Feeding cattle flaxseed or marine algae can raise the omega-3 fatty acid levels in ground beef from 30 milligrams per serving to 200 milligrams per serving, as Kansas State University researchers have found. But do higher levels of omega-3s make red meat significantly healthier?
Not according to Kim Larson, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The attempt to make beef look like an important source of omega-3s is essentially a marketing ploy, she said. And despite the fatty acid's reputation as a health food, the nutrition community isn't even aligned on the healthfulness of omega-3s.
On one hand, omega-3s provide anti-inflammatory and anti-blood clotting effects, and can reduce the risk of diabetes, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, asthma and inflammatory bowel syndrome, according to the National Library of Medicine. In high doses, however, omega-3s have been linked to prostate cancer, according to a large-scale study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2013.
It's important to note that not all omega-3s are created equal. One type, alpha-linolenic acid, is plant-based, while two other acid types, eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic, are primarily found in fish like salmon.
"I would caution anyone from depending on flaxseed-fortified beef to get their DHA instead of eating fish," Larson said. "Very little of the ALA we consume is converted to DHA."
In other words, eating flaxseed-fed cattle might give you omega-3s, but they won't necessarily be the same type of omega-3s you get from eating fish. Plus, science is on salmon's side. "The most researched health benefits come from these two omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, not ALA," she said.
Then there's the issue of quantity. Lots of foods have omega-3s naturally -- dark green leafy vegetables, the aforementioned flaxseeds, walnuts and cold-water fish -- but some have more than others. Salmon, in particular, is an excellent source of omega-3s, clocking in at 2,000 milligrams per 5-ounce serving, according to the Associated Press. That's 10 times the level of omega-3 fatty acids in enriched beef, and leads to the question: If you're trying to get more omega-3s, why pay for enriched beef when you can just eat salmon?
Proponents of enriched beef argue that consumers enjoy red meat, and that tweaking beef's nutritional profile is an effortless way to make healthier what people are already eating. But detractors like Larson say that giving enriched beef a health halo is unnecessary.
"Beef is a source of important nutrients," Larson said, noting that if beef is lean, prepared in a low-fat, healthy way and and kept to a reasonable 3- to 4-ounce serving, it can be a regular part of a healthy diet. In her mind, beef doesn't need to be marketed with trumped-up health benefits it doesn't have.
And in large quantities, red meat is anything but a health food. High red meat intake is associated with cancer, cardiovascular and overall morality, according to a 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, and the latest nutrition research seems to agree. The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture's 2015 dietary guidelines recommend that Americans strive to limit their red and processed meat intake in favor of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes and nuts.