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Beef as a functional food

One of the perks of my job is the opportunity to attend professional meetings and learn about the work of other scientists. One of the more interesting sessions at the recent joint meeting of the American Society of Animal Science and Canadian Society of Animal Science was about functional foods of animal origin.

What is a functional food you ask? A functional food is one that contains a bioactive component that has a function in addition to nutrition (often related to health promotion or disease prevention). Some people like to use the term “super food” instead of functional food.

The functional food industry is experiencing rapid growth and beef production provides a unique opportunity to create functional food products for this market. Below are some quick examples of opportunities for functional beef food items:

  1. Naturally occurring biochemicals can be manipulated and concentrated by animal diet. Studies have suggested that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in certain types of fish, is beneficial for human heart health and brain function. DHA can also be obtained directly from algae (the source of DHA in fish diets).  Research has found that cattle diets can be manipulated by the addition of algal products to enhance the levels of DHA and other beneficial omega-3 fatty acids in beef. This is already being done in the egg industry (Eggland’s Best markets DHA enhanced eggs).

  2. Bioactive compounds can be concentrated during the processing of foods to create a more functional final product. An example of this would be purified creatine supplements made from skeletal muscle sources.

  3. Bioactive components can also be added during the processing of foodstuffs. An example would be probiotic meat preservation. Probiotic microorganisms can be added during the processing of beef sausage. These would then enhance the sausage and provide benefit to humans eating the final product.

  4. Removal of a negative trait that impedes the bioactive properties of a product is also a way to create functional foods. There have been many studies on use of feed additives such as ractopamine, vitamin D and oregano oil (to just name a few) to increase meat tenderness and thus consumer acceptance.

Some of the down sides to the concept of beef and beef products as functional foods is that the beneficial claims often must be inferred because they cannot yet be substantiated. Even if they can be substantiated, the costs associated with the trials needed for FDA approval can be prohibitive. Also, unless products are effectively branded and marketed, it is hard to capture the additional production costs and make these items profitable for all in the production chain.

In summary, the idea of beef and beef products as functional foods for humans and pets is an exciting and ever-growing prospect. Beef production offers many opportunities in this growing industry. However, economic incentives are needed before we will see widespread adoption.