What's New and Beneficial about Lamb
- When we think about omega-3 fats and their availability from plants versus animals, we usually think about nuts and seeds on the plant side of things and fish on the animal side. But on the animal side of things, we should also think about grass-fed lamb! The omega-3 content of lamb depends upon the young sheep's diet as well as the mother's diet, but when those diets are nutritionally supportive, the result can be a cut of lamb with an impressive amount of omega-3s. In regions of some countries without access to a coastline and fish, lamb has sometimes been shown to provide more omega-3s than any other food in the diet. In Australia, where lamb is eaten frequently by both children and adults, recent studies have shown lamb to rank among the top omega-3 foods in the daily diet. Grass-fed lamb has been shown to average at least 25% more omega-3s than conventionally fed lamb, including as much as 49% more ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, the basic building block for omega-3s). In our own nutritional profile of grass-fed lamb, we use a conservative average estimate of 40 milligrams of omega-3s per ounce of roasted lamb loin. That's 50% of the omega-3s in an ounce of baked cod fish or broiled tuna, and 67% of the amount in an ounce of sesame seeds.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a health supportive omega-6 fatty acid that has surprised researchers in terms of its health benefits. Since the average U.S. adult consumes too many omega-6 fatty acids in relationship to omega-3s, research studies often fail to show health benefits for increased amounts of individual omega-6 fatty acids. In addition, CLA is not only an omega-6 fatty acid but also a trans fatty acid. As a general rule, it is best to keep your intake of trans fats as low as possible. Yet, CLA appears to be an exception to the rule about omega-6s and trans fat because an ever-increasing number of studies show increased intake of CLA to be associated with improved immune and inflammatory function, improved bone mass, improved blood sugar regulation, reduced body fat, and better maintenance of lean body mass. Recent studies show that grass-fed lamb contains nearly twice as much CLA as conventionally fed lamb. Interestingly, lambs grazing during the spring and summer months store more CLA than lambs grazing during the fall and winter; higher CLA storage is also found for lambs grazing on highland and mountain pastures. Studies have also shown intake of fresh pasture grasses to be associated with significantly more CLA in lamb than feeding of the same grasses in dried form. In our nutrient profile for grass-fed lamb, we use a very conservative estimate of CLA of 25 milligrams in 4 ounces. We've seen some studies showing two to seven times this amount, depending on the specific feeding and lifestyle circumstances.
- Several recent studies show that overall fat levels in lamb can be reduced through the practice of grass feeding. This reduction in overall fat content has also been shown to be particularly apparent in loin cuts of lamb. Even though the average daily weight gain in conventionally fed versus grass-fed lambs has been shown to be similar in these studies, the foraging process has been shown to lower total fat content by a minimum of approximately 15%. This finding makes good sense to us. Lambs out in pasture are more active than lambs kept indoors, and this greater level of activity is likely to have the animals develop more muscle and burn more calories as well. In addition, lambs out in pasture are likely to eat less. Unlike lambs kept indoors and fed concentrate, lambs grazing outdoors are more likely to get involved in other activities and be less focused on feeding regimens.
Lamb, grass-fed, lean loin, roasted
Because lamb has received much less attention in the research literature than its fellow ruminant meat—namely, beef—we have been unable to find large-scale research studies on humans that analyze lamb intake and its relationship to disease. Another factor involved with the absence of health research on lamb within the U.S. has been the very limited consumption of lamb by U.S. adults (less than one pound per year).
When smaller scale studies of food and health have included lamb, this food has traditionally been lumped together within a category called "red meats," and the meats examined in these smaller studies have typically come from conventionally fed animals. Because grass feeding improves the nutritional value of both beef and lamb, and because lambs are smaller ruminants than cows with different physical characteristics, we would expect studies of grass-fed lamb to show unique results and some unique health benefits.
Potential Support for Heart Health
The first area of expected health benefits involves cardiovascular diseases. Our reasons for expected specific health benefits in this area are as follows:
- Lamb is commonly included as a meat consumed in Mediterranean diets, which have repeatedly been shown to help lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Grass-fed lamb is a significant source of omega-3 fats, whose adequacy in the diet is associated with decreased risk of inflammation and heart disease. In addition, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats is far better in grass-fed lamb than in the average U.S. diet. When omega-3 to omega-6 ratios are improved in research studies on human diets, risk of cardiovascular diseases has been show to decrease.
- Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is found in valuable amounts in grass-fed lamb. Increased intake of this nutrient is associated with reduced inflammation and reduced body fat. Both of these consequences would be expected to lower heart disease risk.
- About 40% of the fat in grass-fed lamb come from oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat. This type of fat (for which extra-virgin olive oil is lauded) is generally associated with decreased risk of heart disease.
- Grass-fed lamb is a very good source of selenium and a good source of zinc. Healthy intake of these antioxidant minerals is a protective factor against oxidative stress and development of heart disease.
