butcher in slaughterhouse with knives in hand

Is Meat Bad For You? Antioxidants In Meat vs. Vegetables

[toc]We occasionally receive emails or comments questioning why we rarely cover meats or animal-based superfoods.

Does meat have antioxidants? Wild caught salmon, lean turkey, grass-fed beef, and organic free-range chicken surely must, right?

Not really.

The first response we get to such an answer is typically defensive, but more often hostile – attacking the messenger. Is meat healthy? They don’t want to hear the answer. They don’t want to hear that their $22.99/pound wild caught Alaskan Salmon actually contains almost no antioxidants.

The fact is, even iceberg lettuce you can buy for a buck has 1,400% more antioxidants than salmon.

Nor do they want to hear that salmon have less Omega 3’s than cheaper plant-based foods such as chia seeds.

Or the fact that fish don’t even make omega 3’s. Did you know that all omega 3 is vegan originally, as only plants produce the essential fatty acids? Animals only get them from eating plants!

The follow-up response (or accusation) is that we must be cherry-picking our comparisons. Because certainly there must be natural antioxidants in meat.

Are there antioxidants in red meat? White meat? Meat products? What about fish?

The answer to all of the above is almost none, at least when you compare them to fruits and vegetables. So is meat bad for you? Let’s review the facts…

3,100 different foods analyzed

In 2010, Nutrition Journal published an extensive study titled “The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide.” No, this wasn’t some slant piece done by a bunch of hippie vegans. Rather, it was a respected board of 16 scientists from throughout the world.

If you want to read through the analysis of all 3,100 foods as documented in the 138 page “additional file” of the study (1), then feel free to knock yourself out. But if you want the cliff notes version, keep reading.

This research committee did not cherry pick their foods. They included 24 categories:

Category 1: Berries and berry products

Category 2: Beverages

Category 3: Breakfast cereals

Category 4: Chocolate and sweets

Category 5: Dairy and dairy products

Category 6: Desserts and cakes

Category 7: Egg

Category 8: Fats and oils

Category 9: Fish and seafood

Category 10: Fruit and fruit juices

Category 11: Grains and grain products

Category 12: Herbal/traditional plant medicine

Category 13: Infant foods and beverages

Category 14: Legumes

Category 15: Meat and meat products

Category 16: Miscellanous ingredients

Category 17: Mixed food entrees

Category 18: Nuts and sees

Category 19: Poultry and poultry products

Category 20: Snacks

Category 21: Soups, sauces, dressings and salsa

Category 22: Spices and herbs

Category 23: Vegetables

Category 24: Vitamin and dietary supplements

Within those 24 categories are the 3,100 foods. There’s some of everything and for the most popular foods, often several different versions or brands are tested.

For example in the “meat and meat products” category, there are 31 different types of red meat alone which were tested for antioxidant content.

There are the most common things, such as hot dog and a hamburger patty. There are the more exotic red meats you probably rarely or never eat, such as a moose steak or a Norwegian reindeer steak (yeah, don’t eat Rudolph). Of course, a regular steak made from a cow’s butt is in there, too.

To prove we’re not cherry picking, let’s look at the the type of red meat with the most antioxidants.

Are you ready for it? Drumroll… with an ORAC rating of 710 (μ mol TE/100g) it’s frozen liver from an ox.

710 is still quite low, but compared to what many consider to be “bad meats” such as a hamburger patty (110) or a steak (10), one could perhaps make the argument that liver is more nutritious, relatively speaking.

Is white meat healthier?

We all know the general public has a perception that red meat is considered less healthy than white meat. Is that accurate or not?

It is true that with a rating of 1,000, a liver from a chicken does have more antioxidants than one from a cow. But we’re guessing you’re not exactly eating chicken liver salads for your daily lunch, so let’s take a look at the antioxidant content in more common forms of chicken, which are all lower:

Food ORAC Value Brand (If Available) and Country of Origin
whole chicken with skin, frozen, fried 50 Prior (brand), Norway
whole chicken without skin, frozen, fried 60 Prior (brand), Norway
chicken tenders, frozen, cooked 120 Tyson Foods, USA
Burger King chicken tenders, fried 120 Burger King, USA
chicken patties, frozen, cooked 150 Tyson Foods, USA
Wendy’s Chicken Sandwich, grilled 150 Wendy’s USA
McDonald’s crispy chicken sandwich, fried 180 McDonald’s, USA
chicken, drumstick with skin, grilled 440 Prior (brand), Norway
chicken, drumstick without skin, grilled 650 Prior (brand), Norway

There wasn’t much turkey in the study, probably because this bird isn’t very popular outside of the U.S. and Canada. Even though there wasn’t a test of our classic Thanksgiving roasted turkey, the dogs offer us some insight:

Food ORAC Value Brand (If Available) and Country of Origin
turkey baby food 50 Gerber, USA
turkey pot pie, frozen, cooked 60 Swanson, USA
turkey hot dog, frankfurter 610 Prior (brand), Norway
turkey hot dog, barbecued 760 Prior (brand), Norway

What about the other white meat, pork?

