Once upon a time, meat was simple. Beef was just beef. All cows ate grass, and what was, was enough.
Now almost all of Americans’ beef supply is feedlot beef. Grain-fed factory farmed cattle is the new normal; this transformation is in part due to Americans’ demand for meat.
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) named processed meats — usually red meat products and by-products (such as hot dogs, ham, sausage, corned beef, beef jerky and canned beef) modified with additives and preservatives to alter flavor and extend shelf life — as a Group 1 carcinogenic to humans. The label comes from there being convincing evidence from epidemiological studies that processed meats cause cancer in humans.
Note, WHO also categorizes alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogenic — and still, medical research’s support drinking red wine (in moderation) seems to be in vogue. Additionally, sun exposure plays a role in the development of skin cancer but is inarguably vital for everyday human life.
Processed meat is different from the aforementioned agents in that it cannot be placed on a good-but-also-bad short list.
Aside from the fact that certain foods are carcinogenic, there are equally compelling reasons to avoid them.
Before being shelved in supermarkets across America, processed meat (with a small exception for grass-fed beef and free-range pork jerky, sausage and ham) has undergone a flawed process with substandard ingredients. And the transformative process affects more than just the calorie-count, if that at all.
For example, an uncured grass-fed beef hot dog and a corn-fed hot dog with the same bun and the same fixings may be identical in calories and likely cholesterol, but the effects on the human digestive system will vary widely.
However well intentioned, calorie counting and line item health fads distract from consumer awareness to the actual ingredients. In fact, paying attention to ingredients and the quality of those ingredients would save the hassle of trying to decipher nutritional labels; not all calories are created equal and an optimal calorie intake — numbers to numbers — does not equal a prime bill of health. At the end of the day, a hypothetical Super Chaluper Platter (850 calories) and a Mega Chili Cheese Corn Dog (790 calories) are equally poor choices.
Ignorance and indifference to value ingredients allow big agricultural companies to continue to mask a poor product with artificial flavoring and consumer preference.
The majority of frankfurters and other practically nutrient-deplete processed meats list high fructose corn syrup, sodium nitrate, maltodexrin, sodium erythorbate and the mysterious FDA-sanctioned ingredient “flavoring.”
Even the most seasoned supermarket employee would be flummoxed if a consumer asked for directions to the monosodium glutamate. As a rule of thumb, avoid ingredients with no place on your grocery list. Flavoring, artificial sweeteners and excessive sodium all have similar diverting effect on taste buds.
“Yum” too often distracts from the “hmm, what is this?”
In the United States, most, if not all, American feedlots and CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) feed their cattle a corn-based diet that includes growth hormones, soy-based protein supplements and antibiotics because of the lower cost and consequential higher, fatter, faster yields.
The unnatural, not to mention inhumane, feedlot conditions corrupt the animals’ internal flora and fauna, which then has a deleterious impact on the consumers’ bodies and health. According to a Consumer Report study released in October, beef from “conventionally raised cows” is three times as likely to contain bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics. The increased acidity in the animals’ intestinal tracts — caused by grain-fed diets — mirrors the conditions of the human gut, and support and transfer dangerous pathogens (such as E.Coli 0157:H7, a pathogen that did not exist before 1980).
While grass-fed beef and free-range pork are more wholesome and healthier preference to grain-fed “conventionally raised” red meat, price difference aside grass-fed cattle operations would not be able to sustain the American meat market.
Meat consumption in the United States has increased over 60 percent in four decades. The average American consumed 71.2 pounds of red meat (beef, pork, veal and lamb) in 2012, according to United States Department of Agricultural Research (USDA). And in 2013, Americans, on average, consumed 30 percent more than dietary recommendations for meat, according the USDA.
The basics of food have not and will not change, despite an altering of understandings of delectable and desirability.
Eating smart is eating healthful, sustainable, nutritious and simply delicious food. For the time being, big agricultural companies will continue to drive the food market, but we must take back our menus. And changes in the meat industry will follow. We must not let them mislead and drive our choices at the grocery store.
Question the origins and composition of your food — ask your waiter, don’t be scared, it’s not lame. Try to eat at home and support local farmers and ranchers at farmer markets.