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Live to Eat Newsletter by The Healthy Butcher

Mario Fiorucci interviews Professor Richard P. Bazinet, University of Toronto, on nutrition and steaks

The Healthy Butcher is now the scientifically proven

leader in Toronto for healthy Grass fed Beef

- by Mario Fiorucci

A few months ago, I received an email from Richard P. Bazinet, a Professor at the University of Toronto in the Department of Nutritional Sciences... subject line = “Beef.xlsx”, no words in the body of the email, and an Excel spreadsheet attached that listed 14 steaks he sourced from various butcher shops, farmers’ markets, and supermarkets across Toronto, and the results from his nutritional lab showing the Omega 6-to-Omega 3 ratio of each steak. Not surprisingly, at least to us, Grassfed steaks purchased at The Healthy Butcher dominated all the steaks tested by placing first, second, and third as the steaks with the best Omega 6:3 ratio – i.e., the healthiest steaks.

For this edition of Live to Eat, I took a trip over to U of T to interview Professor Bazinet about his work, his test results, and nutrition in general. Now, here is a man who deeply understands nutrition, more specifically fat, more specifically essential fatty acids and how they affect our brains. While we’ve written about grass fed beef in several of our past newsletters, it is a topic that remains top of mind for consumers mainly because of the continuing confusion surrounding the term “grassfed” and how it’s used in Canada.

Hopefully, this video (and written transcript) will help answer some questions. Enjoy...

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Q & A with
Professor Richard P. Bazinet, U of T

Mario:  Let’s start off with a bit of background. You’re a professor at the University of Toronto in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. What’s the focus of your research?

Prof. Bazinet:  Thank you, Mario. I have a bit of a different background; I am a neuroscientist in a nutrition department. I am interested in how we feed the brain, especially how fatty acids enter and are used in the brain for both health and disease. Traditionally, the fats that I’m looking for were only found in foods like fish, and not in beef and other animals, however there are exceptions and I think that’s why we’re here today as when we look at grassfed beef, we find the healthy fats we use to feed our brains.

Mario Fiorucci interviewing Prof. Bazinet @ U of T, January 2016 Mario:  OK so let’s back up and get an overall understanding of fat before heading into the specifics. In the chart you sent me you measured the ratio of Linoleic Acid to alpha-Linolenic Acid... just saying that clouds up my head, let’s take a step back. What is fat? And what do the specific acids you tested have to do with fat? 

Prof. Bazinet:  Fat is an essential part of our diet, just like protein. Now, there are three types of fat: Saturated, Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated. No matter what fat you eat it will likely contain saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fat, but at different proportions. You can easily distinguish the main component of a fat based on whether it’s a solid or liquid at room temperature and in your fridge. Butter is a good example of a fat composed mainly of saturated fat, and it’s solid at room temperature. Olive oil is a good example of a fat composed mainly of monounsaturated fat, it’s a liquid at room temperature, but solid when refrigerated. A vegetable oil is an example of a fat composed mainly of polyunsaturated fat, and it’s liquid both at room temperature and in a fridge.

Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats. During digestion, our bodies break down the fat into fatty acids, which can then be absorbed into the blood. Saturated fat can be made up of over 30 types of saturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fat can be made up of a dozen or so types of mono-unsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fat can be made up of over 20 types of poly-unsaturated fatty acids. But, out of all those 60+ fatty acids, only two are known as “essential fatty acids”. And they are referred to as essential because our bodies cannot synthesize them, we must eat them to survive. Those two essential fatty acids are alpha-linolenic acid (“ALA”), an omega-3 fatty acid, and linoleic acid (“LA”), an omega 6 fatty acid.

Mario:  Is the fact that ALA and LA are “essential fatty acids” that you analyzed them?

Prof. Bazinet:  No, generally we get more than enough ALA and LA in our diets... the last case of essential fatty acid deficiency we saw was in 1982. But what we’ve learned is that in our diets today we get too much of the Omega 6s relative to the Omega 3s, and to a certain extent they fight with each other. So you might be getting enough Omega 3s from a quantity perspective, but if you’re getting far too much Omega 6s, it might be detrimental to our health. In my area of brain health, we have evidence that too we consume too much Omega 6s relative to Omega 3s.

