The complex science of fatty acids

This is a guest post by Registered Dietitian Karine.

Last week, following my blog post about fat in beef, we got a great question about omega fatty acids in grain versus grass finished beef: 

 “Could you please also talk about the balance of omega fatty acids? ie: the difference between grain fed feedlot beef and grass-finished beef. This is an incredibly important factor that you have overlooked in this article. Regarding nutrition, this is clearly an important aspect.”

 For those of you new to the science of beef fat, let me begin with a quick overview that will help put the composition of beef fat into perspective. 

First of all, as the question above suggests, the fat in beef is not all saturated.  This is often surprising to people, but the fact is that less than half – only about 43% – of the fat in Canadian beef is saturated, and most of the other half (about 49%) is monounsaturated fat, with the majority of that being oleic acid – the same type found in olive oil. 

 A visual of all this fat business can be found here.

To further complicate matters, it is not technically correct to consider all saturated or unsaturated fats are created equal.  In actuality, there are many types of fats in each of these categories, and each has unique properties.   For e.g., the saturated fats in beef are made up of a mix of different types of fatty acids – palmitic, stearic, myristic, and several others.  As mentioned earlier, oleic acid, an omega–9 fatty acid, is the main type of monounsaturated fat found in beef, but there are also others present in smaller amounts.  I hope even if this information is a bit tricky to follow, it at least shows there is more to fat than meets the eye.

 If about 43% is saturated and 49% monounsaturated, what does this mean about the 8 or so other percent?  It is in this 8 percent that we find the ‘omega-3’ fats referenced in our question above.

As far as fat composition is concerned, studies show fat from grass finished beef typically does contain a higher proportion of omega-3 fat.  But it is important to remember we are talking about very small amounts of omega-3 to begin with – around 1 – 2 g per 100 g of fat (since trimmed beef typically has less than 10g of fat / 100g of meat, that’s a small amount of omega-3).  The only way to consume significant amounts of omega-3 from grass fed beef would be to consume omega-3 enhanced ground beef or eat increased amount of beef fat (not an ideal solution).

Another tricky part to our omega-3 question is that, like the saturated fats described above, not all omega-3’s are created equal.  From a human health perspective, the best omega-3’s are DHA and EPA, the kind found in fish.  In beef however, whether grass or grain finished, most of the omega-3 is in the “ALA” form (the form found in flax and walnuts).  The problem with ALA is humans convert only tiny amounts of this to the form needed in the body – ie. to EPA or DHA.  So, not only do we start off with small amounts of omega-3, but much of it is not converted to the omega-3 form we most require.

I believe in and recommend including Canadian beef as part of a healthy diet.  But it’s important to remember no one food is the panacea of all nutrients.  Beef should be consumed and valued for its high quality protein, content of zinc, iron, selenium, B-vitamins and so forth.  Beef is lean when trimmed, satiating (fills you up with high quality nutrients for very few calories), delicious and fits into a heart healthy diet.  But all that is not to say we shouldn’t all be eating fish as well, specifically for fish’s unique package of nutrients.  Healthy eating is truly a matter of balance and moderation. 

So what’s the bottom line here? …  I have a couple of thoughts.  As Canadians, we are lucky to have a variety of choices in the marketplace when it comes to beef.  No matter what type of beef suits your preferences, we’re fortunate to have a wide variety of nutritious, convenient and safe Canadian beef options to choose from.  We encourage you to make your own decisions about what foods you eat for health, but remember that variety and moderation are key! 

Surf and Turf anyone?

About Karine:

Karine is a Registered Dietitian with BIC, passionate foodie and world traveler.  Beef, of course, is a favourite food in her home – providing nourishing and nurturing meals for her hubby, growing 5 year old and the friends and other family they often entertain.  There are not many conversations, either at work or at home, that don’t weave their way back somehow to food, recipes, nutrition, or beef.  “Is “beef” all you talk about at work?”, Karine’s son recently asked.  Karine proudly responded “yes”…

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4 thoughts on “The complex science of fatty acids

  1. Pingback: May is Mediterranean Diet Month… Bring it on! « Beefinfo's Blog

  2. Pingback: #CanadianBeef and Eggs – An Unbeatable Combo #recipe | mbamamamusings

  3. Pingback: Beef is FULL of {good} surprises! | Beef Blog: A blog about Canadian Beef

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