Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth the Money?

In the recent post about best and worst protein supplements, a reader asked me whether I thought grass-fed whey was worth the money, and I answered in the negative. There’s a larger question: is grass-fed beef worth the money? Grass-fed anything?

Why grass-fed whey protein is not worth extra money

Grass-fed animals, cows in this case, produce meat and milk that has a different fatty acid profile from animals that are grain-fed. In particular, omega-6 fatty acids are lower, and omega-3 fatty acids are higher; this is a much more beneficial fatty acid profile than from grain-fed animals.

So, if it’s more beneficial for health, what’s the problem with grass-fed whey? Whey has virtually no fat in it; it’s pure protein. You end up paying a lot of extra money for no benefit.

It’s a typical health food scam, IMO.

Grass-fed beef

Grass-fed beef, as noted above, contains lower levels of omega-6 fatty acids. These are the same types of polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils and that raise inflammation. An unbalanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 may lie behind many chronic diseases; our paleolithic ancestors may have had a 1: 1 ratio; in the modern world, we may have 15:1 or higher. Decreasing omega-6 fats is definitely a good thing.

So why do I question whether grain-fed beef, with lower omega-6 fatty acids, is worth it? Don’t we want to be healthy?

To answer that, check out the graph I made, below. It shows the content of omega-6 fats in grass-fed beef,  grain-fed beef, and chicken. Data are from Self Nutrition Data.

 

The type of beef used in the chart is ground, 70% lean, per 100 grams (just under 1/4 pound) of meat. Grass-fed beef has about 28% less omega-6 than grain-fed. Chicken has a whopping 6 to 7-fold more than either of them.

Now let’s look at omega-3 fats, the beneficial fat that most people don’t get enough of. For comparison, I’ve added salmon to the graph.

Grass-fed beef has more omega-3 than grain-fed, but it’s dwarfed by salmon.

What can we conclude from this?

If you eat chicken with any frequency, say once a week, grass-fed beef will not decrease the amount of omega-6 fats that you consume. The chicken in your diet will overwhelm any decrease in omega-6 from eating grass-fed beef.

If you eat any salmon at all – and this is generally true for eating any type of fatty fish – you would get a far greater amount of omega-3 fats than from grass-fed beef.

Using the Pareto principle, that 20% of the inputs yield 80% of the benefits, you’d be better off giving up chicken and eating salmon regularly, say once or twice a week. Furthermore, a teaspoon of cod liver oil has about 1000 mg of omega-3 fats; since I don’t eat fish regularly, I supplement with fish oil.

If you eat no chicken – and importantly, eat nothing made with vegetable oil – and you eat fish regularly, and you have a lot of cash, then go ahead and buy the grass-fed beef. Otherwise, as I’ve shown above, you’d be better off making the other changes I noted.

Eating grass-fed beef is like a man with a pot belly trying to improve his attractiveness by buying a sports car. While a sports car improves his attractiveness, he’d be better off getting rid of his belly first before he goes and blows a bunch of money on a car.

Hormones and Antibiotics

Added: Some people object (here and on Twitter) that grass-fed beef contains less or no antibiotics and hormones.

Regarding antibiotics: Antibiotic residue testing in meat results in few positive samples. Upshot: antibiotics are rapidly metabolized, and animals must go through a withdrawal period before slaughter. Unacceptable levels of antibiotics are found in less than 1% of inspected meat.

Regarding hormones, most foods have much larger amounts of estrogens than beef. See table below – link.

To my mind, the same principles apply as for fatty acids. The value added from a much more expensive product isn’t worth it, not to me anyway.

PS: Check out my books, Dumping Iron, Muscle Up, and Stop the Clock.

PPS: You can support this site by purchasing through my Supplements Buying Guide for Men.

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Leave a Comment:

55 comments
Matt N says February 13, 2017

Dennis – thanks for the article. I try to buy grass fed whenever possible, not for the omega 3:6 ratios, but to potentially avoid things in the grain fed meat like antibiotics, growth hormones, soy, etc. Do you think its worthwhile to buy grass fed to avoid things like those?