So, it turns out when you analyze beef, from what I’ll call a commodity or conventional supplier, they are feeding grain and corn, which are high sources of Omega 6s, and so the meat from the cows become high sources of Omega 6s and poor sources of Omega 3s. The ratio of Omega 6-to-Omega 3 in a “standard” piece of beef is about 30-to-1.

Mario:  And what is the ratio of Omega 6 to 3 we should be aiming to eat for optimum health? 

Prof. Bazinet:  In general the majority of nutritionists say we should eat an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 5 to 1. What this means is in our diet, we should eat about 5 times more linoleic acid than a-linolenic acid. Some nutritionals will go as far as saying the ratio should be closer to 2:1 and some even say 10:1 is ok. Without getting too far into it this, the bottom line is that the ratio from “standard” beef is far from being healthy for us. When cows consume corn and grain, the balance of Omega 6 to Omega 3 is off-the-charts in the wrong direction.

I was raised in the nutritional sciences, and studied nutrition my entire life, and I generally accepted that that’s just how beef is. And then about 6 years ago a Toronto food writer, Mark Schatzker, came to me and said I had to analyze some of these exotic steaks he had. So I did, and the ratios were completely different. Not marginal differences, we’re talking massive difference - 30:1 vs. 2:1. And that leads us to the study I did.

Mario:  So you purchased steaks around Toronto?

Prof. Bazinet:  Yup, I purchased steaks from various butcher shops, grocery stores, and farmers markets and tested the Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio. And the ratios ranged from 1.8:1 all the way to a relatively unhealthy 38.0:1 – just a huge range.


Mario:  This is the part that makes me happy, being an owner of The Healthy Butcher, since our steaks dominated first, second and third place. The 2nd and 3rd place were steaks from Firstlight, being 100% Grassfed Wagyu that we exclusively import from New Zealand. Firstlight’s beef is amazing because not only is it healthy as you tested, but it’s also a spectacular eating experience because the combination of the wagyu breed and consistent pastures produces perfect marbling and an amazing flavour. The only steak that displaced the Firstlight beef from New Zealand was a local farm called Pure Island Beef in Manitoulin Island, also exclusive to The Healthy Butcher in Toronto. The husband and wife team Jim and Birgit take a very scientific approach to it, and create heylage by cutting grass at it’s optimal peak of nutrition to counter the seasonality issue in Ontario, a huge challenge for beef farmers since half the year we don’t have grass.

The thing that bothers me is that I know many retailers and suppliers label their beef as grassfed, when they cows are still finished on grain and corn. To me, that’s pure deceptive marketing... unfortunately, we don’t have a legally regulated definition of grassfed. Any butcher shop or grocery store can label their beef as “grassfed” since at some point in its life, all beef have consumed grass... but the key is for the beef cow to have exclusively eaten grass, we like to say 100% grassfed.

Your test results showed a huge range, is there a cutoff where you know for sure the beef aren’t 100% grassfed?

Nutritional Test Results of Toronto Steaks

Prof. Bazinet:  I would say that any steak that tests with a ratio of 8 or higher was fed corn or grains. Certainly, the bottom four steaks I tested are without a doubt from cows that have consumed a lot of grain. And from an Omega 6-to-Omega 3 ratio perspective, those steaks do not provide the same benefits associated with a lower ratio, and compound the problem in our diet today of consuming too much Omega 6. Now, when I purchased the steaks I asked the person at the counter for a grassfed steak and I took their word for it, except of course that I have the instrumentation to test it after the fact. One steak that was labelled as grassfed returned a 23.6:1 ratio and I don’t believe it, while the cow may have eaten some grass, the results clearly show it was getting the fat from corn.

Mario:  So, if we look at the results for the grassfed steaks, there is still a lot of variance. A steak with a ratio of 1.8:1 is more than three times healthier than a steak with a ratio of 5.6:1, how do you account for the variance?

