Raw beef as a dietary choice has gained popularity in recent years. Enjoyers of raw beef, including myself, will insist that a good raw steak gives them the energy they need, and some even claim it gives them a bit of a buzz. While foodborne illnesses are a major concern when deciding whether to tear into a blue ribeye and research into the issue is fairly limited as a result, there are a handful of studies that indicate the benefits may be worth a bit of risk. There are anecdotes given in decent numbers by those who practice this atypical diet, who insist foodborne illness is very rare and manageable enough when weighed against the boons. From those who say it’s all for the experience to people who sing its praises as a healthy lifestyle choice, there is some evidence behind them.
EXPERIENCE AND FLAVOR
Everybody loves sushi, right? Steak tartare is a dish that allegedly originated from Genghis Khan’s warriors (so we all have the genetics for it) and has variations in France, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Chile, Brazil, and Ethiopia. Generally served with capers, green onions or chives, and topped with a raw egg yolk, steak tartare is fairly close to those raw fish dishes we all love. In Italy, carpaccio is a favorite antipasto dish consisting of raw beef, dressing, and arugula or other veggies. While dressing up raw beef can make a classic and beloved dish, some insist that there is simply nothing quite like biting into a plain, fresh cut of steak. Some say it feels as though they are tapping into something wild within themselves. Whether you prefer to practice your chef skills with some traditional cuisine from around the world, or connect with your inner animal, the experience of eating raw beef can be a genuine joy.
POTENTIAL HEALTH BENEFITS
There are a handful of studies that suggest eating raw beef may have a nutritious edge over cooking it, so long as you have a good source of fresh cuts. One study found that trimming and cooking beef could lower the content of certain vitamins by up to 100%. While metals such as iron, copper, and zinc could increase in the cooking process, the minerals calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium all were significantly lowered. All vitamin content decreased during cooking and very especially thiamine. Another group of researchers had similar findings, with a focus on B-vitamins which were also lessened through the cooking process.
Many raw-meat eaters will also argue that the probiotic characteristics of uncooked food aid in its digestion. The notion is that the “itis” — the fatigue that comes after a heavy meal while your body works to process it — is never a problem when consuming raw foods. I met one woman who compared cooking meat to burning a sweater before you wear it. This does resonate with more widely understood information: many cultures even enjoy raw fermented meat — known as high meat — to increase these probiotics, especially across Northern Europe. Some research has looked into ways to sell fermented meat more widely.
Raw liver, specifically, has a decent amount of proven information to suggest that eating it on a semi-regular basis can be very healthy. While the taste can leave much to be desired, beef liver is an extremely rich source of vitamins A, B, and iron. The nutritional benefits are significantly lowered in the cooking process. Those who eat raw liver often describe a boost in their energy, and science agrees: in 1951, a study in rats concluded that rats who were fed raw liver powder could swim for significantly longer than those who were fed synthetic B vitamins. Raw liver also offers many of the trace minerals that cooking destroys. While eating cooked liver is still very healthy, raw liver can offer more of a boost, provided you can manage it safely. Of course, safety is the key question in the discussion of raw beef.
SAFETY MEASURES AND CONCERNS
As with raw milk, the key to safely consuming raw beef is to get it as fresh as possible, preferably from a farmer or quality butcher. While plenty of people will simply check for color and perform a “smell test,” those with sensitive stomachs will probably be more comfortable with more precautions. Many recipes involving raw beef require freezing it for about an hour — this may lessen many harmful bacteria, prevent the growth of new bacteria, and in extreme temperatures, actually kills it.
E. coli is the biggest concern when eating raw beef, and the reason many official websites insist on cooking it to an internal temperature of 165°F. People will generally state that if you eat raw beef even once, you will suffer from this serious bacterial infection. However, the prevalence of E. coli in raw beef varies greatly from state to state, and from season to season. In the warm, muggy summertime, cows are much more likely to be infected, so treat raw beef as a cold-weather seasonal dish. While a study has never been specifically focused on the prevalence of E. Coli in Tennessee beef, one did crunch the numbers in farms across five states. This study found the bacteria to be far less common than one may think, with only 3.6% of beef cattle being infected. Another study in Australia found that 58% of feedlot cattle across four farms shed the pathogen campylobacter — which causes food poisoning — compared to 0% of pasture-raised cattle.
Raw foods in general (beef included) can never be made perfectly safe, so it is up to the individual whether or not the risk is worth the potential benefit. Luckily, in 2016 researchers in Singapore began developing a new method of killing E. Coli bacteria for personal care products. If you really don’t feel safe, you can always wait a few more years. Alternatively, you can embrace a little bit of world culture, enjoy a new kind of food experience, and reap the benefits today. Live a little!