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    P. D. Mangan says February 13, 2017

    Hi Matt: those things are separate issues from grass vs grain fed. The fact that an animal is raised on grass doesn’t preclude it from being given antibiotics or hormones, though I imagine it would probably eat no soy. Furthermore, grain-fed meat appears to have little in the way of antibiotics. http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/antibiotic_residue_testing_in_meat_results_in_few_positive_samples

    Again, using the Pareto principle, I’d say you have to look at your overall intake to see whether buying grass-fed beef is worth it, and for sure, a lot of this is personal preference as to how you spend your money. I don’t feel like it’s enough health benefit to be worth it. Others may differ.

    Reply
Carole says February 13, 2017

If you DO eat chicken thighs and wings once or twice a week, (along with salmon once a week, and pork, lamb, shrimp, beef the rest of the time, but no vegetable oils.) what do you recommend to offset those Omega 6’s? More Krill oil? Thanks for another informative post

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    P. D. Mangan says February 13, 2017

    Hi Carole – appreciate it. What you described is pretty much how I eat. I’d rather eat less chicken, but it just keeps popping up on the menu; for instance, at my favorite Mexican place I order a whole grilled chicken. I figure I’m still doing way better health-wise than eating burritos. But eating less chicken and more beef/lamb would be a good thing; pork is somewhere in-between. The best thing is to lower omega-6 fats, second comes raising omega-3 (IMO); so I take a fish oil supplement, a teaspoon of cod liver oil in my case, a few times a week.

    Reply
Carole says February 13, 2017

Could you recommend the brand of fish oil and cod liver oil you take? And do you think fish oil is better, worse, equal to Krill oil? Thanks again for your helpful commentary.

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    P. D. Mangan says February 13, 2017

    Krill oil appears to be somewhat better; but as with grass-fed beef, whether it’s worth the money is another question. Also, I favor cod liver oil over capsules because capsules are stored at room temperature on the shelf and may deteriorate. Carlson’s Cod liver Oil is good, it’s on my supplements page. Store it in the fridge after opening.

    Reply
      Sarah Morrow says February 14, 2017

      I always keep all of my oils… krill oil, fish oil, cod liver oil, hemp oil… in the fridge, whether they oil is in capsules or in the bottle. (I’ve read arguments for not refrigerating supplements, but never noticed any real harm from doing so.) One benefit of using capsules is that, in theory at least, the capsule should protect the oil from exposure to air, and so slow the onset of rancidity.

      I wish there was a way to control how supplements have been stored before we receive them. Unfortunately I don’t know of one. I once bought a bottle of CoQ10 from Amazon… when it arrived, the capsules had melted down into a big plastic-like blob… they must have been stored in a hot warehouse in the summer months. I returned them of course, but it made me wonder about the storage history of other supplements I’d bought.

      Reply
bigmyc says February 13, 2017

All very interesting pieces of info..most of which I wasn’t aware of. However, if you had asked about the fatty acid profiles of these 3 disparate animals, I’d have said that salmon was the runaway winner, as I make a point to eat it regularly.

I would mention though, that there must be other great benefits to going “grass-fed.” As a matter of fact, the fatty acid profile of “grass fed” is fairly low on the list of reasons that I spring for it. Unless I have over estimated or else, have gotten bad intel regarding the quality of “grass fed,” I buy it for dearth of industrial elements that might otherwise be found in its meat; anti-biotics, petro-chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, administered growth hormones, etc…

I hope that this is the case though I admit that I am not positive. At the very least, I would expect that ancillary elements would be found to be “neglible” in grass fed meat.

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Chris K says February 13, 2017

Let’s not forget that grass fed beef, or lamb, just plain tastes better and has a more natural texture. I know that some like the marshmallow texture of corn-fed tenderloin, but slightly tougher steaks have more flavor. There’s also something to be said for buying from a local farmer instead of a supermarket that sells feed-lot beef. If you know the farmer you might believe him when he says he doesn’t use growth hormones or antibiotics. Plus it’s fun to chat with everyone at the farmer’s market. So even if the health benefit is small the social benefit is significant. And that connectedness may be a big factor in longevity.

