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Studying the benefits of grass-fed livestock

It’s unlikely that University of Toronto researcher Richard Bazinet will include on his resumé the fact that he had a whole room of farmers holding their noses.

But it was actually an effective demonstration of good taste, not smell. Bazinet passed around jelly beans and asked people to plug their noses as they placed one into their mouths. Participants realized they didn’t actually taste the flavour of the jelly bean until they unplugged their nose.

His point was that taste, good or bad, is a function of smell. It also is related to how the body metabolizes certain fatty acids.

That’s important if you’re a nutritional scientist studying the relationship between what we put into our bodies and the health of our brains, which, by the way, are comprised of 50 per cent fat.

What does all this have to do with farmers?

Bazinet’s work has led him to theorize that the fatty acids we consume in our food plays a crucial role in the health of our brains as well as our hearts. The average Canadian diet is too high in omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in highly processed foods, corn oil and grain-fed livestock. Most of us don’t get enough omega-3s, which are found in higher amounts in fish, flaxseed, and canola oil.

There are documented correlations between diets high in omega-3 consumption and better heart health. Bazinet said there is also evidence that links diets high in omega-6s with depression in women.

He recently tested the fatty acid profiles in grass-fed beef, dairy, pork, poultry and egg samples sent to him by Organic Alberta.

The grass-fed livestock products he tested consistently showed a better balance between omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3s than those from animals fed a grain-based diet.

For example, grass-fed steaks he tested had a ratio of three omega-6 to one of omega-3 fatty acids, while commodity steaks showed ratios of more than 30 to one.

The smaller the ratio the better. “There are a lot less omega-6s and a lot more omega-3s,” he said.

Bazinet is the first to caution that more work needs to be done to better define what “grass fed” means in production practices and to better understand the correlation between nutrition and better brain health.

He isn’t promoting any one food or production practice, but he does think these findings factor into the bigger picture.

While efforts to develop drugs to treat rising rates of dementia in our aging population have so far proven fruitless, Bazinet said there is evidence that shows healthy eating habits play a role in prevention. “Some nutritional studies suggest you can delay dementia by up to 50 per cent by having healthy eating habits,” he said.

It is encouraging news for farmers who are going against the grain, so to speak, and reverting to forage-based systems to raise their livestock. By modern production standards, it is far less efficient, because it takes longer. That means these products cost more for consumers to buy.

Cattle and other ruminants fed grass produce more methane that contributes to greenhouse gases — which has led many in the environmental movement to promote eating less meat.

On the other side of the debate is the reality that livestock recycle non-renewable nutrients such as phosphorus. As well, perennial grasslands not only store carbon, they convert the sun’s energy into more of it.

It’s a brain teaser, to be sure. But linkages between healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people are getting harder to ignore.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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