Among all the white meats tested, pork had both the highest and lowest rated foods:

Food ORAC Value Brand (If Available) and Country of Origin
pork steak 0 Norway
pork liver, frozen 460 Norway
bacon, fried 850 Spis (brand), Norway

What is the healthiest white meat to eat? It terms of antioxidant content, surprisingly it’s fried bacon! That’s right, what is almost universally considered bad for you is the healthiest, at least for one category of nutrition.

But antioxidants is probably the only category bacon excels at. For sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat, and a laundry list of other reasons, bacon might be the worst white meat to eat. Not to mention, processed meats such as bacon were singled out as being the most potent among meats for causing cancer, according to the World Health Organization (2).

Is fish healthier than beef or chicken?

Unlike red meat, in our society fish (and seafood) is often hailed as a healthy option. The Mediterranean diet and others recommend fish versus red meat. In the study there were 32 different types of fish and seafood that were tested. Here’s a sampling which includes those with the highest and lowest scores:

Food ORAC Value Brand (If Available) and Country of Origin
salmon, raw 30 Norway
shrimp, canned, cooked 40 Bumble Bee, USA
pollock filet, raw 40 Norway
salmon, pink canned with skin and bones 70 Chicken of the Sea, USA
fish sticks, frozen 70 Van de Kamp’s, USA
tuna, canned in water 90 Chicken of the Sea, USA
mackerel, fried 120 Norway
crab, canned 120 Bumble Bee, USA
tilapia fillets, baked 140 USA
prawns, peeled and cooked 240 Norway
kapenta, dried 650 Wopanada McHere, Malawi

That’s another shocker for most. Is fish as good for you as you had thought? It’s true that many, such as salmon, are rich in essential vitamins such a B12, D, and the B complex. It is also true that salmon is an excellent source of protein. But with over 50% of the calories coming from fat – and as mentioned at the start – salmon fat is not giving you as much of the omega 3’s as you may have thought, so can you still classify it as a superfood?

Antioxidants in meat vs. vegetables & fruits

Are we cherry picking the meats discussed? Absolutely! We included the highest ORAC rated for each category, so our analysis is actually slanted towards being pro-meat. But as you’ve seen firsthand, the perceived consensus can often differ from facts, or at least when it comes to antioxidant content…

fried bacon has the most natural antioxidants among all types of meats
raw salmon has the least antioxidants, less than any other fish, seafood, red or white meat

You probably would have guessed the opposite for those two foods, right?

With all the meats though, it’s kind of like comparing a dime being worth more than a nickel. Even cheap canned tomato sauce has higher ORAC than all of the fish and seafood tested. Dried kapenta from Malawi comes close, but we’re guessing that’s not exactly something you can pick up from your corner market on a daily basis. And certainly not for the price of canned tomato sauce!

If you don’t cherry pick and instead, simply calculate out the average for all 3,100 foods – taking into account every plant-based and animal-based item tested – this is what you get:

Antioxidant Content in mmol/100 grams
n mean median min max 25th percentile 75th percentile 90th percentile
plant based foods 1943 11.57 0.88 0.00 2897.11 0.27 4.11 24.30
animal based foods 211 0.18 0.10 0.00 1.00 0.05 0.21 0.46
mixed foods 854 0.91 0.31 0.00 18.52 0.14 0.68 1.50

Average for plant based foods = 11,570 (or 11.57 mmol)
Average for animal based foods = 180 (or 0.18 mmol)

On average, plants have 64 times more antioxidant content than meats

Even when compared against the highest rated meat (chicken livers), the average plant has over 11 times more antioxidant content.

But perhaps the wrong question is being asked. Forget whether or not animal-based foods are bad or good. Because the truth is, vegan diets can be a total disaster too if one is consuming too many refined oils and processed products. Even Oreos are vegan and it would be a farce to claim those are better for you versus salmon.

Rather, the question you should be asking is what are the best foods you can eat to achieve maximum health benefits? If you want a diet that’s anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, and anti-aging… then the more plant-based whole foods you eat, the better. Not to mention, you will probably have a slimmer waist to boot!