- Lamb is an excellent source of vitamin B12 and a very good source of niacin. It also provides important amounts of the B vitamins B1, B2, B6, folate, biotin, pantothenic acid, and choline. Vitamins B6, B12, folate, and choline are especially important for healthy metabolism of homocysteine and can help prevent unwanted accumulation of excess homocysteine in the body. High blood levels of homocysteine are a key risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Additional Potential Health Benefits
A second area where we would expect to see health benefits from lamb consumption would involve blood sugar regulation. Lamb has long been a part of menus and recipes endorsed by the American Diabetic Association, who view it as a lean meat that is high in protein and one which can be beneficially incorporated into recipes in amounts of three to four ounces per serving. Lamb is often unranked on lists of glycemic index (GI) values due to its virtually non-existent carb content. This absence of carbs in lamb might allow the very broad B-vitamin content of lamb to help support metabolism of other carbs provided by other foods that were consumed alongside of the lamb. (Vitamins B1, B2 and B3 are especially important in the optimal functioning of enzymes in carbohydrate metabolism.)
Americans eat a fraction of the amount of lamb consumed in many other countries in the world. That's too bad since this red meat is very healthful and extremely delicious, having a very tender and buttery quality. Lamb is the meat from young sheep that are less than one year old. It is usually available in five different cuts including the shoulder, rack, shank/breast, loin, and leg.
"Rack of lamb" usually refers to a rib cut that includes nine ribs and can be split into rib roasts. Lamb "chops" can come from several different cuts. For example, "rib chops" come from the rib and "loin chops" come from the loin. You might also see "blade" and "arm" chops in the meat section of the grocery; those chops come from the shoulder. Sirloin chops are another type of chop that you might see; these come from the leg. Additionally, many stores sell lamb that has already ground and which is used to make burgers, meat loaf, or sauces.
Lamb belongs to the group of mammals known as ruminants that have unique digestive systems that enable them to stay healthy on a diet of grasses and forage plants. More specifically, lamb belongs to the special group of ruminants that are cloven-hoofed. This group is often referred to as the "bovid" group since the scientific name for its family is the Bovidae. Alongside of lamb, the bovids include bison, buffalo, antelope, gazelle, goats, and domestic cattle. The word "lamb" refers to meat from a baby sheep that was less than 12 months in age prior to slaughter. (Meat from adult sheep is called "mutton.") Many lambs are brought to slaughter earlier, however, and often between six and eight months of age. The genus and species for lamb is Ovis aries.
Lambs are initially nursed by their mothers until weaning, and studies have shown that the quality of the mother's diet plays an important role in the eventual nutrient quality of the lamb. Grass feeding by the mother provides nutritional benefits for the nursing lamb as well as for humans who eventually consume the lamb meat. When young lambs are weaned from their mother's milk and begin consuming solid foods, research once again shows that feeding in pasture provides the best nutritional option for the lambs. Conventionally raised lambs do not usually experience either of these (nursing from a mother who grazes on pasture, or grazing on pasture themselves after weaning.) Both of these factors enter into our recommendation of 100% grass-fed lamb.
Sheep were among the first animals ever to be domesticated by humans, occurring more than 10,000 years ago. The domestication of sheep most likely started out in the Middle East, in what is now Turkey. As a source of not only food but also textiles (wool), sheep were introduced and became popular throughout many regions of the world. The Romans introduced sheep into Great Britain, where lamb remains very popular, over 2,000 years ago. Lamb was not introduced into the Western Hemisphere until the early 16th century when the armies of the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés brought sheep with them on their explorations.
What was most prized by early civilizations was not the meat obtainable from sheep but rather their wool. In Babylonia, Sumaria, and Persia, the raising of sheep for their fleece became an important industry to such an extent that flocks of sheep were used as the medium of exchange between countries engaging in barter. In Greek mythology, fleece from sheep—known as "the gold-haired winged ram"—played a pivotal role in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, as the quest for it related to Jason proving his worthiness of kingship to King Pelias. Since ancient times, lamb has been regarded as a religious symbol. It was commonly used as a sacrifice, and a symbol of sacrifice, in many religions including Judaism. In many countries, lamb is a traditional dish at Easter in commemoration of the Last Supper at which lamb was likely served. Jesus is often referred to as the "Lamb of God."
Lamb is a staple in cuisines throughout the world including Turkey, Greece, New Zealand, Australia, Africa, and countries of the Middle East. In the U.S., per capita consumption of lamb is much lower than in the rest of the world, averaging 14 ounces per year. By contrast, world consumption averages 4 pounds per person, African consumption averages 5.5 pounds per person, and consumption in Australia and New Zealand averages 25 pounds per person.
Lamb farming reached its peak in the U.S. in 1884 with 51 million head of sheep. Today, lamb farming involves about 6 million head. The U.S. produced about 161 million pounds of lamb and mutton in 2011 (as compared with 50 billion pounds of all red meats, including veal, beef, and pork). Australia, with 70 million head of sheep, and New Zealand, with 32 million head, export more lamb than any other countries. In 2011, for example, these two countries combined exported nearly 1.4 billion pounds of lamb. Half of all lamb consumed in the U.S. is imported, and within this category of imported lamb, nearly 68% comes from Australia and 30% from New Zealand.