Prof. Bazinet:  Many factors at play, including: The type of grasses being consumed; the point in time when the cow is eating the grass since the nutritional profile of grass changes as it gets bigger; the health of the soil; the genetics of the cow; and there will be variance even from one cut to another in the same animal. I would say the margin of error from the tests I performed is about +/-1. The real conclusion here is that there is still some variance between one steak and another, despite the “grassfed” label. Professor Richard P. Bazinet, Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto

Mario:  And of course that The Healthy Butcher sells the healthiest grassfed steaks! Hahaha

Prof. Bazinet:  I guess one could conclude that, yes. Hahaha

Mario:  Would a consumer be able to measure this ratio at home for their own knowledge?

Prof. Bazinet:  No they can’t. My equipment is very sophisticated and costly. To measure these steaks, first I had to apply a bit of chemistry to extract the fat from the food. Then, I rely on something called gas chromatography which can isolate the fatty acids. Finally with the help of special detectors, I can identify and quantify them. Unfortunately, this is not something consumers can test for. 

But, we are here as a resource and it is possible to nutritionally test the meat.

Mario:  Let me broaden our look at the nutritional profile of grassfed beef. If the Omega 6:3 ratio of a grassfed cow is much better as compared to a cow that’s been fed grains or corn, certainly the nutritional profile overall is healthier. Are there other nutrients, vitamins, minerals, or other characteristics that we should be looking at? I have read studies that show that grassfed beef contains higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and that CLA helps weight loss, reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer. Weston Price talks about vitamin K2 and how the liver of grassfed beef was prized and fed to brides-to-be to promote healthy pregnancy and healthy infants. Bottom line question is, moving away from the Omega 6:3 ratio, and looking at the broad nutritional picture, what other benefits are their of 100% grassfed beef compared to conventionally raised, grain-finished beef?

Prof. Bazinet:  So some of this is outside of my expertise. However, I have heard and a lot of people are talking about other benefits from a pasture/grass feeding model. Some of these issues range from animal health and ethics and even ecological issues. I think these are really important and timely, but I am not prepared to comment on them. However, in terms of other nutrients, you are absolutely correct. Grass is full of vitamins and phytonutrients. There is no doubt they also get into the meat and contribute to its nutrition. For example, there is research that shows that 100% grassfed beef has more antioxidants like Vitamin E. At this time, I am not measuring those, but hopefully we can look at this in the future to get a bigger picture.

Mario:  The natural question that likely will come up in our audiences minds is: Why don’t we just eat the grass directly?

Prof. Bazinet:  It would go right through you. Our bodies can’t digest grass like cows. They have a rumen that can break them down and extract the nutrients, and then we eat the meat and get those nutrients. And grass is one of the largest biomasses on the planet, so there is a lot of grass in the world to feed the animals.

Mario:  Last question, a few weeks back, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a study that concluded that red meat is a “probable human carcinogen”. The one thing that really bothers me is that the WHO defines “red meat” as all mammalian muscle meat, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat, which of course is a broad spectrum of animals. And further, no differences are pointed out in how the animals were raised and what they ate. Do you believe that the findings would be different for 100% grass fed beef vs. Grain/corn finished beef? I’m quite certain that the vast majority of the studies were based on conventional meat.

Prof. Bazinet:  Oh I would say not just the majority, but all of it is based on conventional meat. I’m really interested in this also. So as a scientist, because the studies have not been done, I have to say I don’t know. However, I think this is a great question and worth looking into. If you look at meat and the risk of cardiovascular disease, it is a bit complex. While increased dietary processed meat is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, unprocessed meat isn’t, at least according to the largest studies on the topic so far. Now the question is, do pasture-based and grass-fed animals, with all their omega-3s and other phytonutrients outperform regular meat which outperforms processed meat? For cardiovascular disease? Or what about cancer as in the WHO report? The studies have not been done, but one can definitely make a case – an argument - that they might. This is the complexity in nutrition, we have to make decisions without having the data in front of us. By identifying the large differences in nutritional quality between the products, hopefully we can stimulate others to look for answers to those studies.

Mario:  Professor, thank you for taking the time today to talk, and even more so for taking it upon yourself to perform these tests and help us understand our food better. The world needs many more people like you!



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