Considered by many to be healthier than even grass-fed beef and richer in flavor (despite being lower in saturated fat), bison meat might soon become your favorite protein source. Over the past several years, the popularity of bison meat has nearly quadrupled — and for good reason. Once only sold by select farmers in certain parts of the country, there’s a good chance bison meat has made its way to your local health store by now. Even your kids might be lucky enough to dine on bison meat burgers soon, since the federal school lunch program recently agreed to purchase bison meat for use in select areas. (1)
Did you know that bison meat is much more likely to be grass-fed and organic than beef? It’s true. That’s because bison cattle usually live freely in wild, not on factory farms like the vast majority of cattle do.
Why else is bison meat good for you? Studies show bison meat has less calories and fat than beef. It’s also an excellent source of lean protein, and it provides a variety of essential nutrients, like B vitamins, zinc and iron, just to name a few. These are just a few of the many benefits of bison meat and reasons to incorporate it your diet.
What Is Bison Meat?
What kind of meat is bison? Like the name implies, bison meat is a “dark meat” sourced from bison (either species B. bison or B. athabascae). Bison are a species of humpbacked, shaggy-haired wild ox that are native to North America and Europe. (2)
Bison are actually the largest indigenous animals native to North America. Like all cuts of meat, bison meat — nicknamed “the other red meat” — is a top protein food and supplier or many nutrients. Bison might also be a step above beef and poultry when it comes to sustainability, heart health and even taste.
When shopping for bison meat, you’ll notice that it can be “blended” to contain different ratios of fat, usually between 90 percent to 98 percent (which means 90 percent is lean, for example). The percentage left over once subtracted from 100 is essentially the fat content — so the higher the percent, the less fat and calories there are.
According to the USDA, four ounces of ground grass-fed bison meat has about: (3)
- 124 calories
- 17 grams protein
- 6 grams fat
- 1.7 milligrams vitamin B12 (28 percent DV)
- 3.9 milligrams zinc (26 percent)
- 17 milligrams selenium (24 percent)
- 4.5 milligrams niacin (22 percent)
- 2.3 milligrams iron (13 percent)
Keep in mind that other cuts of bison meat that are less lean might contain four to six grams of fat and around 160–190 calories. The fattiest parts of a bison can even contain up to 13 grams of fat in a 3.5-ounce serving size. If weight loss is your goal or you’re looking to keep calories on the lower end, you want to choose a lower fat percentage. (4)
1. Much More Likely to Be “Grass-Fed” than Beef
While the vast majority of cows bred for beef are raised in large factory farm settings, bison cattle very commonly live freely in the wild. The bison meat market hasn’t yet risen to large enough volumes to cause bison to be confined to small feedlots or tightly packed indoor quarters. Compared to the amount of cow’s beef produced each year, bison meat is produced in significantly lower quantities. In fact, it’s as little as “one half of one day’s worth” of beef that’s sold annually, according to a report from CNBC. (5)
A high percentage of slaughterhouses are not equipped to handle bison since they’re still considered “wild game” according to the USDA’s regulations. This means bison are able to live outside in their normal habitat, eat their natural diet and stay in better health. The muscular structure of modern-day bison is thought to be very close to their original and natural form. This is a stark difference compared to most factory farm meat that’s usually selectively bred for fat marbling in order to make it more attractive to consumers.
According to suppliers of bison meat sold at Whole Foods Markets around the U.S., the animals are grass-fed and spend “the majority of their lives at home on the range.” (6) The bison used for bison meat sold at Whole Foods (and we assume most other places too) are never given antibiotics, added growth hormones or fed animal byproducts by law. In fact, federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising bison (as well as pork, poultry, goats and veal) altogether.
What does all of this translate to when it comes to eating bison meat? You get a more nutrient-dense, better-tasting product than if you buy a cheaper cut of beef from the grocery store.
2. Great Source of Lean Protein
When it comes to cholesterol and saturated fat, free-range bison (along with free-range cows, elk and chicken) shatter myths when it comes to “unhealthy saturated fat.” The truth about saturated fat is it actually can be healthy. That’s especially true in the case of bison meat. Bison that are wild and raised outdoors have a better total fatty acid concentration, with less omega-6s and more omega-3s, compared to feedlot bison and feedlot cattle. That makes bison meat one of the more beneficial omega-3 foods around. (7) This makes bison beneficial in many ways, despite the fact that red meat often has a bad reputation. (8)
All types of meat and animal products are “complete proteins foods.” That means they provide all the essential amino acids the body can’t synthesize on its own. However, compared to other cuts of meat, bison is considered one of the best when it comes to having a high protein-to-fat ratio. Bison meat packs in protein but is still considered to be “lean” since it’s relatively low in saturated fat (especially compared to fattier cuts of beef). That’s a result of the body structure of bison themselves as well as the practice of having them roam freely outdoors.
The natural muscle structure of bison makes them leaner animals than cattle. Cows are usually bred to have more internal fat than bison naturally do. It might not be a huge discrepancy between the two when it comes to leanness, but it’s still noticeable to most people.