How to Select and Store
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires inspection of lamb for overall wholesomeness. However, grading of lamb is voluntary, and not all cuts of lamb in the grocery will carry a USDA Grade. The USDA currently authorizes five grades for lamb, including prime, choice, good, utility, and cull. Prime and choice are usually the only grades that you will find in the supermarket. Prime and choice grades of lamb are similar in terms of tenderness and juiciness, and are higher in fat than the lower three grades. If you want to lower your total fat intake while including lamb on a regular basis in your diet, you may want to choose lamb that's been graded as "choice" over lamb that's been graded as "prime" since choice lamb does have slightly lower marbling (and total fat content) than prime lamb.
Although lamb is generally a very tender meat, there are still signs you can look for to better ensure high quality. Purchase lamb whose flesh is firm, fine textured and pink in color. Any fat surrounding or marbled throughout the lamb should be white, not yellow. Of course, we always recommend 100% grass-fed lamb regardless of the grade or cut.
"Spring lamb" is label that used to be helpful in determining a particular type of lamb; yet now it has come to be as confusing as it is helpful. Originally, "spring lamb" was a description used for breeds of sheep that gave birth in the late fall, nursed newborns through the winter, and moved out to pasture in early spring. Over time, the term "spring lamb" also started to be used for lambs that were born in the spring and raised during summer and early fall. To make matters even more complicated, lengthened breeding seasons and more flexible pasture options have expanded the time of availability for fresh lamb, and the term "spring lamb" is now sometimes used when there is no unique relationship between spring and the animal's upbringing! In many cases, "spring lamb" is a term that does still apply to locally grown lamb that has pastured in early spring and goes to market in spring or summer, often at local farmer's markets.
Since lamb is highly perishable, it should always be kept at cold temperatures, either refrigerated or frozen. After purchasing lamb, you'll want to get it home as soon as possible and refrigerate it immediately at 40°F/4°C or below. Refrigerate the lamb in the original store packaging, if it is still intact and secure, to reduce the amount of handling involved. If the lamb has a "Use-By" date, follow that for guidelines as to how long it will stay fresh. If it does not, then follow these simple guidelines: lamb roasts and chops can stay fresh in the refrigerator three to five days while ground lamb will only stay fresh for up to two days.
If you have more lamb than you can use within this period of time, you can freeze it. Using freezer paper or plastic freezer wrap, wrap the lamb carefully so that it is as tightly packaged as possible. If you plan to freeze for one week or longer, it's a good idea to overwrap it with a second layer or place the already-wrapped lamb into a freezer bag to prevent freezer burn. Ground lamb should be able to keep for three to four months while roasts and chops will keep for about six to nine months.
Shopping for Lamb
- Stick with organic: Organic standards help lower risk of contaminated feed and organic lamb usually has higher nutrient quality. However, remember that organic by itself does not guarantee a natural lifestyle for the lambs.
- Ask for 100% grass-fed: Go beyond organic by asking for 100% grass-fed. Don't get sidetracked by the confusing array of labeling terms like natural" or "pasture-raised." Labeling laws allow products to display these terms even if lambs spend little or no time outdoors in a pasture setting. Unfortunately, even the term "grass-fed" is not sufficient since grass-fed lambs may have spent a relatively small amount of time grass feeding. The standard to look for on the label is "100% grass-fed." Talk to your grocer or the lamb farmer and find out how the animals were actually raised. In addition, if you would like more information about the practice of grass-feeding, please click here.
- Consider local farms: Organic, 100% grass-fed lamb may be available from local farms with small flocks, which provide a natural lifestyle for their lambs. Two websites that can help you find small local farms in your area are www.localharvest.org and www.eatwild.com. Both sites are searchable by zip code.
How to Enjoy
A Few Quick Serving Ideas
- Ground lamb makes delicious burgers. Season and cook as you would a hamburger.
- Braise lamb loin pieces in red wine, garlic and rosemary.
- The hearty flavor of lamb makes it a wonderful meat to be featured in a stew.
- For a healthy twist on the traditional food pairing, serve lamb with a mint yogurt sauce, made from plain yogurt, mint leaves, garlic, and cayenne.
- Place bite-size pieces of lamb on a skewer with your favorite grilling vegetables and make lamb shish kebobs.
- Serve grilled lamb with green beans or ratatouille.
WHFoods Recipes That Feature Lamb
Introduction to Food Rating System Chart
The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. Read detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System.
Lamb, grass-fed, lean loin, roasted
|vitamin B12||2.51 mcg||105||6.1||excellent|
|protein||25.57 g||51||3.0||very good|
|selenium||27.90 mcg||51||2.9||very good|
|vitamin B3||8.05 mg||50||2.9||very good|
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%
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