Without taking a look at the nutritional information panel on any package of your favorite food in the supermarket, it can be tough to make an educated guess about the amount of vitamins and minerals it contains. Overall, two products can look very similar, but the differences in nutrition levels can be dramatic.
Thanks to cutting-edge research led by the Bionutrient Food Association and supported by the Hormel Foods brand Applegate, consumers may soon have more information about the nutritional density of the meat they buy and feed their families.
Our goal at Applegate is to invest in people and planet and scale sustainable systems, like regenerative ranching, so that these products will be available to a broad segment of the population.Carolyn Gahn, Senior Director of Mission and Advocacy, Applegate
The interconnectedness of soil health, plant diversity, regenerative farming practices and animal well-being have been central to Applegate’s philosophy from the company’s founding. “The ultimate hypothesis is that when you take care of the land and the soil, you get healthier plants which feed healthier animals,” says Carolyn Gahn, senior director of mission and advocacy for Applegate. “Put all those things together, and the result should be a healthier product for humans to consume.”
Applegate is helping to drive scientific research into some critical questions: What ranching practices create the most-nutrient-dense meat? How does eating more-nutrient-dense meat impact the mental and physical health of humans?
It’s intuitive that the nutrient density of meat is connected to the characteristics of the environment where it was raised. Nevertheless, understanding precisely how different practices impact the nutritional value of meat is a complex scientific question.
“Our goal at Applegate is to invest in people and planet and scale sustainable systems, like regenerative ranching, so that these products will be available to a broad segment of the population,” Gahn says. “Meat raised regeneratively should be on everybody’s plate.”
Rooted in Research
Research has established clear evidence that meat from grass-fed cattle has better ratios of healthy omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. It also has higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid, a healthy fat that reduces cardiovascular risk, lowers cholesterol, and may even diminish cancer risk.
Much remains to be understood about how best to increase concentrations of all micronutrients like potassium, iron, folate, selenium and zinc. Because farm animals are raised with a wide variety of methods around the world in vastly different climates and ecosystems, it’s not a simple question. In the pursuit of answers, Applegate is working with the Bionutrient Food Association, prominent university laboratories, and The Hormel Institute, among others.
Dan Kittredge, founder of the Bionutrient Food Association, believes healthy meat starts with healthy soil. Billions of microscopic organisms, including fungi and bacteria, play a critical role in making nutrients available to plants, breaking down organic matter, and maintaining soil structure. That ecological foundation begins a chain of nutritional benefits, reaching up to the meat on our plates.
The Bionutrient Food Association’s scientists and their research partners have collected thousands of samples of soil, crops and meat from hundreds of farms across multiple continents. The goal is to correlate soil health with crop nutrient variations and nutrient density in meat produced using those crops. The research has shown significant variations between crops and meat samples, and those variations were strongly connected to soil health. In a striking parallel to the human gut biome, soil health relies on a flourishing ecosystem of beneficial bacteria, fungi and microorganisms. These microorganisms are the architects of soil, fortifying its structure and enhancing water retention. As plants thrive in such soil, they acquire increased nutrient density, resilience against drought, and a formidable defense against pests.
“What we are finding is that the more vital the microbiome — the more life in the soil — the better for crops and animals,” Kittredge says. “Dozens of factors can damage the soil microbiome, including droughts, chemicals, pH balance and a lack of aeration or plant diversity. Creating nutrient-dense food is really about managing the entire ecosystem so that life is functioning, but it begins with soil health.”
Currently, assessing what nutrients are in meat requires equipment and instruments usually reserved for scientific labs. Kittredge and his research partners hope to help create an inexpensive test that can be used by manufacturers to quickly assess the health value of meat products and pass that knowledge on to consumers. Creating a market of informed consumers who are seeking out nutrient density in meat, he believes, will help incentivize farmers to adopt practices that promote soil health.
Promoting Regenerative Agriculture
Scaling regenerative agriculture practices is one of the goals set by Hormel Foods in its 20 By 30 Challenge, a series of environmental and social goals to achieve by 2030. Applegate has long been an industry leader in helping consumers understand and appreciate the connection between sustainable agriculture and nutrition. In particular, Applegate has supported regenerative ranchers throughout the world. Regenerative agriculture refers to a set of ranching practices that help restore the natural balance between livestock and their ecosystems. Cattle, often underestimated contributors to soil health, play an indispensable role. Their hooves aerate the soil improving water retention, while fresh manure fosters both biodiversity and vibrant microbial communities. Regenerative ranchers employ careful grazing strategies mirroring natural wildlife patterns to ensure the land becomes richer over time. Another common technique in regenerative agriculture is no-till land management. Farmers sow their crops without plowing the soil, allowing natural soil processes to proceed while organic matter accumulates on the topsoil.
The goal is a holistic approach where healthy soils promote robust plant growth, which can support diverse diets for livestock. This diversity in diet can further enhance the range of nutrients the animals ingest, resulting in even more-nutrient-rich meat.
Health Importance of Meat
The value of meat to the human diet has been extensively studied. Meat protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients. It has been shown to increase leptin sensitivity, induce weight loss, and promote the body’s ability to control blood sugar. In addition, meat also provides many nutrients that are not available or not easily absorbed from a plant-only diet. Antioxidants in meat, such as flavonoids and carotenoids, play a vital role in cellular protection and preventing cancer-related cell damage.
The importance of meat in our diet holds across all stages of life. In infants, studies have found that animal protein helps maintain a healthy iron level in the bloodstream. In adolescents, zinc, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids — nutrients and minerals that are found in meat — are critical for building muscle and skeletal health. Even for adults, the satiating effects of meat reduce the likelihood of snacking between meals, leading to a more even blood sugar level.
Researchers have also uncovered considerable cognitive benefits for eating nutrient-rich meat. One multiyear study compared two groups of children who ate the same number of calories per day. One group consumed more of those calories from meat. The children in this group not only had an 80% increase in muscle mass, but they experienced a significant improvement in cognitive function, their math and language test scores improving dramatically. The researchers could see the difference simply by watching the children at school. Those with the added meat were more talkative, more playful and showed more leadership skills.
As researchers learn more about the physical and cognitive benefits of eating nutrient-rich meat at every stage of life, Hormel Foods and Applegate remain devoted to supporting regenerative agriculture as a way to offer sustainable, healthy and delicious food. Whatever the health benefits prove to be, both companies believe they should be available to all.