Not too long ago, bison meat sounded a relic of the past, something our ancestors ate that no longer made sense to include in a modern diet. But all that has changed. It’s now quite possible to find bison meat not only in natural foods stores and at farmers markets, but also in a basic supermarket. By some estimates, the popularity of bison meat has quadrupled since the early 2000s. While bison ranchers used to struggle to sell the meat—many, faced with overflowing freezers, began giving it away—the challenge today is how to keep up with demand. In 2014, as part of an effort to include more foods from local farmers in school lunch programs, the Food and Nutrition Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that some districts planned to add bison to the menu.
One of the factors behind bison meat’s dramatic rise in popularity are claims that it’s healthier and richer in flavor than beef. But is America’s “original red meat” really more nutritious and delicious?
What Is Bison Meat?
Bison meat, as the name indicates, comes from bison, the largest land animals native to the North American continent. There are two species of bison still living in North America today: the Plains bison (B. b. bison) and the Woods bison (B. b. athabascae). Though bison are commonly called buffalo in the United States and Canada, they’re only distantly related to true buffalo—more on this later.
These humpbacked, shaggy-haired wild oxen have poor eyesight but excellent hearing and a keen sense of smell. According to the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife, 20 to 30 million bison once roamed the land from the Appalachians to the Rockies, from the Gulf Coast to Alaska.
Bison have been, and remain, a critical resource for the indigenous people of the North American continent. Various tribes have used every part of the bison—for food, utensils, clothing, and more. The Lakota, for instance, used bison hair in headdresses for religious rituals as well as to fill pillows and to weave ropes. Other tribes made soap, cooking oil, and candles from bison fat, turned the bladder into food pouches and medicine bags, and used the stomach lining as a cooking vessel.
All the edible parts of the bison were consumed, including the nutrient-dense organ meats like the liver, kidneys, and intestines. Bison meat was prepared many different ways, including roasting, boiling, broiling, and cooking on hot rocks near a fire. Melted tallow or other fats were often poured over bison while it cooked to saturate the drier cuts of meat. To preserve it, bison meat was sometimes roasted on skewers, buried, and then dried.
By the end of the 1800s, bison populations had dropped significantly. Settlers flooded the American West, confining the bison to far smaller territories and overhunting them to near-extinction. With the number of bison left in the wild hovering around 1,000, President Theodore Roosevelt supported the efforts of the American Bison Society to transport animals from the Bronx Zoo west by rail.
Over the next century, bison herds began to rebound, with population numbers climbing close to half a million.
Recent estimates put the number of bison in public and private herds at 500,000. Bison in private herds, raised on ranches or farms, are still considered undomesticated and graze for their food. Regulations and industry standards prohibit the use of the hormones and antibiotics often given to cows to promote rapid growth. This means bison meat tends to be more nutritious and doesn’t contain traces of unnecessary medications.
Plus, grass-feeding bison is far more environmentally friendly than factory-farming cattle. It’s sustainable and doesn’t pollute the environment. Bison also play a key role in the ecosystems they inhabit: their grazing prevents grass from overgrowing and their waste nourishes the soil. In fact, grazed grasslands can actually offset environmental damage by trapping carbon from greenhouse gases and redistributing it into the soil.
As the meat has become more and more popular, many producers have begun to grain finish bison in feedlots for several months. This results in meat with a more consistent flavor and texture, and also turns the fat from yellow to white, which some consumers prefer. But critics say this practice is inhumane, especially for undomesticated animals like bison, and can result in the same health and environmental issues associated with other feedlots. As an example, 66,000 pounds of bison meat had to be recalled in 2010 due to possible E. coli contamination.
Whether 100% grass-fed or grain-finished, however, bison meat is leaner than any kind of beef out there. And it’s a rich source of a number of vital nutrients.
Key Bison Meat Nutrition Facts
Like all red meat, bison contains tons of protein, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. And when grass-fed, it’s a good source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Grain-finishing, as is the case for beef, causes omega-3 levels to starkly decline.
According to the National Bison Association, a 3.5 ounce piece of bison meat contains 143 calories and 2.5 ounces of fat, while the same cut of “select” beef contains 200 calories and 8 grams of fat. Those numbers come from the leanest cut of bison meat that’s been trimmed of all fat. Other cuts are more comparable to lean beef, with between 165 and 190 calories and 4 to 9 grams of fat. The same size serving of ground bison meat can have up to 15 grams of fat and contains an average of 240 calories.
