Often times, when beginning to feed a raw diet, you’ll stumble upon instructions regarding red meat and white meat. Usually, these instructions will indicate that it’s better to feed red meat over white meat, and we’ll discuss why.
First off, though, what makes red meat, red, and white meat, white? The answer depends on if you’re seeking a popular, cultural, scientific, or culinary definition. Generally speaking, four-legged animals are red meat- but pork is popularly referred to as “the other white meat”; veal may be considered a white meat when cooking; and waterfowl like ducks and geese are labeled white if domesticated and red if wild. Chicken and turkey are white meat, sure, but what about ratites- the larger, flightless birds like emu and ostrich? Well, according to the USDA, they are considered red meat animals. If you want to get really specific, food scientists will categorize meat as red or white based on “… their myoglobin concentration, lipid profile, mitochondrial densities, [and] muscle fiber physiology…”; the “myoglobin concentration” seems to be the most common factor. Myoglobin is the heme, or iron-containing, protein that facilitates the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange between muscle cells and the bloodstream. Muscles that are used more frequently are “dark”, or “red”.
The nutritional differences, however, are what really matter. Meats usually classified as red meats- beef, pork, lamb, deer, and bison- are generally higher in saturated and monounsaturated fats, zinc, B vitamins, and iron. Meats usually classified as white- chicken and turkey- are higher in polyunsaturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids.
When raw feeders think about fats for their dogs, they’re most typically thinking of polyunsaturated fats. All of the fats that are essential for dogs- meaning they need to be provided in the diet and cannot be synthesized endogenously in sufficient quantities by the dog- are polyunsaturated. These are:
- Lineolic acid, or LA, an omega-6 fatty acid,
- Arachidonic acid, or AA, an omega-6 fatty acid*,
- Alpha-linoleic acid, or ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid,
- Eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, an omega-3 fatty acid**, and
- Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid***
These fatty acids have a myriad of jobs within the body: producing hormones; encouraging cell growth; maintaining cellular membranes; assisting with cell metabolizing; and brain and eye health, to name a few.
Omega-6 has somewhat of a bad reputation as being “pro-inflammatory”- which is true, but inflammation is a critical component of the immune system, and omega-6 fatty acids are required by the body. Omega-3 fatty acids are usually known for improving skin and coat condition (EPA) and cognitive function and protection (DHA). Fatty acids compete for the same metabolic pathways: simply, the body doesn’t have a special uptake system for omega-3s, and a special uptake system for omega-6s. Instead, they have to travel through the same “omega door”, and the body only has so many of these doors. Our goal should not be to avoid omega-6 fatty acids and to only feed omega-3 fatty acids (and too much omega-3 can be just as serious of a problem as too much omega-6!). Instead, we need to balance the fats. The proper omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is between 2:1 and 6:1, depending on the dog. Because red meats are not as high in omega-6 fatty acids as poultry and vice versa, bothmeats should be fed with this in mind. Of course, fatty acids are only one part of the nutrient profile puzzle, but they are an important one!
The high saturated fats in red meat present their own problem: fats cannibalize other nutrients. If you’re feeding a fatty red meat- grain fed-and-finished beef, for example- you are very likely providing less amino acids, vitamins, and minerals than you would otherwise.
So, is it better to feed red meat than white meat? The answer is, truly, that it depends on the dog and the recipe. Is it better to feed only red meat to a dog who seems to be sensitive to fatty meats? Of course not. Do we want to only feed chicken or turkey, thus having to rely on large amounts of fish or marine oils to offset the omega-6 content? No. Balance, you will find, is a recurring theme when it comes to feeding. The muscle meat content of a diet can be ⅔ white meat and still be balanced, and it can be ⅔ red meat and still be balanced. It all depends on your recipe, and what other ingredients you are working with.
*LA can be converted into AA by dogs
**ALA can be converted into EPA by dogs, although the conversion rate is low and thus a dietary source should be provided
***EPA can be converted in DHA by dogs, but again, the conversion rate is low and a dietary source should be provided