Exotic alternatives to beef

Photo: istockphoto.com/Bob Ainsworth
Bison, venison and ostrich are the trinity of "natural" meats that are low in fat and high in protein.

Mad cows and coughing chickens. They're enough to turn you into a vegetarian. But if you are willing to look beyond beef, there are healthier and more interesting alternatives. Bison, venison and ostrich are the trinity of "natural" meats that are low in fat and high in protein. These meats come from animals raised outdoors, fed on natural grains and not injected with any nasty chemicals.

The true Canadian bovine
In many ways, bison are the perfect substitute to beef. Having adapted beautifully to the North American winter, they thrive out in the open in sub-zero weather and are more efficient foragers than their bovine cousins. With lower cholesterol, bison meat is higher in iron, zinc, selenium, vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. That adds up to one healthy burger. How healthy? According to Health Canada (HC)'s Nutrient file, one Canada Food Guide serving (75 g) of roasted bison provides 107 calories, 21 grams (g) of protein and 1.8 g of total fat.

"Bison producers have made a conscious effort to maintain the animal's integrity so that means not playing around to make the species more efficient and not using chemicals like growth hormones or steroids," explained Larissa Helbig, a bison specialist for Alberta Agriculture. The king of bison remains Ted Turner, owner of the restaurant chain "Ted's Montana Grill" which bills bison meat as the comfort food of the 21st century. The grocery chain Loblaws has introduced Canadians to this healthy meat with its President's Choice bison burger.

New taste
Venison, which lately has come to mean deer or elk meat, is another popular alternative that is slowly catching on, particularly in Quebec. "This industry has suffered from the Bambi syndrome for many years but it's starting to be used more frequently. It also helps that Bambi is not as popular with the younger generation," said Ken Bronwin, of Lindenlee Red Deer Farm. One major complaint is that venison often tastes "gamey" but that's usually because the deer or elk has been shot under stressful conditions in the wrong season. Farmed deer meat doesn't have that problem since the deer are fed sweet grains and lead relatively stress-free lives. One roasted serving of venison (75 g) provides 22.7 g of protein and 2.4 g of total fat.

Slow to catch on
Ostrich is a low-fat meat with a mild beefy flavour. It has the lowest cholesterol of any meat, and a single food guide serving contains 19.6 g of protein, 5.3 g total fat and 131 calories. People often get confused between ostrich, emu and rhea. They're all part of the ratite family (flightless birds) but the ostrich is from Africa, the emu is from Australia and the rhea is from South America. Ostrich is the only ratite to be commercially farmed and, while immensely popular overseas, it's been slow to catch on in North America. "It's very tender, healthy and satisfying and very versatile but the ordinary man hasn't accepted the meat. It's still a difficult struggle," commented Ana Peace, owner of the Aberfoyle Ostrich Farm. The saving grace for North America farmers is the burgeoning market for ratite oils, which lay claim to a variety of health benefits.

The best source for natural meats remains private sales direct from the farmer, either at his gate or at local farmers' markets. Some specialty butchers and health food outlets also carry them. Bison, ostrich and venison will remain a niche market until people can accept the higher prices and limited availability. "When you don't cram animals into pens or feed them chemicals, your return is not the same. It takes longer to produce and the cost is higher but in the end it's worth it. We have to educate the public that this is a healthier alternative," commented Marie Pearsons of the Ontario Deer and Elk Farmers Association (ODEFA). It makes sense to go the slow route with meat. We've seen the results of rushed meat production. It hasn't been pretty.

homepage photo flickr/ktarbox