According to the USDA, 100 grams of lean bison meat contains about only 109 calories and two grams of fat. The same amount of beef has 291 calories and 24 grams of fat — a pretty substantial difference overall. (9) The sirloins of bison have less cholesterol than all the other cuts, which makes them a popular choice for anyone who’s health-conscious. (10)
Bison steak is usually even a darker red color than beef when uncooked, since it lacks the white “marbling” effect where fat is stored within beef. The difference in their muscle structure also means that bison meat is usually lower in calories than beef, since the fat content of highly marbled beef adds considerable calories without many more nutrients.
3. High in Energizing B Vitamins
B vitamins, such as vitamin B2 and niacin, found in animal products are essential for both physical and mental health. They help with the conversion of nutrients from the food you eat into useable energy for the body. This is one reason why eating more protein is important for increasing energy levels. B vitamins support multiple metabolic functions as well as overall cognitive health. They even help your body deal with the effects of stress at the cellular level.
It turns out, the cut of bison has little effect on the amount of riboflavin and niacin found in bison meat. That means you can get these benefits regardless of the cut of meat. (11)
4. Fights Inflammation
You might not think “antioxidants” when you think of bison meat, but consuming it is a great way to boost your intake of selenium. (12) Selenium benefits are similar to the benefits of antioxidants. In fact, selenium acts as an antioxidant by helping prevent oxidative stress that causes cellular damage and winds up speeding up the aging process. Inflammation is increased from a poor diet and the effects of free radicals from environmental toxins. This is why we rely on a nutrient-dense diet to counteract these effects and keep us feeling young.
Another benefit of eating bison meat over certain other animal products? Studies find that bison consumption in adult men in comparison to beef can result in a healthier blood lipid panel and a reduced inflammatory and oxidative stress response. These are both beneficial for improving heart health and minimizing the dangerous effects of inflammation on blood vessel (vascular) functions. (13)
5. Supports a Strong Immune System with Zinc
Bison meat is a great way to naturally acquire zinc. Zinc is critical for proper immune system and cellular functioning. Zinc benefits even include forming new tissue, hair and skin cells.
6. Helps Prevent Iron Deficiency
Bison meat is considerably high in iron. In fact, that’s what actually gives the meat a bright red color that makes it noticeably different from beef or poultry. Anemia is a common disorder partially resulting from low iron intake, especially among vegetarians and women of reproductive age. The iron in animal products is actually more absorbable than the kind found in plant foods. This means it’s even more effective for preventing low energy, anemia symptoms and other symptoms of iron deficiency.
Bison vs. Beef vs. Buffalo Meat vs. Lamb
Which is better, bison or beef? How about buffalo or lamb? Here are how these meats compare to one another:
- Is bison, chicken or beef better for you if you’re looking for a nutrient-dense source of protein? Bison has one of the highest protein contents of all meats. Just like with beef, chicken or turkey, the exact amount of nutrients you find in bison depends a lot on the specific cut of bison meat you get. Leaner cuts like top sirloin and the equivalent to London broil are all lower in calories and fat compared to other fattier cuts of the animal.
- Bison meat usually has less calories and fat than beef. In fact, the highest-quality parts of the bison (and usually most expensive too) are very close to roasted, skinless chicken breast or even fish. Bison meat is lower in cholesterol than beef, pork, turkey, skinless chicken and even some fish. Bison supplies more vitamin B12, iron and zinc than chicken breast does, but chicken is still a good source of vitamin B6, phosphorus and niacin. (14)
- Bison is more likely than beef to be grass-fed, and grass-fed meat is typically lower in fat and calories. Plus, it’s a better source of omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid — or “good fats.”
- Bison and beef have similar tastes, but bison tends to be sweeter and very tender. The two can be used in similar ways, such as making burgers, meatballs, meatloaf, etc. (15)
- Despite what some people might think, bison and buffalo meat are not the same thing. These two animals are related but have their differences. Buffalo are found in Asia, North America (including the U.S. and Canada) and Southern Europe, while bison can be found in many parts of the United States, southern Canada and northern Mexico. Buffalo meat was an essential part of the Native American diet. It is considered to be rich in flavor, low in fat and high in protein. (16)
- Bison and buffalo meat have similar health benefits and nutrient content. Both are considered to be lean and contribute significantly more iron to your diet than beef. They are high in protein and vitamins, including vitamin B12, vitamin A, zinc, selenium and others. (17)
- Lamb meat is comparable to bison meat in many ways. Lamb is very nutrient-dense. Eating it regularly is a great way to obtain protein, vitamin B12, iron, other B vitamins, zinc, phosphorus, omega-3 fats and more. Lamb is said to have a milder taste than beef and typically has less than fat, just like bison and buffalo meat.
What about venison? How does bison meat compare? Venison (or dear meat) is a a type of “game” meat that is jam-packed with nutrients like protein, niacin, zinc and vitamin B12. It technically encompasses any type of meat from an animal within the deer family. That includes caribou, antelope, reindeer and elk meat. Not only is deer meat high in protein, but local venison is also considered a more sustainable source of protein. Why? Deer populations are very high in many parts of the U.S. and some other nations. The taste of venison is a bit richer with a more earthy flavor compared to the taste of bison, buffalo, lamb or beef.