Based on data provided by the USDA, 4 ounces of ground, grass-fed bison meat contains:
- 124 calories
- 17 grams of protein
- 6 grams of fat
- 1.7 milligrams of vitamin B12
- 3.9 milligrams of zinc
- 17 milligrams of selenium
- 4.5 milligrams of niacin
- 2.3 milligrams of iron
Bison vs. Buffalo Meat: Is There a Difference?
Despite what the song “Home on the Range” may have led you to believe, buffalo never roamed the plains of the American West. The two species of buffalo living today—the water buffalo and the Cape buffalo—live in South Asia and Africa respectively. Although “buffalo” is commonly used to refer to the bison who did roam through the American West, it’s a misnomer.
Although bison and buffalo are both large, horned animals that belong to the Bovidae family, there are key differences you can use to distinguish between the two. Bison have a hump at their shoulders, which buffalo lack, that allows them to use their heads like plows to sweep away snow in the winter. And buffalo have curving horns that are far larger than bison horns, some reaching more than 6 feet! Bison also have thick beards, making them, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the hipsters of the two animals.”
7 Reasons to Eat Bison Meat
There are a variety of reasons why you might want to eat bison meat, some of which have to do with its nutritional value and some of which have to do with how it’s raised. Here are seven especially compelling reasons to eat bison meat.
Reason #1: It’s Likely to Be Free-Range and Grass-Fed
Most beef comes from cows raised in factory farm settings, but it’s far more common for bison destined to become bison meat to spend their lives grazing on their own in grasslands. In fact, USDA regulations still classify bison as “wild game.”
According to Turner Ranches, who have the largest private bison herd in the world, the animals are handled as little as possible. Bison spend most of their lives on grass, “much as they always have,” though Turner Ranches do grain-finish their bison “to ensure consistent quality.”
The Code of Ethics of the National Bison Association, as well as federal regulations, forbid the use of hormones in bison raising, and the bison industry itself further restricts the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics and animal byproducts.
Not only is this better for the bison, but it’s also better for you. Studies conducted at North Dakota State University found that bison meat, based on the proportion of protein, fat, mineral, and fatty acids to caloric value, is an exceptionally nutrient-dense food.
Entirely grass-fed bison is the most nutrient-dense choice, as well as the most ecologically sustainable.
Reason #2: It’s a Phenomenal Source of Lean Protein
Like all meat and animal products, bison is a complete protein food, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. And it has an impressive protein to fat ratio, due both to bison’s natural body structure as well as the fact that they spend their lives roaming freely outdoors rather than cramped up in inhumane cages. Cows are also selectively bred to have more internal fat.
Because of their different fat compositions, bison steaks tend to be a darker red than beef when uncooked, since they lack the white marbling that fat deposits create. That leanness makes bison a lower calorie option too. If you’re looking for ways to add protein to your diet while restricting calories, bison could be a wonderful choice. According to findings from the Livestock Development Division at Alberta Agriculture, the sirloin, specifically, is the leanest cut.
Reason #3: It’s Loaded with Energizing B Vitamins
A 4-ounce serving of ground, grass-fed bison contains over a quarter of the vitamin B12 and vitamin B2 you need for the day. It also provides approximately 20% of the minimum recommended niacin intake for adults, 13% of your riboflavin intake, and 10% of your thiamin intake. These B vitamins help your body convert nutrients from the food you eat into useable energy for your body, support digestion, and maximize cognitive function. They also mitigate the effects of stress on a cellular level.
Based on research done by three scientists from the Nutritional Science and Dietetics department at the University of Nebraska, it appears that the cut of bison you choose won’t impact its B vitamin content.
Reason #4: It Contains Tons of Inflammation-Quelling Selenium
Although selenium is a trace mineral, it functions as an antioxidant in your body. With 17 milligrams of selenium, 4 ounces of ground, grass-fed bison will get you 30% of your daily recommended intake. Selenium helps prevent oxidative stress that can led to cellular damage and hasten the aging process.
Increasing your intake of antioxidants can offset the effects of free radicals from environmental toxins and other sources.
As with B vitamins, and again based on data collected by the University of Nebraska, the cut of bison doesn’t impact its selenium content.
Reason #5: It Offers High Concentrations of Immune-Boosting Zinc
A 4-ounce serving of ground, grass-fed bison nets you 3.9 milligrams of zinc, which totals up to 26% of your daily recommended intake. Zinc is absolutely crucial for proper immune system function, as well as for cellular health. We need adequate zinc intake in order to form new tissue, hair, and skin cells.
