The European Horse Meat Scandal - Looking Beyond the Hysteria: Why "Horse-Powered" Lasagna Would Actually be Nutritionally Superior to Its "Beefed-Up" Counterpart

Lots of good meats on Fury from the slaughterhouse ;-)
I am not sure if all of the US and other international students of the SuppVersity have already gotten wind of the huge "scandal" *rofl* about horse meat in convenient foods. In case you ain't no clue what I am talking about, here is the gist: About a week ago the first reports surfaced that some of the junk... ah, I mean instant meals that are sold by the largest supermarket chains in Europe and produced by such "reputable" companies as Nestlé and Co. are "adulterated" with horse meat (if you want to, you can read up on the whole story in the online version of the NY Times; read more).

Actually things started out with frozen Lasagna and now horse meat appears to be in everything the average convenient food lover packs into his shopping basket. Now, frozen lasagna (unless self-prepared) is nothing I would expect the average SuppVersity reader to consume on a regular basis, anyway. And the mislabeling of the products alone would certainly not qualify as being "SuppVersity newsworthy", either. The fact that it may be a smart move of yours to actually buy horse-meat lasagna (obviously not the one that was made with the meat of potentially sick animals) instead of regular one is however exactly the kind of stuff you read about here at the SuppVersity - and I would venture the guess only at the SuppVersity.

"Horse meat? You're kiddin' right?"

If we disregard the argument that horses are "amiable animals" that are "not supposed to be eaten" that's brought forward by many of the costumers as their main rationale why they would not buy horse-meat lasagna or a "Mac Fury" (would certainly be a major advantage over the other "Mac's" you are served at everyone's favorite fastfood chain ;-), there are actually no convincing arguments against the consumption of horse meat.

There is another study, unfortunately in Russian that reports 54% reduction in excess body weight in overweight individuals, whose diets contained obviously significant (yet in the abstract undisclosed) amounts of horse meat, of which the scientists write that it is "a product that possesses lipotropic and choleretic properties" and was the main reason for the "markedly" reduction in body weight, the participants experienced. Moreover, the latter went hand in hand with "a considerable improvement of liver function" (Kadyrova. 1984). Without access to the full-text, I am yet unable to say anything but "interesting" about this study... although, I guess I may add that it is not just interesting, but intriguing that these two were the only horse meat based dietary interventions I could come up with.
That being said, it's certainly no coincidence that the editors of the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutition decided to finally include the 2012 paper by Chritian Del Bo et al. that has hitherto only been available as an ePub in the March 2013 issue of this monthly Journal. In the said study, the researchers from the Dipartimento di Scienze per gli Alimenti, la Nutrizione e l'Ambiente (that's what I call a well-sounding name ;-) at the University of Milano investigated the "long-term" (=90 days) effects of regular horse meat (2x 175g per week) consumption on the health of 26 of the 52 healthy volunteers who participated in their study and compared them to the 26 participants who were told to abstain from horse-meat for the full three months study period. The results were absolutely unequivocal: Horse meat, as red and culturally depreciated as it may be let to..
  • significant reductions in serum levels of total (-6.2%) and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL; -9.1%) and transferrin levels (- 4.6%), as well as
  • increases in total omega-3 content /+7.8%), omega-3s (+8%) and docosahexeanoic acid (DHA; +11%) in the red blood cells of the subjects (p < 0.005 for all)
As exciting as these observations may sound, the study design makes it difficult to say whether they were a result of replacing horse-meat for other meats or simply eating meat at all (I know you that common wisdom tells us that red meat kills, but you've heard me talk about the fallacy of this assumption on one of the last installments of the Science Round Up).

Aside from the common (and flawed) wisdom about the ill health-effects of meat eating aside, there is another important and obviously way more convincing argument for the former explanation (replacement effects), which pertains to the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio in horse-meat.
Table 1: Omega-6 (N6) to omega-3 (N3) ratio of selected foods (extended version of Bourre. 2005)
With an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 0.6 and thus 1 gram of omega-6 fatty acids per 1.7 grams of omega-3s, horse meat is almost on par with farmed salmon (see "Making the Right Fish Choices") and far superior to grass-fed beef, which contains 2 grams of omega-6 fatty acids for every single gram of omega-3s (n-6/n-3 ratio of 2.29; see previous SuppVersity post).

"Hold on! Where is the downside? Where the "on the other hands?"

