How Healthy Is Venison?

Venison is packed with protein, vitamins and minerals. Better yet, it's a meat free of antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and it happens to be the satisfying result of a hunter's time afield. What other food offers these benefits?

Text by Charles J. Alsheimer
Reprinted with permission from: Deer & Deer Hunting, September 2000

The opening sentence of the newspaper article was sobering. "Beef, pork and lamb products treated with radiation to kill bacteria and other impurities might be on the way to a supermarket near you."

Before reading the article, my immediate thought was, "what's next?" It seems like I'm constantly reading how high-tech and chemically driven tests are making foods "safer."

However, I can't help but wonder if safer is really safer.

Each year, more measures are taken to ensure our food is safe. Whether this involves irradiation, a process of treating foods with beams of energy to destroy bacteria and pests, or other measures, the thought of what goes into the production and marketability of our food can be worrisome.

Pumped-Up Cattle

Americans consume 40 million cattle annually, so it's easy to see why the beef industry is huge business. As a result of this demand, cattle growers try to get cattle from birth to slaughter weight as quickly as possible.

One way cattle growers do this is with steroids. Steroids, which include sterols, bile acids and sex hormones, speed up the growth process.

For many farmers and ranchers, the use of steroids can reduce their feed bills by 10 percent or more - a reduction that often is the difference between profit and loss. Saving that much across the board for 40 million cattle would result in staggering profits.

Data indicate the use of steroids for beef growth is not harmful to humans when cattle are withdrawn from the drugs 90 days before they're slaughtered. Steroid use in the beef industry is highly regulated by the Department of Agriculture, and high-tech tests can indicate if beef contains steroid residue.

However, not everyone trusts the government, so the demand for "naturally" grown foods has exploded in recent years, creating an awareness of the benefits of venison as an alternative meat.

Venison is no longer only a meat for hunters. The non-hunting, health-conscious segment of society is turning to naturally raised venison as a chemical-free, low-fat source of protein, minerals and vitamins.

The Fat Factor

Because venison has no additives or antibiotics, it is an attractive alternative to commercially grown beef. What's more venison has a fraction of the fat found in beef.

In Rob Wegner's August 1988 Deer & Deer Hunting article, "The Science of Deer Meat," he referenced several studies showing venison's benefits over beef.

Wegner discovered that one of the most revealing studies on venison was conducted at North Dakota State University by Martin Marchello. Marchello, an avid deer hunter and proponent of venison in the family diet, found that venison contains a unique balance of protein, fats and minerals which provides humans with a complete food item in a concentrated form.

Marchello analyzed 15 white-tailed deer shot by hunters. Upon examining the loin eye muscles for protein, moisture, fat, calories, cholesterol, amino acids and minerals, he found that venison, like other lean meats, contains a complete complement of essential amino acids, thus giving it a high biological value.

That alone should be enough to turn more Americans onto venison. Why? Because we're a fat nation. The average American's diet contains 40 percent fat. A healthy diet should include no more than 20 percent fat.

Fat comes in three basic forms: Saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. Fat from animal meat is primarily of the saturated variety, which is the most dangerous.

Cholesterol content is the other key in determining a meat's health status. Figures 1 and 2 show the comparison between venison and other meats. These USDA results, published in USA Today in 1991, illustrate the health value of venison.

Surprisingly, a 3 1/2 ounce serving of ground beef has 40 percent more calories, 223 percent more fat and 125 percent more cholesterol than the same amount of venison.

Of course, ground beef normally contains a large amount of fat so perhaps a better comparison to venison might be lean ground beef. However, even then, venison is far more healthy. A 3 1/2 ounce portion of lean ground beef still has 31 percent more calories, 189 percent more fat, and 118 percent more cholesterol than an equal amount of venison.

Turkey and chicken have fewer calories and fat than venison, but venison has less cholesterol than both white meats.

The way deer and cattle store fat is why venison is healthier than beef. Deer accumulate most of their fat around their organs and in single layers, typically atop muscle and underneath the hide. These fat layers can be easily removed during the butchering process. Whitetails also have less fat in their muscle tissues, because they are constantly exercising.

Farmers typically fatten their cattle for market, which means they feed them more than 90 percent grain to add weight during the "finishing stage." The weight gain occurs primarily between the muscle tissues. This created "marbling," which, while giving beef superb flavor, increases the meat's fat content.

Ensuring Venison is Healthy

The quality of a food source depends on how it's cared for. Venison might be a better nutritional source than beef, but it will deteriorate quickly if not properly handled from the field to the freezer. Each year in North America, hunters tag about 6 million whitetails. It's anyone's guess as to how much venison spoils, but it's safe to say the amount is more than it should be.

Quick field dressing prevents fermentation of the entrails. Besides removing the entrails, hunters should remove all organs from a deer's body cavity. The deer should then be hung to cool. If the body cavity is dirty or coated with stomach fluids, rinse it with clean, cold water and pat it dry with paper toweling. This sounds rudimentary, but many hunters, even seasoned ones, fail to take these precautions.

