I have come to rely on lean protein as a cornerstone of my diet: I count on modest portions of beef and pork tenderloin, roasted whole chicken and grilled chicken thighs to keep me feeling full without bogging me down with lots of fat or calories.
I also eat fish, which though not lean contains healthful fats. I’d love to add more meats to that rotation, however. And there’s a whole class of food I hadn’t considered: game.
Game gets kind of a bad rap. Some people object to the idea of hunting deer, rabbits, waterfowl or other game creatures. Others hate the “gamey” taste. But the locavore movement, paired with a poor economy, has led some folks to embrace hunting as a way of procuring local, healthful and inexpensive meat. And if hunting’s not for you, you can always buy farm-raised game at a store or order it from afar.
If you’re new to the game game, here are some facts that might interest you:
- It’s more lean. Game animals, even those raised on ranches, usually get more exercise than farmed domestic animals. That makes their meat leaner, lower in total fat and saturated fat and in calories, compared with much domestic meat. However, most game has about the same amount of cholesterol as domestic meat (though bison, poultry and wild fowl have less, and venison has more), says Melina Jampolis, a San Francisco-based physician and nutritionist. Increased muscle activity also makes game meat darker; older animals’ meat is generally darker than younger animals’, too, and it tastes a bit stronger.
- Deer meat is especially lean. The fat in venison is stored right under the skin, not marbled into the muscle (which is the meat we eat). Because the fat doesn’t taste very good, hunters and butchers usually remove as much of it as they can, says West Virginia hunting instructor Jackson Landers. That makes the already lean meat even leaner. Cooking methods such as marinating and braising aim to boost flavor (which fat imparts to other meats such as beef steaks) and break down muscle fiber so the meat’s moist and tender.
- It has key vitamins and nutrients. Because hunted game animals and some farmed game have a more varied diet (often grass-based) than typical farm animals such as cows, they usually have more omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory benefits. However, fatty fish such as salmon are better sources of omega-3 fatty acids than game meat is, Jampolis says. Venison and some other game meats are also rich in iron and B vitamins.
- It’s drug-free. Hunted game is free of added hormones and antibiotics. Hormones aren’t used in farm-raised game, but the animals may be given antibiotics. Before the creatures are slaughtered, they have to have been off the antibiotic for at least five days to make sure there’s no residual medicine in the meat on your plate.
- -Some is organic, some isn’t. Hunted game is organic, but there’s no way to officially label it as such. On the other hand, farmed game can be called organic if it’s raised under conditions outlined by the Department of Agriculture. Look for the USDA’s “organic” label, which some organic meats carry.
- It can be red or white. The USDA considers game birds white meat, though their breast meat is darker than that of domestic chicken and turkey. That’s because, unlike those farmed birds, game birds fly. The breast muscles need extra oxygen to do that work, and that oxygen is delivered by red blood cells. The USDA categorizes game mammals as red meat. A protein called myoglobin holds oxygen in the animals’ muscles and makes their meat darker in color.
- Safe cooking is crucial. Cooking game meat requires the same care as cooking any other meat. Home cooks should use separate knives and cutting boards for meat and clean those tools before and after using them to cut game. Meat should be kept cold (below 40 degrees) and cooked until its internal temperature is at least 160 degrees. Much game benefits from long cooking, which promotes tenderness. For more on safe handling, see a guide on the Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Web site (www.fsis.usda.gov, search “Game From Farm to Table”). Cooked game meat can remain pink even after it has reached that safe temperature, according to the agency, which is part of the USDA.
- -It can be really cheap. Nick Chaset, a graduate student at Georgetown University and founder of the Bull Moose Hunting Society, says he can get 50 to 70 pounds of meat from a deer he hunts; calculating the cost of licenses, equipment and butchering, he says that meat ends up costing $1.25 to $1.50 a pound. Compare that with grass-fed, organic beef, he suggests, which can cost $10 a pound or more. However, it’s illegal to sell meat you’ve hunted, so if you want to realize this cost savings, you’ll have to take up hunting or make friends with a hunter.
- It can be really expensive. Store-bought packages can cost upwards – sometimes way upwards – of $15 a pound. You can find fresh or frozen varieties in grocery stores; bison, in particular, has become a popular low-fat choice in the meat case.