flavour. Grain-fed beef is bland in comparison. Mushy and greasy.
The story with chickens and pigs is much the same. Because they’re omnivores, the farming industry seems to think they can eat anything. It’s mostly grain and grain by-products, but other waste from the food manufacturing industry is dumped in the troughs. Thankfully, catering swill is now prohibited due to foot-and-mouth outbreaks. Either way, it’s pretty far from their natural diet. The food for which pigs and chickens would ordinarily forage – grass, leaves, seeds, roots, berries, and insects – is highly nutritious, meaning healthy animals and high quality meat. Most chickens and pigs, however, never see their natural environment. Even the “free-range” kind. The pork and chicken we buy has fewer nutrients, and crucially, an unhealthy balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3. And, by the way, that recent swine flu pandemic? Started on a pig farm. Sheep are a little different, thankfully. Most sheep spend their days in fields. It must be cheaper and more efficient that way. But whatever the reason, sheep tend to have a better diet and lifestyle. Pregnant and lactating ewes often have their diets supplemented (yes, with grain), as do young lambs. But on the whole, sheep are happier and their meat is better quality.
More and more of the fish we eat is farmed. The problems are similar to those with farmed land animals. Confined space, bad diet, and antibiotics. Unhappy fish, unhappy us. Salmon provides a good illustration. Thanks to a diet of plankton, fish, squid, eels and shrimp, the nutritional profile of wild salmon is staggeringly good. Vitamins A and D, all the B-vitamins, and many essential minerals. And, of course, a huge dose of Omega-3. Wild salmon also contains a very powerful antioxidant called astaxanthin. It comes from the plankton, and it gives wild salmon that deep orangey red colour (sockeye salmon is bright red in colour due to an exclusively plankton diet). Farmed salmon eat pellets. These pellets contain fish meal and fish oil (often contaminated with heavy metals), and increasingly, grain and vegetable oil. Omega-6 levels go up. Omega-3 levels come down. As do all the vitamins and minerals. And the flesh is much paler. Because astaxanthin is completely absent. Some salmon farmers even put synthetic astaxanthin in the pelleted feed. It’s made from petrochemicals, like coal. Yum! If you’ve ever tried wild salmon, you’ll know how different it looks and tastes.
OK, so what can we do about it? Supermarket labels aren’t much help unfortunately. Neither “free-range” nor “organic” mean that the animals have been raised and fed naturally. Ask your butcher about exactly where and how the animals are raised. You’re looking for 100% grass-fed beef and lamb (cows in the UK often eat silage – fermented grass – over the winter, which is fine). And meat from pigs and chickens that have had unlimited access to actual pasture. If you don’t get the answer you want, go to another butcher. Or directly to a farm. There are still some farms around the UK who do things properly. If in doubt, buy organic (no antibiotics) or free-range. And prioritise lamb. For fish, buy wild-caught varieties wherever possible. Good fishmongers will be able to direct you on provenance and sustainability. The wild salmon season in the UK is June to August, and Sainsbury’s, M&S, and Asda sell wild Alaskan sockeye salmon year-round. Admittedly, this stuff is more expensive. We even things up by buying the cheaper cuts of meat and sourcing directly. But we prioritise food and are happy to spend a little extra.
Producing good food is not complicated. All we need to do is hand back control to nature. It will take care of the rest.
Own your health.