Reason #6: It Provides More Omega-3s Than Most Red Meat
Bison have markedly better omega fatty acid profiles than most red meat. Grass-fed bison has a particularly good fatty acid profile, with comparatively fewer omega-6 fatty acids and more omega-3 acids than both grain-fed bison and cattle.
Eating a typical Western diet typically means consuming far more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. While both are necessary for optimal health, the goal is to consume a balanced ratio. The average dietary intake today is about 16:1 in favor of omega-6s, while anthropological evidence suggests that the ideal ratio is closer to 1:1. Researchers believe that skewed dietary intake of omega-6s and omega-3s is a serious health problem.
To correct this, experts recommend eating fewer omega-6s, rather than trying to increase your omega-3 consumption. Foods like bison, which are naturally low in omega-6s, can help you achieve that goal.
Reason #7: It Can Benefit Your Heart Health
A study published in the international journal Nutrition Research found that eating bison, rather than beef, can benefit your blood lipid profile. The double-blind, cross-over randomized trial examined the effects of consuming a single 12-ounce serving of each meat, as well as the effects of eating both over the course of seven weeks.
The authors found that eating bison resulted in healthier blood lipid panels, as well as reduced inflammatory and oxidative stress responses. All those markers indicate that eating bison is a better choice for long-term heart health, since it minimizes the dangerous effect of inflammation on your blood vessels.
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How to Shop for Bison Meat
Wondering where to buy bison meat? Chances are, you can find it in a grocery store near you. If you find that’s not the case, try asking a local butcher for recommendations. It’s also possible to order bison meat online directly from some small ranches and farming operations.
When shopping for bison meat, you may notice that it has a percentage listed on it—typically, between 90% and 98%. This means the meat is, for instance, 90% lean with a 10% fat content. So, if you’re looking to limit your fat intake, you’ll want to select the meat with the highest percentage listed.
Bison meat does cost more than beef, even premium, grass-fed beef. Prices for bison meat average between $9 and $14 for a pound of ground meat. Filet steaks can go for three times that.
One reason for the higher cost is that there are simply far fewer bison being raised for slaughter. A CNBC story reported that the estimated total amount of bison processed for meat in 2015—67,000—is roughly equivalent to the number of cattle processed in half a day. It’s also more expensive to raise bison as well as to distribute the meat. Based on its nutritional profile and the more ethical way the bison are raised, many consumers feel it’s worth paying more for the meat.
10 Fantastic Bison Meat Recipes
Aficionados recommend that those new to cooking bison begin with ground bison meat, which can be swapped into essentially any recipe you’d typically make with ground beef. Keep in mind, however, that because bison has a low fat content, it can dry out and become tough if cooked at a high temperature for too long.
If you try a recipe for bison steak, chefs suggest cooking the steaks to no more than medium-done. To lock in the moisture, sear it first with a little bit of healthy, heat-safe fat over high heat, then cook slowly at a reduced heat. You can also grill or broil chops and steaks, since the meat is quite tender.
You’ll get the best best results with less tender cuts, like chuck, when you slow cook them. And ground meat patties should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F, at which point the pink should just have begun to disappear.
Recipe #1: Protein-Packed Bison and Bacon Sweet Potato Sliders
Giselle Schroer, a stay-at-home mom and fitness instructor, frequently shares nutritious recipes on her blog, My Healthy Happy Home. She calls these bison and bacon sweet potato sliders “amazing little stacks of goodness.” They’re paleo-friendly and feature a full pound of grass-fed bison formed into petite patties and served between two slices of lightly crisped sweet potatoes.
Get the recipe here.
Recipe #2: Savory Bison and Mushroom Stuffed Peppers
The inspiration for this recipe came in part from the delectable, savory stuffed vegetable dishes Liz Della Croce’s Middle Eastern relatives have been preparing for years. Della Croce is the creator and author of The Lemon Bowl, a healthy food and lifestyle blog where she shares “delicious recipes that just so happen to be good for you.” She emphasizes real foods and seasonal ingredients.
Her bison and mushroom stuffed pepper recipe is “a hearty, satisfying twist on a comfort food classic.”
Get the recipe here.
Recipe #3: Umami Bomb Grilled Bison Burgers
Freelance food writer and recipe developer Julia Clancy came up with this fantastic bison burger recipe for EatingWell magazine. “Adding smoky, umami-packed ground mushrooms to grilled burgers builds flavor and keeps things juicy while bumping up the patty size,” Clancy writes.
