Wild for Game Meats
What you should know about this healthy, sustainable alternative
More and more of us are getting our game on these days as the popularity and availability of game meats like venison, elk, bison, duck, pheasant, and quail grows. Known today as “field to table” eating, game meat is hardly new, having sustained humans for thousands of years. A healthy, sustainable, and increasingly fashionable choice, game meats are gaining momentum as an alternative solution in improving today’s diet.
Wild vs. farmed
Wild game meat refers to meat that a hunter has legally hunted or trapped. Game meat refers to wild animals and birds that may have been raised on ranches or farms and are sold in restaurants and markets. Ranch-raised game, such as bison or elk, are able to freely roam and eat on a spacious area of land, while farm-raised game lives in smaller, more confined outdoor areas and, unless they are grass-fed, feed on grains, such as corn or alfalfa.
Due to higher activity levels and a completely natural diet, wild game has more lean muscle than their farm-raised counterparts and domestically raised animals, such as beef and chicken. Wild game is also usually lower in saturated fat than farmed game and domestic animals. This difference in activity and diet affects the flavor, giving wild game and game meats a stronger, “gamey” flavor.
Research supports the health benefits of moving toward a more plant-based diet and reducing the amount of red and processed meats consumed. Studies show that despite recommendations to limit weekly intake of red and processed meat to no more than 500 grams (about one 3- to 4-ounce serving), red meat intake in America, Europe and Latin America, is 300% to 600% higher than these levels. Game meats may provide a healthier alternative.
“If you eat game meat, either farm-raised or hunted, it can be beneficial to your long-term health to consume mainly lean or low-fat meats,” says Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Because wild game meats tend to be leaner than farm-raised, Bruning says eating them means you’re getting a higher percentage of protein and a lower amount of both total and saturated fat, which can be helpful for people looking to keep their cholesterol levels in check. “There can also be higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in game meats vs. farm raised, depending on the diet of the animal,” says Bruning. “Omega-3s are considered cardioprotective and are lacking in the diets of many Americans.”
Game meats may be a more sustainable choice when the animals are living in their native environment, yet, according to Bruning, “a number of game animals from several types of fish to deer are actually introduced or invasive species in their ecosystems. Management of these introduced or invasive species is important for the protection of the ecosystems in which they live. States regulate the number of permits given out per hunting season to help manage the numbers of various game animals so that they can be part of the balance of the ecosystem in which they live.” She also notes that with certain feeding and grazing practices, farmed domestic meats can contribute to sustainability. Some animals are treated with growth hormones, antibiotics and other additives to grow them bigger, fatter and quicker, which is often the case with farm-raised domestic animals; but wild game and farm-raised game animals are not. For people who prefer their meats to be raised organically without the use of such additives, game meats are an option.
As with domestically raised meats, game meats are inspected by either the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Game meats purchased through retail sale are rarely hunted, rather, they are raised by wild game meat farmers who do so within state regulations and are subject to frequent inspections to ensure proper handling and packaging. To be truly wild, game meat must come directly from a reputable hunter who follows state guidelines on proper butchering and refrigeration.
Depending on where you live and whether you are a hunter, or know one, or are looking to purchase wild game meat, access may be limited. “Like domestically raised meats, it’s possible to get sick from improperly handled or processed game meats,” says Bruning. “There are certain pathogens that certain wild game may carry that humans should be careful of,” she says. Cooking to a safe internal temperature is a good way to ensure food safety.
As with any meat, learning about the different cuts and what cooking methods and dishes for which they’re best suited gets better results. Because they are lean, game meats cook more quickly, so rely on a thermometer to avoid tough, overcooked meat. Soaking in saltwater or milk overnight and using marinades are commonly recommended to both soften the meat and tame gamey flavor. “As some recipes call for adding fat for these reasons as well, certain fats, like olive oil, used in moderation, can help make meat more tender, without adding in the saturated fats that you’ve avoided by choosing game meats in the first place,” says Bruning.
Game meat, both wild and farm-raised, can play a part in an overall healthy diet, offering a meat alternative that is lean, sustainable, and a novel addition to jazz up the menu.
Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)
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