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Narm says February 13, 2017

How confident are we that increased Omega 3 and reduced Omega 6 is the main nutritional benefit of grass fed vs. grain fed? I recall grass-fed beef having more nutrients since the cows are somewhat healthier.

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    P. D. Mangan says February 13, 2017

    The data I’ve seen indicate that nutrient content may be better, but the magnitude of the difference is similar to what I wrote about fats. And again, if you eat any other foods besides beef, you should take their nutrient content into account.

    Reply
nil says February 13, 2017

Whenever I eat grainfed I get severe stomach and joint pains for several days, but I can have all the grassfed beef in the world with no difficulties. So people with autoimmune disorders and/or chronic fatigue syndrome might want to try cutting grainfed beef out of their diet for a few months.

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    bigmyc says February 13, 2017

    Yes. “Grass fed” is just a superior product even if the numbers are marginally so. I believe that there are many beneficial “intangibles” like you mentioned by going with “grass fed.” It all part of the “safer than sorry” approach. I try not to eat much meat in general, red meat in particular. When I do, it’s usually to fortify training sessions or else as an occasional “luxury.” So, it just makes sense to go with the best.

    Reply
Brandon says February 13, 2017

Dennis, have been a reader of yours for a long time, don’t normally comment but I have a health question about protein blocking polyphenol absborbtion by binding to them that I have been unable to find a conclusive answer to and was wondering what your take on it is:

Basically, a long time ago while researching the health benefits of chocolate, I read that casein, a milk protein, binds to the polyphenols, thus if you want the health benefits of chocolate, you shouldn’t consume it with milk. I thought at the time that this was limited to just casein, but upon doing more research into this recently, it would appear that other proteins, such as soy etc. also bind to polyphenols, and quite lickely all protein has this effect.

I have found studies on both sides of this, saying for example that chocolate with milk loses the health benefits, but others saying that it doesn’t and similar conflicting results for coffee, and tea polyphenols with milk.

I read a comment on Longecity that said something to the effect of polyphenols bind to protein but that after they are digested, they are unbound and you thus get the health benefit, but I’m not sure if this is true.

http://www.longecity.org/forum/topic/58988-does-protein-interfere-with-the-absorption-of-dietary-phenols/
http://naturalsociety.com/dairy-antioxidants-nearly-useless/
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1750-3841.2007.00314.x/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

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    P. D. Mangan says February 13, 2017

    Hi Brandon, I have a reference in my iron book to the effect that adding milk to tea did not affect its iron-chelating capacity. Then there’s your 3rd reference which found similar with chocolate. My understanding about weak effects of milk chocolate is that it simply doesn’t have enough cocoa in it compared to dark chocolate. Nevertheless, i don’t want to be dogmatic here, as there are other studies as you point out that find dairy hinders polyphenol effects. My inclination is to think that there might be some effect but it’s not as strong as some people would have you believe.

    Reply
Scott says February 13, 2017

Terrific post.

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    P. D. Mangan says February 13, 2017

    Thanks, Scott.

    Reply
Robert says February 13, 2017

What about eggs? The Trader Joes eggs I always buy claimed to have 300mg omega 3s per serving. I always assumed that eating eggs is enough to get my RDV of O3, and is a much cheaper source than fish oil.

On further research, it looks like this may only be true for some brands of eggs.

I tend to buy chicken as my main protein source because its cheap and low fat. Im not against fat per se, but based on my research into phthalates and xenoestrogens, they accumulate primarily in the fat of animals. Grass fed cuts may have less chemical content, but buying lean cuts or trimming off fat may eliminate that fear. Supplementing with vitamin D3 may make up for the deficiency in factory raised animals.

Its beginning to look like the most cost effective means of getting protein and vitamins would be eating eggs, chicken, and supplementing with fish oil and D3. They now produce fish oil which contains the beneficial ingredient in krill oil.

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    P. D. Mangan says February 14, 2017

    Eggs are high in omega-6, low in o-3: 1148/74., according to Self Nutrition Data. A different site has free-range eggs at 70 mg o-3, no value for o-6.