She chose bison for this burger because of its sustainability and rich flavor. Because the recipe requires you to cook the mushrooms first to infuse them with garlic, paprika, and red wine vinegar, it does take longer than the average burger recipe. But the flavor pay-off in the end is well worth the additional effort.
Get the recipe here.
Recipe #4: Comforting Bison Shepherd’s Pie for a Crowd
If you need to feed a crowd, consider this bison shepherd’s pie recipe from Bon Appétit. It can be prepped up to the point you’d put it in the oven a day in advance and serves 10 to 12!
Flavors like thyme, dry red wine, horseradish, and smoked paprika meld beautifully to create a dish with a familiar yet intriguing taste that’s sure to satisfy. Plus, the potato topping gets an extra dollop of nutrients from a “secret ingredient”—cauliflower.
Get the recipe here.
Recipe #5: Wholesome Spaghetti Squash Bowl with Bison Meatballs
Kristen Michaelis is a punk rock foodie determined to save lives by sharing the information people need to feel empowered to prepare wholesome, traditional foods on her blog Food Renegade. This paleo, low-FODMAP recipe comes from guest contributor Natalie, who runs her own blog, Honey, Ghee, and Me.
To make a flavorful marinara sauce without garlic or onions (which aren’t allowed on a low-FODMAP diet), Natalie incorporated fresh herbs and vegetables, like bok choy stems, bell peppers, eggplant, oregano, parsley, and even a splash of apple cider vinegar. The meatballs are just as perfectly spiced—as Natalie succinctly put it, “Bison and fresh sage are a perfect marriage.”
Get the recipe here.
Recipe #6: Spicy Green Bean and Tofu Stir Fry with Ground Bison
According to Food & Wine senior recipe developer Grace Parisi, who created this remarkable recipe, “Many cultures use meat as a flavoring instead of as the main ingredient. Here, ground bison adds substance and richness to the tofu and green beans in a chile sauce-spiked stir-fry.”
This simple one-pan recipe yields incredible results. It comes together quickly and is seriously protein-rich. For the most sustainable and humane option, Parisi recommends using grass-finished bison.
Get the recipe here.
Recipe #7: Quick and Easy Bison Tacos
Dietician Stacey Mattinson believes in a whole-foods, plant-based based approach to nutrition. The recipes she shares on her site are simple, delicious, and enjoyable. “I’m not sure about you, but I like to do everything I can to get as many vegetables into the foods I’m already eating,” Mattinson notes. “Thinking about how you can get more nutritional value into the foods you already enjoy can be a helpful tool to make healthful eating less of a daunting task.”
This recipe certainly demonstrates those principles. Not only did Mattinson swap healthy bison meat for the more expected ground beef, but she also increased the fiber by adding mushrooms, beans, tomato, and bell pepper. Her healthy bison tacos make the perfect weeknight dinner—they’re delicious, nutritionally balanced, and easy to make.
Get the recipe here.
Recipe #8: Clean Eating Bison Chili
Born and raised Texas girl Kim Lee, the recipe developer, photographer, writer, and taste tester behind recipe blog Kim’s Cravings, says her Clean Eating Bison Chili is the perfect meal to serve to “picky ‘meat and potato’ people” who are easing into a healthier way of eating.
She says this easy-to-make, mouthwatering chili is a great option for game day or any day. “Double this recipe for dinner tonight and then enjoy leftovers throughout the week,” she suggests. “Chili only gets better with time, as the flavors meld and marry together.”
Get the recipe here.
Recipe #9: Rachael Ray’s Bison and Quinoa Meatloaf
This extraordinary recipe comes from celebrity chef Rachael Ray. She elevates a down-home favorite with ingredients like crimini mushrooms, cherry preserves, and, of course, bison and quinoa.
This meatloaf recipe comes together with just 20 minutes of prep time and is sure to make a memorable impression.
Get the recipe here.
Recipe #10: Paleo-Friendly Bison and Plantain Breakfast Bowl
Bison for breakfast? Why not! This paleo-friendly, wonderfully-balanced breakfast bowl from nutrition consultant Cassy Joy Garcia can be a welcome change of pace from egg-based morning meals.
Garcia, a cookbook author and full-time recipe blogger on her site Fit & Fed, says that an added bonus to egg-free breakfasts is that they’re freezer-friendly, so you can make a big batch, portion it out, and have healthy breakfasts ready to go in just minutes.
This breakfast bowl features bison seasoned with chili powder, fried plantains, and lemony sautéed greens, but Garcia says it’s the roasted tomato sauce that really makes it sing.
Get the recipe here.