Exotic meats nudge into everyday territory

Exotic meats nudge into everyday territory

Herb-Crusted Elk Chops and Buffalo Rib-Eye weren't always on the menu at Henry's End restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, New York. But when chef/owner Mark Lahm tried a "wild game month" years ago, customers ate it up and wanted more. "Now, we do it almost half the year," says Lahm. "It just built its own momentum."

The same can be said of the so-called "exotic" game-meat industry, which has been growing at a healthy annual rate of 20 to 30 percent. Once barely on the culinary radar, buffalo, ostrich, elk and the like are routinely found on restaurant tables and in supermarkets. Even food-service giant Sysco, Inc. now offers venison, elk, wild boar, ostrich and even alligator to the 400,000-plus restaurants, hospitals, schools and hotels it supplies. And, thanks to online retailers, specialties like rattlesnake and yak are only a mouse click away.

Why are game meats winning hearts and plates? A craving for culinary excitement, for one thing. From adventurous eaters and well-traveled gourmets to chefs, "people are looking for alternatives to the same old beef, chicken and pork," says Russ McCurdy, owner of Seattle's Finest Exotic Meats.

But many people also buy exotic meat because they believe it's healthier. Compared with beef and pork and even chicken and turkey, "game meats tend to be much lower in saturated fat and cholesterol," notes Dave Grotto, R.D., nutrition director at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Illinois. Indeed, kangaroo meat is so lean "you couldn't live exclusively on it in the wild," says McCurdy.

And, since many exotic animals are raised on grass diets, their fat is often richer in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, as well as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a purported breast-cancer fighter-but Grotto doesn't think the evidence is strong enough to urge his patients to switch to wild meats just yet. "Something lean, like game meat, doesn't contain much CLA," he explains, "so whether it's going to be therapeutic in cancer is questionable." Likewise, he says, exotic meats "pale in comparison to fatty fish as an omega-3 source."

Truly Wild?

To be sold commercially, game animals must be raised on farms or ranches conforming to governmental regulations-so their lives, with a predictable food supply and protection from predators, aren't quite "Wild Kingdom." Most exotic-meat aficionados don't complain, though. "With farm-raised game, you know what the animal ate," notes Grotto, who is also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "Natural isn't always cleaner. Even Bambi could have drunk water from a pond downstream from the field Farmer Jones sprayed the heck out of."

Exotic meats can be pricy, but Russ McCurdy, for one, dreams that one day ostrich burgers will be on school lunch menus. "With the problem of childhood obesity, it would be a great way to feed kids," he muses. "It's very lean but it looks and tastes like beef. Kids don't think it's at all ‘gross.'"

-Joyce Hendley

Exotic vs. Everyday

Based on a 100-gram raw portion (about 3.5 ounces); poultry is skinless.

Calories Total Fat / Sat Fat (grams)

* Alligator: 148 3/NA

* Boar (wild): 122 3/1

* Buffalo (bison): 109 2/0

* Elk: 111 1/1

* Goat: 109 2/1

* Kangaroo: 93 0.5/NA

* Ostrich: 117 3/1

* Quail (breast): 123 3/1

* Rabbit (wild): 114 2/1

* Venison (deer): 120 2/1

* Beef (sirloin): 224 15/6

* Chicken (breast): 110 1/0

* Pork (loin chop): 149 6/2

* Turkey (breast): 111 1/0

Source: USDA and www.exoticmeats.com (NA=Not available)

To order farm-raised exotic meats online or by phone:

888EatGame.com: www.888eatgame.com, 888-EATGAME (328-4263)

Game Sales International: www.gamesalesintl.com, 800-729-2090

MountRoyal USA: www.mountroyal.com, 800-730-3337

Seattle's Finest Exotic Meats: www.exoticmeats.com, 800-680-4375

From the December 2005/January 2006 issue of EatingWell Magazine.