You Are What Your Food Eats
By Mark Schatzker
Photos by Jacklyn Atlas
Five years ago, the University of Toronto’s then-Chair of Nutritional Sciences found a peculiar email in his inbox from a man who had spent the previous summer feeding a rare breed of cow a great deal of fruit and small amount of nuts. The man had even gone so far as to give his cow several pints of beer on the morning before she was slaughtered. The beef from this cow, the man declared to the Chair, was delicious. But now he was curious about its nutritional properties. Could the University of Toronto help?
Nutritional scientists get a lot of odd emails, ranging from rants about the widespread use of fluoride in tap water to conspiracy theories involving agri-food companies and political leaders. Many are politely declined. This query, however, was forwarded to the department’s most junior member, Richard Bazinet (PhD ’03).
Just two years out of his post-doc, Bazinet was studying how some of the body’s most important fats — long-chain omega-3s and omega-6s — get beyond the blood-brain barrier, the body’s formidable wall that keeps unwanted chemicals out of our grey matter. Bazinet had five staff working in his lab, running detailed analyses of rodent brains and scanning for metabolites that existed in quantities measured in trillionths of a gram. In the midst of all this arrived the email from the man with the fruit-and-nut-fatted cow. Bazinet did not write back.
That’s because two minutes after receiving it, Bazinet contacted the man by phone.
Now is probably as good a time as any to let you know that I was the guy with the cow. And as fanciful and indulgent as my fruit-and-nut-fed steak might sound, there was a higher purpose. I was researching my first book, called Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef. For the previous two years, I had covered a serious amount of geography — Scotland, France, Argentina, Italy, Japan, the United States — attempting to find not only the most delicious steak, but also the reason behind a steak’s deliciousness. Why, I wanted to know, did we humans love eating meat so much in the first place? And what was so special about steak? Why were there steakhouses, but no chicken or pork houses?
As the quest got bigger, it got deeper. I found an undeniable relationship between what a cow ate and how its meat tasted. This is what led me to purchase a heifer from a dairy farmer near Guelph, Ontario, and spend a summer encouraging her to eat as much grass and as many apples — and even the odd bucket of Persian walnuts — as possible. Soon, the very nature of deliciousness itself began to intrigue me. Cows, I learned, sought out the sweetest, most nutrient-rich grass in a field. To a cow, delicious grass is healthy grass. Cows appeared to be programmed to seek out the foods they most need. Was the flavour of beef related to its healthfulness?
For decades, the North American beef system has operated on the premise that fat equals flavour. The more marbled a steak is, the more it’s worth. Over the past half century, our agricultural system has transformed into an elaborate cow-fattening apparatus. We place our cattle in feedlots, where they gorge on corn or barley. After eating beef in other countries, with different agricultural systems, I had come to regard Canadian beef as greasy and bland. And now I had a deeper question: Was a steak that tasted better good for me?
To my great thrill, Professor Richard Bazinet, U of T’s very own fatty acid expert, thought this was an interesting question. He also wanted to know the answer.
Chicken + Grass = Salmon?
That, at least, is what he told me. And I think he was telling the truth. Just not the entire truth. Because I now suspect Bazinet was at least as interested in eating some of that steak. A few weeks later, he was seated at my dining-room table performing a very personal analysis — inserting morsels of medium-rare apple-and-nut-fed steak into his mouth. Not long after that, Bazinet analyzed the steak at his lab. My cow most certainly did produce special and unusual beef. It had more omega-3 fats than feedlot beef, and less omega-6s.
Both of these fatty acids are “essential” — without them you’d die. But most nutritional scientists believe we should consume them in relative balance, roughly five parts omega-6 to one part omega-3. However, most people’s diets don’t come close to that balance because our agricultural system is built on grain, which is extremely rich in omega-6s and poor in omega-3s. Not only do we eat grains such as wheat, corn, oats and barley, but we process grains into oil, which finds its way into all sorts of processed food. We also feed grain to livestock.
Thanks in large part to our dependency on grain, a typical Canadian diet has an omega balance more like 10:1, though Bazinet says some people have diets of 20:1 or worse. Perhaps most worrisome, a diet high in omega-6s has been linked to many medical problems, from heart disease to major depression. Bazinet was gratified to discover a steak from a “grass-fed” cow contains about 50 milligrams of omega-3s in a single serving. It tips the dietary balance of fats back towards omega-3s.