    Reply
eah says February 14, 2017

Hello Dennis, many thanks for your work, and sorry to be OT, but I wanted to post this link:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-4221424/The-real-reason-Leah-2-stone-stomach-bacteria.html

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    P. D. Mangan says February 14, 2017

    No problem, eah, thanks for the link.

    Reply
Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth the Money? says February 14, 2017

[…] post Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth the Money? appeared first on Rogue Health and […]

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Bill Hankin says February 14, 2017

All salmon sold in Oz is raised in pens & fed intensively. This happens in other countries. I doubt that salmon raised this way has a high omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. Maybe wild caught salmon in the USA & Canada, yes..But not otherwise.

What do you think ?

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    P. D. Mangan says February 14, 2017

    Bill: Yes, that is the case for farm-raised salmon. Only wild-caught salmon has the favorable omega fatty acid ratio, quite analogous to grass vs grain-fed animals.

    PS: That’s one of those things I figured people knew, but obviously not, and I should have realized that.

    Reply
      Nick says February 15, 2017

      There may be farm-raised, and then farm-raised salmon though. The little woman & I eat as much salmon as we can (well til we get sick of it anyway), but here in the middle of Germany, good, fresh stuff is slim pickin’s compared to the luxurious amount of wild salmon we enjoyed when we lived in Oregon.

      Organic farmed salmon is presumably regulated differently in the EU than it is in the US. I don’t know if the organically farmed Atlantic salmon we eat once or twice a week here is fed with more fish- or plant-based feed, but even “conventionally farmed” Atlantic salmon still has a 25 : 9 Omega 3 : 6 ratio, from what I’ve seen. Nothing like wild Atlantic’s value of 13 : 1 though. (http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/finfish-and-shellfish-products/4102/2)

      Googling “Scottish organic salmon” reveals this, which says that UK organic salmon are limited in the amount of fish oil content in the feed, to better mimic natural feed & growth:
      http://www.glenarmorganicsalmon.com/organic
      Huh.

      I really miss the blessed wild Columbia River Chinook in any case. Copper River? Meh.

      Reply
        Nick says February 15, 2017

        Oh, I forgot to ask…what about cooking out the Omega acids? I’ve heard you should poach salmon, at best, to keep the temperature down low enough to preserve the Omegas. Best is raw. Cold-smoked would also be best.

        BS?

        Reply
          René says February 15, 2017

          Hi Nick,
          you can find excellent wild caught Salmon from Alaska or the Bering Sea at Aldi Nord. But its quite expensive. 150g packs for 3,79 €. I eat it raw, two times a week. Its the only place where I find wild caught and not farm-raised salmon.

          If you want another superb source of omega 3s, you can go to Edeka or Rewe. They have wild caught sardines in extra virgine olive oil for 2 Euros per can. All other discount markets I know, got them only in sunflower oil, so no alternative.

          Cheers René

          Reply
          Nick says February 16, 2017

          Thanks René. I had no idea Aldi would have wild salmon, especially at such a price. Is it fresh though, or frozen? We became spoiled by the quality of FRESH salmon in Oregon, and it’s very difficult for us to enjoy frozen salmon now. I will take a look, but we are in Aldi-Süd-land, not Nord. 😉

          Yes, I’ve been eating canned wild sardines for a few months now (olive oil, with bones & scales) since reading about it at http://www.burnfatnotsugar.com, which I learned about on this website — another thing to thank Mr. Mangan for.

          Reply
          René says February 16, 2017

          You`re welcome! Haha, I’ve also been eating these sardines after discovering the mentioned side by Ted Naiman. He did some great work, too!
          The wild caught salmon from Aldi Nord (I thing south has it also) is fresh. But it’s only the 150g packs of thin slices, that are wild caught. They ‘re by far the best in most “Testberichten”. But all other salmon from Aldi, the “thick” filet pieces or the frozen ones are all farm-raised.
          Here you can find a picture for your next shopping trip 🙂 But keep it for you. There`re already too many people buying this specific brand of salmon. The stock is often empty!

          http://www.supermarktcheck.de/product/183622-freihofer-gourmet-sockeye-wildlachs

          Cheers René

          Reply
      Bill says February 15, 2017

      Glad to get your response on this. In Australia effectively there are only farm raised salmon around. Salmon are not a native species and only thrive in Tasmania as an introduced one. All the salmon farms are in Tasmania but I’ve always stayed away from eating the fish because they are raised by the thousand in circular net cages ( 30 meters ) in the sea and fed by hand till ready to catch. Feed lot-ing at sea !

