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Not all of the fat in beef is created equal. As beef researcher Jeff Savell, Ph.D., describes it, taste fat and waste fat don’t even belong in the same ballpark.
Savell says taste fat, such as the marbling found in steaks, contributes to flavor and has fatty (oleic) acids that can be beneficial to good health. Meanwhile, waste fat, such as that found on the outside of meat cuts, has been reduced substantially over the past few decades and is therefore responsible for less of a role in our diets.
Furthermore, Savell says, marbling fat is helpful simply for that fact that it makes our food taste better.
“Consumers want taste fat, not waste fat,” said Savell, who is university distinguished professor at Texas A&M University. “We can’t avoid the need for a certain amount of fat for eating acceptability.”
Recent beef checkoff-funded research conducted in Texas suggests that as more fat is added in the marbling process, the balance among the different fatty acids is improved because oleic acid, one of the monounsaturated fats, replaces saturated fat. The study, co-authored by Stephen Smith, Ph.D., of Texas A&M University and Brad Johnson, Ph.D., of Texas Tech University, supports the concept that monounsaturated fat in beef not only improves flavor, but by controlling the feeding of cattle you can naturally modify the animal so that its beef contains a more desirable balance of fat.
While longer periods of grain feeding increase marbling fat, enhance taste and improve the ratio between beef’s saturated and unsaturated fats, more than 50 percent of the fat in all beef is monounsaturated, a fact often overlooked by both health professionals and consumers.
Meanwhile, industry efforts over the past 40 years have been reducing the amount of unwanted external fat. In fact, since the 1970s the industry has demonstrated a 29 percent reduction in saturated fat contributed by beef per capita. Furthermore, about 65 percent of whole muscle beef cuts sold at retail today meet government standards for lean, and 17 of the top 25 most popular cuts sold at retail are lean. Since the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were issued, external fat on retail beef cuts has decreased by 81 percent.
“It’s been a gate-to-plate effort by every segment of the beef chain to make changes the consumers want,” according to Angie Horkan, Director of Marketing for the Wisconsin Beef Council. From cattle ranchers who raised leaner animals, to packers and processors who closely trimmed beef cuts, everyone has stepped up to make it happen.”
According to Horkan, the Beef Checkoff Program has played a key role in helping make this happen, funding much of the core research establishing the needs, as well as the efforts to get information into the right hands.
“Every pivotal point in this journey has had a checkoff element,” says Shalene McNeill, Ph.D., R.D., executive director of human nutrition research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a beef checkoff contractor. “The efforts we have made as an industry (in research and consumer education) have helped give us credibility and a platform.”
When it comes to nutrition, though, the discussion is becoming part of a bigger picture that will require the beef industry to “fit in” in numerous ways. McNeill says the positive fat story shows that the entire discussion of lean, which has led to a “good food/bad food” perception, is wrong. “All cuts have a place, and in fact even cuts with more fat can fit within a healthful diet,” she says. “People are really open to a balance of fat today.”
“We need to be able to stress the point that beef is simply a better food; a nutritious, valuable food for a better eating experience that features the taste it is known for,” says Horkan. “The fact is, about 40 percent of many American diets can be considered ‘junk’ food. We need to help consumers understand that not only is nutritious, flavorful beef a good food choice, it belongs in the discussion of a balanced, healthful diet.”