Bazinet began asking me for other meats to analyze. Over and over, the same pattern presented itself. If pigs were raised outdoors on pasture, and were allowed to root in the fields and forest, not only did the pork taste better, it contained more omega-3s. If you let ducks and geese waddle and peck their way over pasture, the meat is more savoury and better for you. With chicken, the results were, as Bazinet put it, “mind boggling.” Not only did chickens on pasture deposit omega-3s, they turned the simple omega-3s found in grass into the complex omega-3 fat called DHA, which is typically found in salmon and mackerel.
It was like Bazinet had put a different lens on his scientific research. For so long, he had delved into the micro aspects of brain chemistry. Now he had panned out to see a much bigger picture. Understanding the interplay of fats in the human brain was one route to someday improving human health. Changing the human diet was another.
And omega-3s were just a single piece of that expanding puzzle. “There are a whole bunch of fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients that come into these animals when they eat grass,” Bazinet says. “They’re not getting into the flesh of grain-fed livestock.”
Pastured livestock is simply more “nutrient dense.” Each bite packs a bigger wallop not just of flavour, but micronutrients, too.
Crowding Out the Junk
The happy story of pastured chicken doesn’t end with micronutrients. Such a chicken doesn’t require deep-frying, or being covered in a sugary, salty barbecue sauce to be tasty. A delicious tomato, furthermore, doesn’t need to be drenched in ranch dressing. And strawberries that taste like strawberries don’t need to be covered in whipped cream.
Bazinet is convinced, as I am, that improving the flavour of whole foods — fruits, vegetables, legumes, unprocessed meat — is an overlooked weapon in our nutritional arsenal.
“For a long time,” he points out, “we’ve known that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and some unprocessed meat is good for us. What we need to do now is get people to eat that way. And one very interesting strategy is to make that food taste better.”
Bazinet hopes he can attract funding to launch more research into understanding the relationship between flavour and nutrition, and examine ways to improve the food supply.
This past July, he and I visited Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, a 218-acre agricultural research station on Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. Its CEO, Jim Brandle, showed us rows of long, dark, thin vegetables that he informed us were from Asia. Many Asian immigrants, he told us, loved eggplants but were not familiar with traditional Sicilian eggplant and were put off its bitter flavour. As a result, thousands of eggplant lovers weren’t eating eggplants. So Vineland is developing Asian varieties that will thrive in Ontario conditions, to be grown by farmers and sold in Toronto’s large Asian communities.
A few hundred metres from the eggplants, Brandle showed us an apple orchard with a hundred different varieties, some of them dating back to the 1500s. All are being tested for flavour, and the very best will make their way into new varieties. “Apples generally taste pretty good,” Brandle says. “So we’re looking for novel and interesting flavour combinations that have never existed before.”
We picked apples off different trees. One tasted mealy. Another was arrestingly sour — a cooking apple from an era when high acidity meant a longer shelf life. Last, we picked a Lubsk Queen, a small pale apple from Russia with good crunch, a tart zing, and a captivating floral flavour. “If I could find an apple that tastes like that, I’d buy it for sure,” Bazinet said. Surely, he is not the only one.
Mark Schatzker (BA ’96) is the author of The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor and Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef.
What’s in a Label?
A lot of people want better tasting food that’s better for you. But how do we know that our meat is being raised on grass? Labels like “grass fed” are not regulated in Canada. Anyone can claim their meat was raised on grass, but nobody is checking.
Bazinet decided to check. Over the summer, he visited farmers’ markets, supermarkets and butcher shops across Toronto and analyzed their steaks to see if the packaging matched the meat inside. The news was mostly good. Several steaks being presented as “grass fed” at supermarkets and butcher shops passed with flying colours, boasting omega-6 to omega-3 ratios of around 4:1 or better. A grain-fed steak purchased at one of Toronto’s most expensive butcher shops, by comparison, came in at 38:1.
But Bazinet did find one disturbing case of improper labelling. Steak being sold at numerous stores in Toronto as “PEI grass fed” had a ratio of 24:1, which suggests the cattle that produced these steaks had been fed an awful lot of grain. “There’s just no way you could get those levels of omega-6s from eating grass,” he worries.