There are few foods more indigenous to the North American Great Plains than bison, sometimes erroneously referred to as buffalo. While the iconic animal reached near-extinction in the late 1800s as European settlers moved westward, the remaining herds were rescued just in time and have achieved a remarkable comeback both in Canada and the U.S. Today bison meat is slowly but surely making its way into the mainstream, and for good reason when one considers its outstanding health characteristics.
Many Canadians have never tasted bison since it was not readily available until recently. Today it is on the menu of some restaurants as something of an exotic item, and is making its way into homes where folks are seeking a lower-fat alternative to beef. The biggest hurdle for gaining public interest in including bison meat in the regular diet is consumer notion that the meat will taste tough and gamey. However, if cooked properly, many people would not be able to tell the difference from beef, although some say it is richer-tasting and more flavourful. The second hurdle is cost – because bison is more expensive than beef, purchasing it for the first time is abit of a risk.
Keep cholesterol in check
The reason why some consumers buy bison for the first time and cook it at home is because their physician has recommended a “low-fat” diet to keep serum cholesterol in check or to lose weight. While red meat such as beef is a healthy food, providing high quality protein and several essential vitamins and minerals, in particular vitamin B12 and iron, not found in many other foods, it is high in fat. Bison meat is also red meat and thus has similar nutrients to offer as beef, but there are a few significant differences and one of them is fat content.
Bison is naturally much leaner than beef, the difference depending in part on what the animals eat. Grass-fed bison (which is common) has less than one-quarter of total fat found in grain-fed beef, and also less fat than grass-fed beef. In general, a three-ounce serving of ground bison contains 7 grams of fat while the average (medium fat) traditional beef burger contains 13 grams of fat (some sources go even higher). Less fat means fewer calories.
It’s also important to analyze and compare the type or make-up of the fat. Bison graze on grass and hay for most or all of their lives which creates body fat with lower level of saturated fat and a high level of omega-3 fatty acids which is passed on to the consumer. Saturated fat is implicated in causing cardiovascular problems while eating a diet high in omega-3 may reduce your risk of serious health conditions such as certain types of cancer and chronic inflammation as well as help lower cholesterol levels. Some ranchers finish bison with grain which adds some fat, but it should be noted that in bison, fat is right under the skin which means it can be more easily trimmed away than if is marbled like beef.
Important for muscle growth
All meat is an excellent source of protein, important for muscle growth, and crucial for the health of skin, nails and tissues. It also supports the production of hemoglobin and is vital for optimum energy. A three-ounce serving of bison supplies about 21 grams of protein compared to about 15 grams for beef, and that with less fat.
Bison is a healthy source of iron, selenium, copper and zinc (as beef is), all of which promote formation of red blood cells and work to mitigate damage by free radicals. Although bison and other meats have a definite place in a nutritious diet, red meat of any type should be limited to less than 18 ounces a week, since the incidence of colon cancer rises with a higher red meat intake.
The maxim for cooking lean meat such as bison is “low and slow” to keep it from drying out. Your best bet for less tender cuts such as chuck for example (both for bison and beef) is a slow moist heat. Ground bison may be substituted for ground beef in most recipes – and although you want it well done in this case, use moderate heat.
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