Friday, May 1, 2009

Low Stress Food Tastes Better

When a tree suffers stress, you can see it in its rings. Whether drought, disease, or fire, times of stress are permanently etched and visible to the naked eye.

Have you ever thought to think the same might happen to our food?

It does.

Stress can permanently, and negatively, influence the taste and texture of our food and in particular, meat. As stress leaves its mark in trees, stress in cattle leaves the meat darker colored, dry, and mushy.

Why don't we know this?

I think part of the problem is that many, including great people like Michael Pollan, have tried to inspire people to make ethical food choices by focusing on the absence of the negatives. Put another way, we've focused on what's NOT in the beef: no antibiotics, no growth hormones, no corn, no CAFO.

Others have focused on the negative impact that industrial agriculture has had on the small family farm or the environment. Finally, much of the conversation around humane treatment has centered on philosophical arguments or man's moral obligation to treat less intelligent, sensient beings with care.

A lot of people say they care about humane treatment of livestock but let's be honest, not many act upon it. The BSE scare and a widely aired, brutal video of "downer" cows didn't materially impact the sales of hamburger meat. Is this because we North Americans are so disassociated from the source of our food that we don't connect-the-dots? Or is it just too troubling to remember that meat comes from animals?

I don't know the answer to this but what I do know is that when I tell people that low-stress conditions lead to better tasting, more tender and juicy beef, they sit up and pay very close attention. In every single artisan steak tasting I host, the questions from the audience invariably focus on this very topic.

I think it is a life-changing moment for many to discover that humane handling isn't just a feel-good thing. Whenever I'm tempted by that supermarket special - Prime Rib Roast, $5.99/lb! - I tell myself, why risk wasting your money and your moral standards, and I do my very best to walk away.

If you have friends who want to do the right thing but are still on the fence, do them a favor, let them know too, that low-stress food tastes better.

And if you like this post (or even if you don't), may I strongly encourage you to pay a visit to Food Renegade and read other posts, like mine, that are part of Kristen's Fight Back Friday carnival. Let's take control of our food!


Diana said...

Great post Carrie! Because of seeing how horribly animals were treated on Dirty Jobs, and reading your blog, my husband and I haven't bought any chicken or beef in the grocery store for a couple months. We've been using what's in our freezer sparingly and saving up to be able to buy some grass fed, humanely treated beef.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent point, and one reason why slaughter conditions are so important too.

Thanks for sharing this for Fight Back Fridays.

All the best,
(AKA FoodRenegade)

Lorraine said...


Humane treatment of farm animals is my #1 concern when buying meat.

Slippery language and lack of regulation has convinced me that "natural" "organic" and even "grassfed" mean very little. My feeling is the only way you know the animals are raised humanely is to know--and trust--the farmer from whom you buy.

It cook me two years to find a New York farmer who raised pastured, grassfed meat. (Sap Bush Hollow Farm)

During that time I ate less and less meat and finally--none.

Now I am delighted to pay a higher price with the assurance that the meat my family eats comes from animals that grazed freely and met as swift and painless an end as possible.

Carrie Oliver said...

All: I should have noted in my original post that stress is not just an issue at slaughter. It can be inborn (some cattle are more naturally uptight), come from nature (rapid changes in weather) or be introduced by man (farmer, trucker, etc.).

One of the more interesting things I learned was that cattle need to continuously gain weight or at least maintain it. Losing weight can result in less tender meat (it's stressful). I will invite an expert to explain why in more detail.

Diana, Thank you! I haven't seen Dirty Jobs, sounds like I should take a look? I haven't found a great source of grass-fed (grass only) beef in our area but we do have a few good options for grain-finished beef. What's nice is to see some of these producers start to experiment with grass-finishing.

Food Renegade, I'm heading to your site now to go read some more of your Carnival posts.

Lorraine, how great that you found a source of beef that you enjoy and trust. I am with you on the confusing terminology. I think the answer is to ask growers and sellers to be more transparent about their respective practices. We all draw the line in a different place. Buying meat that's been raised without growth stimulants is a good start but it sounds like you're like me, you want to know more.

Eagranie said...

Thank you for this post, and for the reminder that a great deal at the grocery store is not what it seems. I think people forget what good meat actually tastes like because they get so used to eating cheap meat. Just the thought of it sends shivers down my back. As Diana says, it's worth waiting for the good stuff, even if you have to go without it for a while.