Omega-3 fatty acids have many benefits including heart health, anticoagulant properties, and they may have a positive effect on cognition, cancer, immunity and arthritis. Now new research has found omega-3s, which are found naturally in leafy green vegetables, vegetable oils, nuts, fish and fish oil, may help boost the nutritional value of beef.
Researchers at Kansas State University examined the potential of adding beef, enhanced with omega-3 fatty acids, to that list of heart-healthy foods and if consumers would be willing to pay a premium for the enhanced product. “The momentum behind this idea would be the nutritional attribute that beef producers could potentially use to enhance the demand for beef," said Sean Fox, agricultural economist, KSU.
He explained the American diet is low in omega-3 consumption. Salmon is a primary source of omega-3 fatty acids, but fish consumption levels are low. U.S. consumers eat, on average, about 16 pounds of fish per year compared to 63 pounds of beef, according to FDA. Enhancing beef with omega-3 fatty acids could provide an opportunity for the industry. While beef is already a popular source of protein, adding nutrition to beef products by enhancing the omega-3 levels could increase consumers’ demand for beef, he said.
He pointed to a recent study that examined the overall trends in meat demand. The researchers found that nutrition is one of the main drivers for meat demand and is likely to be one of the main drivers over the next decade.
The fortification of omega-3 fatty acids in beef would occur in the cattle feeding process by adding ingredients high in omega-3s to the animal’s diet in the feedlot. This has been done in the past using flaxseed as the added ingredient, and omega-3 beef products have been on the market for a while. The feeding process, however, can be adjusted to add more omega-3 health benefits.
When you add flax to the diet for animals, you enhance the ALA levels in the beef," Fox said. “But, it turns out that the EPA and DHA, the ones found in salmon and other fatty fish, are the ones that have the greatest health benefit (to humans)." K-State animal scientists have found adding an algae extract to the beef diet can enhance levels of EPA and DHA in the beef product.
Fox and a graduate student conducted a survey of consumers across the nation to gauge their response to a new style of a beef product, enhanced with omega-3s, should it become common in the market. The goal was to find what consumers would be willing to pay for it compared to other beef products. They found for ground beef and steak specifically, the survey showed an increased preference for grass-fed beef over the omega-3 enhanced beef. Prior studies have shown grass-fed beef to have somewhat higher levels of omega-3s compared to conventionally raised beef. However, the survey also showed a demand for the omega-3 enhanced product, and that people were willing to pay a premium for it.
“The average premium for steak was around $3.70 a pound for grass-fed steak compared to conventional steak," Fox said. “When we looked at the omega-3 enhanced product, the average premium was in the ballpark of $1.85 a pound. That is a premium over and above what they were willing to pay for the conventional product." There was a similar trend for ground beef. He stressed that the numbers are lower due to ground beef being a lower-value product with a lower baseline price: “For ground beef, the average premium for grass-fed beef was $1.27 a pound compared to about $0.79 a pound for the omega-3 enhanced product."
Fox said there is still work to be done if the beef industry chooses to move forward in offering omega-3 enhanced beef products, as the cost of enhancing the beef has not been analyzed.