      Reply
David The Good says February 14, 2017

Great analysis. I had assumed grass-fed was worth it but couldn’t afford it most of the time. Now I see I did well saving more of my cash. Where we now live all the beef is grass-fed and cheap, so all is good.

On the estrogenic foods angle, is soy sauce a significant estrogen vector? I don’t eat anything with soy in it – not even mayo from the store – but I do add soy sauce to stir-fries. If that’s knocking my testosterone down, I would happily ditch it too.

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    P. D. Mangan says February 14, 2017

    Hey David – at the moment I don’t know but suspect it could be. I’m going to do some further research to write about this, so stay tuned.

    Reply
    Scooby says February 14, 2017

    Coconut Aminos sauce is a good paleo substitute for soy sauce. It’s a little sweeter, and not as salty, but works well with additional seasoning.

    Reply
Nick says February 14, 2017

What’s the deal with chicken? I assume that’s regular, industrially-raised chicken, not free range or organic. I’ll have to look into that, as we eat lots of organic turkey & chicken at home these days.

And what about organic vs. grass-fed vs. grain-fed?

My own personal crusade for organic and away from industrial meat production isn’t concern about antibiotics or hormones I might consume myself, but their landing in the ground water due to how they’re used. (No concern about hormones in meat for me here in Europe anyway, as it’s verboten.)

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    Nick says February 14, 2017

    Organic vs. grass-fed vs. grain-fed *beef*, that is. Sorry for lack of clarity there.

    Reply
    P. D. Mangan says February 14, 2017

    Birth control pills must be a much bigger source of hormonal contamination of water.

    Reply
Is Grass-fed Beef Worth the Money? - THE SURVIVAL GARDENER says February 14, 2017

[…] P. D. Mangan tackles that question: […]

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Scooby says February 14, 2017

Any data on pastured chicken vs factory farmed grain fed chicken? Does a more natural and varied diet improve the omega-6/omega-3 ratio for the meat? I know it greatly improves the eggs.

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    P. D. Mangan says February 14, 2017

    As far as I know, most of healthy aspects of pastured chickens come from more polyphenols in the eggs; you can see that by the difference in yolk color. And (AFAIK), pastured chickens almost always get grains too; it would be just too uneconomical if they didn’t. (If anyone has contrary info I’d be happy to hear it.)

    Reply
Deborah Gordon says February 14, 2017

I think it’s worth mentioning that while your argument is logical, it may not be the full picture: grass-fed cows, just like “ancestral-fed humans” may in general be healthier in ways that we don’t fully understand.

But my real point is that if you are concerned for the environment, you would want to do as much as possible to encourage that all cows be raised on grass and as much as possible, avoid products derived from CAFO raised cows.

Thanks.

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Joe says February 14, 2017

I would add pork to your charts to get a full set of common meats

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René says February 14, 2017

I am honored to see that my question about grass-fed whey made you produce such an excellent article! This is exactly what I was looking for. Thank you so much for doing such a great job!

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    P. D. Mangan says February 14, 2017

    Thanks, René, glad you liked it!

    Reply
Brian says February 14, 2017

Thanks for the article.
Like others here, I purchase grass fed, organic beef and pork. However, I purchase the animals and pick up ~ 1 years worth of meat for my family of 6. I like that I know the farmer and have a close relationship to the place where I purchase my meat. It’s also slightly comforting for me to know that the animals are raised on fields free of glyphosate. I know that the evidence around it is fairly inconclusive, but it’s just something that I’ve decided to avoid. The fats I don’t worry about. I know my diet is planned appropriately in that regard.

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Chris Beaver says February 15, 2017

Is the same thing true for grass fed butter?

