Buffalo roam into the mainstream meat market
Trans-fats are practically banished and vending machines in schools are on the decline. With consumers thinking more and more about their waistlines, a Colorado native is taking center stage in the natural foods phenomenon: the American buffalo.
Unlike cattle, farmers typically raise bison without antibiotics, hormones or other growth stimulants, according to the National Bison Association, which opposes unnatural growth methods. The result is a natural red meat that looks and tastes a lot like beef, except it lacks all the fat.
“Buffalo is awesome,” said Jay McCarthy, a local restaurant owner and the president of the Vail Valley chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “It tends to be very lean, with less fat than most of the meats.”
Buffalo production still lags behind that of the cattle industry, adding up to less than 1 percent of the cattle industry’s production, said Boyd Meyer, vice president of the Rocky Mountain Buffalo Association and owner the Poudre Basin Buffalo Company in Windsor.
But local restaurants don’t necessarily notice that it’s a much smaller industry.
“More people will actually order it more than beef on any given night,” said Kyle Cowan, executive chef of Up the Creek Restaurant in Vail.
Raw bison is a deeper red color than beef because there is no marbling, or flecks of fat in the meat’s muscle. Cooked buffalo is practically identical to beef, but it’s slightly sweeter and you won’t have to spend as much time trimming fat from around the edges.
Cattle are bred to put on fat, Meyer said. They’re fed corn because cattle can’t get well-marbled on a grass diet, he said.
Buffalo, however, feed on grass until about the last 120 days their lives. Then ranchers typically feed them a blend of corn, grain and soybean pellets, which are high in fiber. The corn feed makes the little fat that buffalo has turn white, as opposed to the yellow color it would have from a grass-only diet, he said.
“Even though buffalo are not bred to marble, they continue to be tender and the meat has a good taste to it,” Meyer said. “The marbling (with cattle) is to give it a good taste and tenderize it.”
Buffalo, the largest mammals on North America, don’t need growth stimulants like cattle, either.
For those who don’t want to trade red meat for tofu, buffalo meat is the way to go.
It’s not just lower in fat, but also in calories and cholesterol. It’s higher in protein and iron and it also has Omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for the heart and for preventing cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association.
People are more and more concerned about what they’re eating,” Meyer said. “Even though it costs a little more, people are putting their health higher up on the pedestal.”
Meyer said he’s seen an increased demand for buffalo in recent years. Dave Carter, executive director of National Bison Association, attributes the meat’s popularity to the food industry’s trend toward healthier products.
A Michigan State University study found this year that consumers bought twice as much organic and natural foods in 2006 than in 2000, proving that the food trend is now mainstream. The study estimates that organic food sales will increase by 71 percent from 2006 to 2011.
“We use it because it’s a regional item, but also because it’s a little healthier than regular beef,” Cowan said.
Restaurants are using various cuts on their menus, especially in the Rocky Mountain region. But national chains are also taking note. Ted’s Montana Grill, Ted Turner’s national restaurant chain, offers buffalo pot roast, meatloaf, burgers and steaks.
Grocery stores are also catching on, Meyer said, with several non-specialty stores carrying buffalo ground beef and several steak cuts. King Soopers, Super Wal-Mart and City Market all offer various cuts of buffalo meat, as do organic and natural markets like Whole Foods.
“It’s definitely become more available,” McCarthy said. “There’s more on the market, and supermarkets see the whole natural-organic-healthy appeal to it.”
Buffalo meat is expensive though, since it’s naturally raised and not mass-produced. Like beef, you pay for the cut of the meat, with ground beef, flank and brisket cuts on the lower end of the price scale, and tenderloins, strips and shanks on the higher end.