The air temperature and condition of the deer dictate if the carcass should be skinned immediately. If the temperature is cool, below 40 degrees, leave the hide on the deer until you get it to the processor. This prevents the meat from drying out.

A Little Tenderness

Palatability of venison hinges on several factors. Studies show that a deer's age, how far it runs after it was hit and how long the meat is cured all contribute to the meat's tenderness.

Young animals are generally tender by nature, and require little, or no aging to ensure tenderness. However, if the deer runs a great distance between wounding and death, there's a good chance it will expend all its glycogen reserves. When this happens, the pH level of the meat increases, speeding bacterial growth.

"Wounding or even the threat of danger instantaneously triggers the release of adrenaline, which accelerates the animal's heartbeat and constricts visceral blood vessels," said John Stransky, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service. "This chemical-physiological chain reaction then floods the deer's muscles with blood - the fuel for defense or flight."

"The sudden and exaggerated metabolism of extra blood in muscle tissue produces a build-up of lactic and pyruvic acid, both metabolic waste products. Adrenaline in blood-engorged muscles, in combination with unlimited metabolic wastes, is the principal cause of strong or gamey-tasting cooked venison."

So, the quality of the venison hanging on the meat pole often depends on what took place in the hours, minutes or seconds before the animal's death. This also determines whether the venison should be aged.

The process of aging venison is controversial. Meat cannot be properly aged unless it's hung in a temperature-controlled room for 10 to 14 days. The temperature must remain between 34 and 37 degrees (Figure 3). This allows enzymes to break down some of the complex proteins in the carcass.

When done properly, aging usually improves venison's flavor and tenderness. The key word there is usually.

Few hunters have the facilities to properly age deer. Therefore, it's not wise to age meat by yourself.

Few hunters have the facilities to properly age deer. Therefore, it's not wise to age meat by yourself.

Many processors I've talked to over the years say deer younger than 2 1/2 years old shouldn't be aged. However, the processors agreed that venison from old bucks can sometimes be improved by aging. No deer should be aged if it is to be chopped or ground.

Two important points to remember for aging venison are:

  • Don't attempt to age a deer that was stressed before it died.
  • Pay a professional to age your deer in a temperature-controlled cooler.

Is Meat Good for Everyone?

Based on America's affinity for meat, you'd think that beef or venison is the wonder food for everyone. It is an excellent source of protein and other vitamins, but is it really that good for us? Certainly the fact that our diets contain 40 percent fat is a prime indicator that we consume too much meat, and we know that most meat isn't healthy. Right?

Not exactly. Meat, like everything else, is good for you when consumed in moderation.

The medical industry has been looking at the benefits of venison because many people cannot digest beef. Numerous physicians and nutritional experts believe venison can greatly help and sometimes reverse chronic conditions like food allergies, sporadic diarrhea and other digestive disorders.

For a balanced diet we need to think in terms of the food pyramid. That means a balance of all food groups and no more than 4 ounces of meat per day. A portion of meat should not exceed the size of a deck of playing cards. That seems small, but there is growing evidence that even that might be too much for some people.

The Key to Consumption

According to some nutritionists, a person's ability to consume certain foods is based on their blood type. Dr. Peter J. D'Adamo makes a case for this in his book, Eat Right 4 Your Type.

"Your blood type is the key that unlocks the door to the mysteries of health, disease, longevity, physical vitality and emotional strength," D'Adamo writes. "Your blood type determines your susceptibility to illness, which foods you should eat, and how you should exercise. It is a factor in your energy levels, in the efficiency with which you 'burn' calories, in your emotional response to stress, and perhaps even in your personality."

According to D'Adamo, the connection between blood type and diet might sound radical, but it's not.

"We have long known that there was a missing link in our comprehension of the process that leads either to the path of wellness or to the dismal trail of disease," he wrote. "There had to be a reason why there were so many paradoxes in dietary studies and disease survival. There also had to be an explanation for why some people were able to lose weight on particular diets, while others were not; why some people retained vitality late in life, while others deteriorated mentally and physically.

"Blood type analysis has given us a way to explain these paradoxes. And the more we explore the connection, the more valid it becomes."

For example, D'Adamo believes people with Type O blood can benefit greatly from eating meat. On the other hand, people with Type B blood can benefit from eating venison and avoiding beef. People with Type A or AB blood should avoid beef and venison, he said.

I've looked closely at the information in D'Adamo's book and similar nutritional publications, and their recommendations have greatly improved my well-being.


The bottom line is venison is packed with protein, vitamins and minerals. Better yet, it's a meat free of antibiotics and synthetic hormones, and it happens to be the satisfying result of a hunter's time in the field. What other food offers these benefits?

Remember that catch phrase of the 1980's, "Where's the beef?"

My answer is: It's in the venison!

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