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    P. D. Mangan says February 15, 2017

    Grass-fed butter has higher amounts of vitamin K and other nutrients, but butter has little in the way of polyunsaturated fat, so there’s no effect on omega-6/3 ratios.

    Reply
    bigmyc says February 15, 2017

    My 3 cents is that “grass fed” butter is simply a superior source of vitamins like K2 and beta carotene than industrially produced butter. You can see it in the deeper yellow-orange color whereas typical CAFO butter is quite pale. Furthermore, butter such as Kerrygold, is a great source of conjugated linoelic acids. I would imagine that any polyphenol numbers would also be much greater with the “grass fed” varieties.

    Reply
Drifter says February 19, 2017

Dennis or others, I am curious if you came across any information regarding beef liver. I haven’t found a source of grass fed liver so I’ve been having what I assume is CAFO liver once a week or so and I recently added pork liverwurst. I get calf liver whenever I can find it since I would assume if the build-up of bad stuff that is often claimed for liver would be less in a younger animal. Also, I’m curious if anyone knows a source of organic liver. I can order it from US Wellness meats for example but their minim is $75 which I don’t want to start with.

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    P. D. Mangan says February 19, 2017

    Drifter, afraid I don’t know a thing about that.

    Reply
Montgomery says February 20, 2017

A somewhat off-topic question:
Dealing with meats in this article, I wonder if pork meat is OK or sth. to avoid?
Pork sure seems to be the cheapest meat, and the most widely available.

I know that highly processed meats, including pork, are rather to be avoided, because they are
proven to increase cancer, especially colon cancer risk.

But what about non- or minimally processed pork meat?

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    P. D. Mangan says February 20, 2017

    Hi Montgomery – the fat content of pork in terms of types appears to be somewhere midway between beef and chicken. I do not avoid pork, as it’s cheap and tasty, and I eat it a few times a week; there’s nothing tastier for dinner than a huge pork roast. As for processed meat and cancer, I’m doubtful that this is real, and in any case it’s an association. Have you heard the story about the rats, bacon, and cancer? Rats eating a high-bacon diet got *less* cancer than others eating beef, chicken, or olive oil.

    Studies that “show” that processed meat causes cancer are hopelessly confounded by the healthy user effect. People who have eaten a lot of bacon over the past few decades are less health conscious, because the health-conscious people have been heeding warnings about saturated fat and meat. The non-health-conscious eat more sugar carbs, vegetable oils, are more overweight, smoke more, etc, and even when you try to adjust for those, you get a residual IQ effect among other things. Furthermore, even if true, the effect of processed meats that has been seen are small, such that daily eating of them would raise absolute lifetime risk of colon cancer from 5 to 6%. Also, keep in mind that processed meats like salami and prosciutto are staples of the very healthy Mediterranean diet.

    So, I eat pork, bacon, ham often and I do not worry about it.

    Reply
      Montgomery says February 20, 2017

      Thank you for this information.
      I now remember that the processed-meat scare was specifically about nitrosamines, which can be produced by adding nitrite as a preservative, and which have been shown to be carcinogenic;
      however, as you pointed out, if that influence was significant, then colon cancer rates should be much more clearly increased in heavy nitrite-added-meat eaters – which the data seems not to support at all.
      Also, the forming of nitrosamines can be suppressed by adding ascorbic acid to the meat, which is a regular ingredient in such foodstuffs (I just checked this reading dozens of food ingredient labels in the supermarket).

      This are good news!
      I will shop for pork regularly from now on – smoked sausages sure are a treat, and if I need not to worry for reasons of health, doubly so!

      Reply
Rick Duker says February 20, 2017

Good article thanks. I’m wondering if O3 is really much better than 06? Dr Ray Peat warns against all PUFAs regardless of source because they are unstable and inflammatory. He says the healthy fats are the saturated fats and MUFA to a lesser degree.

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Sam says February 26, 2017

A Jewish guy the other day commented elsewhere on diet that the Orthodox Jews consume a lot of basic supermarket type foods because they have so many kids and their health seems to be fine. This means nothing but it is a data point.

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