Studying the benefits of grassfed livestock

Richard Bazinet is a University of Toronto researcher in nutritional science. He studies the effects of diet on brains. Photo: Laura Rance

The production system is linked to healthier meat, egg and dairy products

By Laura Rance
OrganicBiz staff

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 during one of his presentations.

But it was actually an effective demonstration of good taste — not smell, as one would assume. 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.

Participants in a seminar were asked to hold their noses while chewing a jelly bean to demonstrate the connection between smell and taste. Photo: Laura Rance

His point was that taste, good or bad, is a function of smell. It is 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 heavily weighted in favour of Omega 6 fatty acids, which are found in highly processed foods, corn oil and grain fed livestock. Generally speaking, we 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 grassfed beef, dairy, pork, poultry and egg samples sent to him by Organic Alberta. He was in Lacombe earlier this month to report on the results.

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

For example, grassfed steaks he tested had a ratios of three Omega 6 to one of Omega 3 fatty acids. By comparison, commodity steaks showed ratios of more than 30 to one. Milk from pastured cows showed a ratio of two-to-one Omega 6 to Omega 3.

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 “grassfed” 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 as the key to optimum health, but he does think these findings factor into the bigger picture emerging around nutrition, health and agriculture.

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 for the animals to reach maturity. That means these products cost more for consumers to buy.

Cattle and other ruminants fed grass belch and fart more, producing 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, there are vast swaths of swaths of land on the Canadian Prairies that are unfit for annual crop production. 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 getting harder to ignore.

Laura Rance is editorial director for Farm Business Communications. [email protected]