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Grass-fed lamb shown to be heart-healthy meat

A favourite pastoral scene for most of us, no doubt, is a grassy meadow with a flock of grazing sheep and lambs frolicking in the sun. Rarely do Canadians think of including sheep or lamb in their diet although for millions of people around the world, the meat appears commonly on supper tables. This may be largely due to traditional and historical reasons, but the question that one needs to ask is, are we missing out on a tasty and nutritious food simply because it is unfamiliar? Is it time to start including this meat in our regular diet?

Most Canadians likely feel they do not need another choice in feeding their families—not with beef, pork and poultry in abundance, much of it locally raised and processed. Some may have tasted lamb or mutton and not been impressed, happy to leave the eating of this pastoral animal to folks in English novels. Both of these reasons need further exploration to assess their validity.

I find that when people say they have eaten “lamb” and found it less than desirable in taste and texture (described most often as “tough and chewy”), it is actually mutton they ingested. Mutton—that is meat from a mature sheep—is an acquired taste and should probably not be fed to a novice. Lamb, on the other hand, is meat from young sheep less than one year old, usually tender and fine-textured. It is available in five different cuts with loin chops and rack of lamb (rib cut) the most popular.

Consumer demand

Because consumer demand for lamb has not been very persistent in Canada, supermarkets often do not offer the freshest meat or a wide variety of cuts. However, we are fortunate to have a number of small sheep farmers on the prairies who offer excellent grass-fed lamb meat. Sheep are mostly raised for wool—which was the main reason why they were imported into North American in the early 16th century when wool fleeces were highly prized for their warmth. While the demand for wool has dropped off drastically since the invention of synthetic fibres, there is still a small market for it among home crafters. A wonderful by-product is lamb meat.

Studies have shown that grass-fed lamb is slightly superior in nutrient content to feedlot raised lamb and there are several common sense reasons for this. It is a fact that meat from livestock will reflect the nutrient content of what they have fed on. Ruminants such as sheep and domestic cattle are born to eat and digest grass—sometimes a challenge on the prairies which does not allow livestock to graze for half the year. In winter they need a barn for shelter and are fed hay, perhaps supplemented by grains such as corn, barley and/or wheat.

However, from spring to fall lambs may move around a large field—being active most of the day building muscle and burning calories. It makes sense that the meat would be lower in fat—a minimum of 15 percent lower studies have shown—than meat from conventionally fed livestock. Lamb meat is not marbled (fat running through) as is beef which means it is not as juicy, but it also means that the fat can be cut away more easily since it occurs around the outside.

Omega-3 content

Still on the subject of fat, it appears lamb provides a significant amount of omega-3 fats with grass-fed meat higher in this heart-healthy fat than conventionally-fed lamb. It seems that while the omega-3 content of lamb is about half that of cod or tuna, this is still substantial, particularly important in regions without ready access to fish. Lamb is also a good source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a “specialized” type of omega-6 fatty acid associated with improved immune and inflammatory function, improved sugar regulation and improved bone mass. It should also be noted the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in lamb is such that lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease.

It would be amiss not to mention that lamb is a good source of the minerals selenium and zinc, both antioxidants, a protective factor against oxidative stress and development of heart disease. It also provides important amounts of a range of B vitamins—with vitamins B6, B12, folate and choline important for healthy metabolism of homocysteine (high levels are a factor in cardiovascular disease) and other B vitamins which help support metabolism of foods.

Certainly another good reason to include lamb at least on occasion in your meal plan is simply to diversify your diet. Ground lamb makes delicious burgers, a nice change from regular ground beef burgers. The hearty flavour of lamb combined with onions, carrots and green beans makes a robust stew, while bite-sized pieces of lamb on skewers are perfect as kabobs in a Mediterranean-themed meal. Any lamb can be served with a sauce made by stirring together plain yogurt, mint leaves, garlic and a pinch of cayenne.