America Should Learn to Love Lamb
By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer
One of the first animals to be domesticated and eaten in large quantities was sheep. This mostly docile, easy-to-care-for animal was domesticated thousands of years ago. Unlike dogs, domesticated before sheep, sheep were found not only to be useful for their wool coats and the milk they could produce, but they were also delicious to eat. For nomadic tribes and eventually small farmers and herders, sheep were perfect and their grazing, clothing, and eating uses led to their popularity.
Sheep can be eaten in two different forms: lamb or mutton. Lamb is a sheep that is less than a year old and mutton is a sheep that is matured. Mutton is a bit gamier and chewier with a darker red color and lamb is a lighter red (close to pink) with a slightly gamey, but very flavorful taste. In many parts of the world, but especially the Middle East, lamb is widely popular and is incorporated into many meals. Both types of sheep’s meat are eaten in Europe and the Middle East, but lamb is often preferred overall. It is healthy and delicious, but one major country has not yet accepted it into their diets: the US.
America’s Dislike for Lamb
Not all Americans dislike lamb, many (including myself) quite enjoy it and different ethnic communities (especially Arab Americans) often eat it; however, the general American public consumes small amounts. This was not always the case.
Around 1945, was its peak popularity with ~5lbs per person and ~55 million sheep in the U.S. By the 1960s consumption dropped to ~1lb per person and sheep in the country now number only ~6 million. Recently, lamb has made a bit of a comeback with 24% of the country eating it – though still irregularly.
Many suspect that this drop off was in part due to soldiers coming back from WWII. They had been constantly served mutton passed off as lamb and their dislike of it translated to less lamb being purchased once home. Another common argument when Americans say they do not like lamb is that it’s too dry or gamey. Those who have tried it know this is not true. The real reason may be a combination of previous marketing campaigns on behalf of beef and pork as well as the fact that nearly 50% of Americans have never even tried it.
The Marketing Campaigns Holding Lamb Back
Though many do not associate lamb with red meat it is just as much red meat as is beef and pork. In comparison to lamb, people consume 55lbs per person of beef and 50 of pork. In the late 1980s, there was a huge campaign to dispel ideas of pork being bad for your cholesterol and waistline. At the same time, the “beef, it’s what for dinner” ad campaign was occurring. These ads were designed to combat rapidly declining sales around this period of time, but they left a lasting impact on American impressions of beef and pork as staples in their diets.
Why Should I Eat Lamb?
Firstly, it is delicious. It is super simple to make and pairs well with numerous side dishes and spices. Many shy away from it because it seems foreign, but it actually is as simple to make a lamb burger as a beef burger. As many Arab families can attest, it also is perfect to toss a shank for the family into the oven with minimal spices needed. It can also be combined with beef (common in shawarma, gyros, and even some burgers). As most lamb is bred in an open pasture on an almost 100% grass-fed diet it is more flavorful too!
Secondly, lamb is healthy and provides more health benefits than beef or pork. For those looking to bulk up, it also is packed with protein – 25-26% of most cuts is protein. Its CLA (conjugated linoleic acid – associated with a ton of health benefits) is also highest over other ruminant meats like beef. Lamb also has many vitamins, minerals, and bioactive substances such as ALA, which is an important omega-3 fatty acid and Selenium which protects against cancer.
In fact, a 3-ounce serving, according to the American Lamb Board, has almost five times as much ALA as the same size piece of beef. It is also less likely to be fattened with antibiotics or hormones, which you want to avoid. Many do worry about the dangers of red meat, but the links to heart disease and carcinogens are circumstantial and easy to avoid. Simply consume in reasonable amounts and avoid over-charring when cooking.
Wait, Isn’t It Unethical to Eat?
Some do argue about the ethics of eating lamb because they are slaughtered while they are young. Since sheep are highly intelligent and emotional, some worry about the psychological harm done to mother sheep from this separation. There are other complaints about a process called tail docking where the sheep’s tail circulation is cut off so it falls off. This is meant to avoid feces becoming matted in the wool and seems to have no long-term effects.
Sheep, unlike most cows and pigs, are almost entirely raised outside with wide areas to roam since they fatten up fast just by living their natural lives. This is more ethically sound. In general, while the ethics of producing any meat may be controversial it is really up to the consumer. Sheep are typically raised more ethically than other livestock so if you can accept the ethics of eating beef and pork then lamb is just fine.
In recent years, more and more American consumers have begun to eat and enjoy lamb. This can be attributed to a couple of factors. One is the growth of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine which often incorporates lamb into dishes. Some examples are Halal Guys, Zoe’s Kitchen, and Cava. This has provided an outlet for consumers to try this meat and realize they enjoy it. This growth has been coupled with major chain-restaurants like Arby’s adding lamb to their menu (they added a lamb and beef gyro). More of this delicious meat available means more Americans are tempted to try it and negative myths or ideas about it are dispelled.
New Marketing and The Future
Along with lamb being more available, it also is being marketed better by restaurants. Some owners make sure to market the “free-range” aspect, which is very appealing to millennials. Others offer it in small portions meaning they can provide a low price to entice customers. Still, others present it beautifully with an arching rack of ribs as the centerpiece to entice big spenders. As more Americans try lamb they realize how delicious it is and want more, which American farmers could accommodate if they want to. Hopefully soon, America will hop on the lamb train; hopefully led by Arab America restaurateurs who know their lamb well.
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Lamb is not only delicious, but it is healthier than other popular red meats. Despite this most Americans still don’t eat it with beef and pork being consumed far more often than their sister red meat. Arab America contributing author Noah Robertson explores why Americans hesitate to add lamb to their diets and why they should reconsider.