Some health experts recommend having bison, beef, lamb or venison over pork for several reasons. Why should you avoid pork? Pigs tend to consume waste and generally unhealthy food products. Plus, pigs become more saturated with toxins than many other farm or wild animals. They can carry a variety of parasites in their bodies and meat, some of which are difficult to kill even when cooked/heated. According to the World Health Organization, eating processed meat made from pork (like ham, bacon and sausage) can also contribute to cancer.
Where to Buy and Uses
What does bison meat taste like? People describe bison as having a lighter flavor than beef that is also slightly sweeter. Bison tends to be very tender, which is another quality that makes it appealing.
You’re probably wondering where to buy bison meat and what the best ways to cook with it are. You can check with your local butcher for recommendations. You also can order bison meat directly from small farming operations online or look to larger stores like Whole Foods.
For those new to cooking with bison meat, most experts recommend you buy ground bison to start with. It’s not only lean, but also packed with flavor. Because it’s a perfect substitute for ground beef, you can swap in ground bison in nearly any favorite recipe you can come up with. But be careful not to overcook bison. It’s lower in fat than beef and can therefore dry out easily if left cooking at high temperatures for too long. (18)
How much is it to buy bison? Is bison meat expensive compared to other cuts of meat?
Prices usually range from about $9–$14 a pound for ground meat, while premium filet steaks are normally much more, up to three times that amount. Bison meat almost always costs more than beef, even the best-quality grass-fed beef. That’s because there’s simply far less bison alive today. Plus, it also costs more to produce and distribute their meat. About 20,000 bison are slaughtered for their meat each year compared to a whopping 125,000 a day of cattle. You might wonder, “Is bison meat worth the extra money?” Many argue that it is, even calling it the “best steak you’re ever going to have.” (19)
You can also simply add some grilled bison to a salad with a bit of raw cheese and balsamic vinegar. Bison meat’s flavors pair well with ingredients like sun-dried tomato, onion, cheese, mushrooms, carrots, fresh herbs and gravy.
At one point in history, wild bison could be found roaming freely through the Great Plains by the hundreds of thousands, but by the end of 1800s, their population significantly declined due to the rise of commercial hunting and slaughtering practices. At one point, bison were even on their way to extinction. The populations dropped down to around 300, according to the USDA’s estimates — a very far cry from being available in your local grocery store to purchase and feed to your family. (20)
The bison population in the U.S. has steadily grown over the past 100 years. This is good news considering that more and more people are learning about the appeal of this lean meat alternative. You won’t find bison meat at prices comparable to beef or turkey just yet. As demand continues to increase, we can expect bison meat to become more widely available and hopefully competitively priced too.
Bison and buffalo served as significant food sources and resource for indigenous peoples of North America until they nearly became extinct in the late 19th century. Other than providing food, they were valued for their raw materials, such as their skin and bones. Very few parts of the bison were left unused, and all edible parts were eaten, including the organs, such as the liver, heart, kidneys and roasted guts. Organ meats are very nutrient-dense. Bison meat was commonly roasted, boiled, broiled or dried. The meat was roasted on skewers, buried and dried to prolong its freshness. It also was cooked over hot rocks around a fire. Meat was often cooked in cases with hot, melted tallow or fat poured on top to saturate drier cuts of meat. Bison was enjoyed with other local and seasonal foods, such as chokecherries, greens, herbs, onions and buffalo milk.
Risks and Side Effects
Most people tolerate bison meat very well. However, in rare instances bison can cause an allergic reaction or digestive issues. This is more likely to happen if you respond badly to eating beef, pork, lamb, venison or goat.
Bison meat provides the most benefits when you purchase quality meat. The Bison Central website offers a lot of useful information to anyone looking to purchase high-quality bison meat, including an online buyer’s guide, vendor information, recipes, facts about bison ranches, and more. When looking for meat on your own, always try to buy the kind labeled “100% grass fed” if you can.
While all bison are grass-fed, some are still “finished” on grains. This is a common practice used by farmers to increase the size of the animals quickly right before they’re slaughtered and sold. By always buying 100 percent grass-fed products, you ensure you consume a cut of meat with less fat, more vitamins and even a higher concentration of crucial anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
- Bison meat has less calories and fat than beef. It is also an excellent source of lean protein and provides a variety of essential nutrients, like B vitamins, zinc and iron.
- While the vast majority of cows bred for beef are raised in large factory farm settings, bison cattle very commonly live freely in the wild. Wild/grass-fed bison meat is also a great way to obtain omega-3 fats and other healthy fatty acids.
- Bison meat and beef can be used in many of the same ways. Bison meat is said to taste slightly sweeter and is usually very tender. You can use bison meat to make burgers, meatballs, meatloaf, etc., instead of beef or pork.
- Bison meat and buffalo meat are not the same but offer similar health benefits. Both are considered lean and contribute significantly more iron to your diet than beef. They are high in protein and vitamins, including vitamin B12, vitamin A, zinc, selenium, iron and others.