Poor Stone-Agers. They never had prime beef.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

November 2006

According to the USDA, prime is the most desirable grade of beef. It is certainly the most expensive and it's usually available only to the restaurant trade and high-end butcher shops. The next lower grade is choice, which is what you generally will find at the supermarket meat counter. Select is the lowest grade.

What makes the difference? Simply the amount of fat, known as marbling, scattered throughout the cut. For instance, prime tenderloin has about 23 grams of total fat per 3½ ounce serving, or 7 percent more than the same cut of choice beef. About half the fat is saturated, and both have the same amount of cholesterol per ounce. Select, as you might guess, has the least fat and supposedly, the least flavor.

Pity the folks who lived during the Stone Age. In spite of all the different kinds of wild game they could choose from, none of it even came close to the quality of choice beef — or so it seems. Large game only has about 3 grams of fat per serving, so if that's what gives red meat its flavor, those folks had no idea what they were missing.

But hold on! Venison has about 25 percent more protein than modern beef, half again as much vitamin B1, almost twice as much niacin and almost 3 times as much vitamin B12. It also has more cholesterol, about 30 percent more than all grades of beef. (Note that the cholesterol in your diet doesn't have much effect on the cholesterol level in your blood unless you take in several times as much as you'd get in a couple of helpings of venison or beef. Rather, it's the saturated fat in the American diet that makes our cholesterol levels among the highest on the planet.)

Anyone who is a deer hunter (or is lucky enough to have one for a friend) probably appreciates the richer flavor of venison. It takes a good cook however, to get around the fact that it's a little less juicy than prime or choice beef. There are plenty of recipes available online or in your local library that eliminate that problem.

If you're wondering about the tenderness factor, it probably didn't make any difference to our ancestors of 50,000 years ago. Meat reaches peak tenderness after it has aged for a week or two and that was probably not a worthwhile option back then. Without refrigeration or protection from predators and vermin it didn't make much sense to wait for peak flavor.

Wild species enjoy a diet that is even more complex than that of range-fed cattle, whose home pasture is nutritionally fairly unvaried. Unlike the unnatural monotony of feedlot fare, deer and other large herbivores in the Stone Age enjoyed grazing on dozens of different plant types, all of which were alive and fresh and not tainted by pesticides or chemical fertilizers. Do you think that could result in more flavorful and healthier meat?

Prime beef is a tasty option but not a healthy one. Human chemistry is not well adapted to such high levels of saturated fat and medical statistics prove it. Such luxurious fare promotes obesity, coronary artery disease and colon cancer, although genetics and other factors clearly are involved.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.