With 100g of horse meat offering 21g of quality protein, 5g fat (approx. 1g saturated fat, 2g monounsaturated fat and 1g PUFAs) and obviously zero grams of carbohydrates, the ideal protein source, but wait: All this does in fact sound a little "too good too be true" and there are in fact a couple of "on the other hands" attached:
  • The Lance-Armstrong factor: As already mentioned before, there is currently a large concern about medicine residues in the horse meat that was added to the instant meals over here in Europe. Yet despite the fact that you can certainly argue that there is a certain chance you would be eating a former race-horse, which collapsed from an overdose of performance enhancing drugs, regular horse meat is as tightly controlled as all other meats and your chances to consume consume any sort of medication are thus not higher lower than with other meats, as long as you don't buy them on the gray market in Romania (where the horse meat in the scandal is supposed to come from) or China ;-)
  • I guess you may have heared about toxoplasma gondii being transfered from rodents to cat and accidentally to humans, but do you also know that infected men have higher testosterone levels? No? Well, in the end this is not a recommended way to up your testosterone production, anyway (lean more)
    The nasty bugs factor: Another commonly heard argument against eating horse-meat is based on some horror stories about people dying from bacterial infections after consuming old, imported and improperly stored (the scaremongerish reports obviously don't mention that) raw horse-meat (Gill 2005). This is obviously another non-horse-specific problem and can be easily avoided by buying your meats from the right sources and heating them to temperatures >67°C. The heat will also take care of any Toxoplasma gondii contaminations and the larvae of Trichinella. Both parasites are often named in the same breath as "horse meat", despite the fact that they are not horse-specific and have almost exclusively been found in meats imported from overseas (Pozio. 2001; Pomares. 2011).
  • The polar-bear factor: Just as in the case of the polar bears this does not affect the meat of the horses, but their organs. Depending on the soil on which the horses were housed, their livers and kidneys may contained high amounts of heavy metals (cadmium, Gill. 2005; lead, Kosla. 1989) and are thus not recommended for human consumption unless prior testing was done. 
So, basically this leaves us with only one "on the other hand": The "I don't want to eat Black Beatuy or Fury" Factor. But let's face it: Who of the bacon lovers would say he'd like a piece of Babe?

You have been eating dozens of "Babes" and now you refuse to eat the much healthier Black Beauty?
Bottom line: Unless your horse meat is imported from questionable sources, the only valid argument why you shouldn't eat horse meat, and maybe even prefer it over beef, let alone pork, are your own scruples culturally rooted scrouples about eating such a "noble" animal as a horse.

And by the way, when it's cooked its pretty hard to distinguish from beef, anyway. Only when you eat it raw (which is something I don't recommend) you may be able to recognize the slight tinge of sweetness that's a result of the 7x higher glycogen content of horse vs. beef meat.

  • Bò CD, Simonetti P, Gardana C, Riso P, Lucchini G, Ciappellano S. Horse meat consumption affects iron status, lipid profile and fatty acid composition of red blood cells in healthy volunteers. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2013 Mar;64(2):147-54.
  • Bourre, JM. Where To Find Omega-3 Fatty Acids And How Feeding Animals With Diet Enriched In Omega-3 Fatty Acids To Increase Nutritional Value Of Derived Products For Human : What Is Actually Useful. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging. 2005; 9(4): 232-242.
  • Gill CO. Safety and storage stability of horse meat for human consumption. Meat Sci. 2005 Nov;71(3):506-13.
  • Kadyrova RKh, Salkhanov BA, Shakieva RA. [Effect of diet therapy using horse meat on liver function of patients with metabolic-alimentary obesity]. Vopr Pitan. 1984 May-Jun;(3):22-7.
  • Kośla T, Anke M, Grün M. The lead status of horses from central Europe depending on breed, sex, age and living area. Arch Tierernahr. 1989 Jul;39(7):667-74. 
  • Pomares C, Ajzenberg D, Bornard L, Bernardin G, Hasseine L, Darde ML, Marty P. Toxoplasmosis and horse meat, France. Emerg Infect Dis. 2011 Jul;17(7):1327-8.
  • Pozio E, Tamburrini A, La Rosa G. Horse trichinellosis, an unresolved puzzle. Parasite. 2001 Jun;8(2 Suppl):S263-5.
  • Wise J. "Bute" in horse meat presents very low risk to health, says England's chief medical officer. BMJ. 2013 Feb 15;346:f1066.
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