I started eating the paleo diet to improve my health. But my health improvement was accompanied by a pleasant surprise: I discovered that the increased nutrition of paleo food is linked to great taste.
That’s no accident.
Consider the type of meat that the paleo philosophy promotes. Although you can follow a paleo diet and purchase your meat from a supermarket, paying little attention to how it was produced, you’re better off purchasing meat and poultry from farmers who use organic, pasture-raised methods.
Your taste buds know
When I started buying my meat directly from farmers, I discovered that eating organic meat is its own reward.
One bite into a drumstick of a baked, free-range, organic chicken or a nibble of a grilled T-bone steak from a grass-fed cow delivers a powerful, convincing argument for eating organic. The taste of conventional, supermarket meat just doesn’t compare.
The flat taste of supermarket beef derived from animals fattened on a feedlot or the greasy mouth-feel of fried chicken made from mass-produced, fast-food poultry just doesn’t have the tantalizing appeal of their organic counterparts.
And a remarkable aspect of this improved taste: It reflects the better nutrition contained in these foodstuffs.
Remarkable nutritional benefits are hidden in the scrumptious meat of organic animals. These free-range, organic animals contain cellular structures and fatty acids that are closer to the type that paleo people ate thousands of years ago. And they make the meat extremely pleasing.
Industrial farms often keep animals in small cages, fatten them on grain, make them live out their lives getting less exercise than a couch potato and then slaughter them. The result: meat that is generally of reduced nutritional value.
Added to that, the antibiotics and other treatments given to the animals not only reduce their nutritional quality, they also reduce the palatability of the final product.
But meat doesn’t have to be that way.
According to researcher Kin-Chow Chang, who is with the University of Nottingham in England, letting animals graze and roam freely changes their muscles and cellular features in ways that greatly improve their nutritional profile and taste.
Chang noted that the muscles of free-range animals more frequently develop into what are called slow muscle fibers: oxidative or red muscle. This red muscle is the most desirable type of meat. It has more flavor and is more tender than the fast muscle fibers that predominate in supermarket meat. Fast muscle fibers create tougher and drier meat.
The slow muscle fibers of free-range animals is also filled with more capillaries, mitochondria (energy-producing structures) and myoglobin, a dark substance that binds oxygen and iron and that provides meat its dark color.
Tastier, slow muscle fibers grow larger in free-range animals because their muscles efficiently use blood sugar and fatty acids for energy. They contract in a more prolonged manner, making them more energy-efficient and able to function for a longer time before tiring. On the other hand, animals that live in restricted pens don’t need to develop these muscles.
Chang pointed out that our industrial farm system emphasizes speed of growth rather than quality. Those refrigerator cases at the supermarket are filled with animals that have been raised as quickly and cheaply as possible to increase profit margins.
“Genetically, we have been very successful in breeding animals that can grow very quickly but the down side is that comes at the price of eating quality,” Chang said.
Chang noted that we have ended up with grocery stores filled with poor-quality meat.
For example, producers of broiler chickens raise birds that grow for only six weeks until they are slaughtered. Their breast meat is too bland to retain any kind of memorable taste.
Free-range animals also produce more omega-3 fats, healthier fats than the saturated fats and the omega-6 fatty acids that conventional meat retains in high quantities.
Experts believe that the American diet is way too high in omega-6 fats (found in many vegetable oils) and way too low in omega-3s, found more often free-range animals and fish.
“We’ve altered our fatty acid intake over the last centuries, because we’ve moved from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to an industrial lifestyle,” said researcher Amy Devitt, who is now with Kraft foods. “The Western diet has changed so that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in our diet is 25-to-1.”
In paleo times, and in the decades before industrial farms became the norm, that ratio was between only 10-to-1 and 4-to-1, Devitt said.
“Because we’ve moved to intensive animal production and changed the rations they’re fed, we’ve altered the fat composition of beef, pork and poultry from 100 years ago. Now meat and poultry contain less of the omega-3 fatty acids,” said researcher Bruce Watkins at Purdue. “The way we’re eating, with high omega-6 to omega-3 ratios, we’re increasing our risk for arteriosclerosis, certain cancers and inflammatory diseases.”
But the organic foods of the paleo diet offer denser sources of omega-3 fats. And you can taste the difference.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s a combination that can’t be beat.