Beef Bones: Revealing their Extraordinary Value
In the health world there is a movement that has steadily been growing over the past few years. It’s gaining new converts each day. And it’s all centred around a thick liquid that is revered for its life-giving properties.
We are, of course, referring to bone broth (or stock).
Why bother using bones (and why a T-bone isn’t counted!)
True – almost everyone has heard of the wonders of bone broth, and a growing proportion of these people make and consume it regularly.
But what if we take a step back, and ask ourselves what’s in those bones that are slow-simmered for many hours that make them so valuable to our health?
If “bones are a perfect example of why you should never judge a book by its cover”, as suggested by the team at PaleoLeap, then what makes bones so special?
Let’s discover the fascinating answers as we take a short Bones 101 course!
Where do beef bones come from?
Bones are literally just that, bones from cattle.
Most people would recognise the bones in some meat cuts – like T Bone steaks, beef short ribs, or osso bucco. But there are also many others including rib bones, shin bones, vertebrae and hip bones.
In fact, there are more than 200 individual bones in meat animals (Handbook of Meat and Meat Processing, Second Edition edited by Y. H. Hui), and in cattle, these bones account for approx 15 – 20% of the carcase weight.
From a 250kg carcase, that’s between 40 – 50kg of bone! (That would make an enormous supply of bone broth!).
What are beef bones made of?
Bones are living tissues, and they undergo continual change throughout an animals life. They are actually classified as organs, even though they’re very rigid and quite different in appearance to liver or kidneys. Like their namesakes, bones, too, contain a wide variety of nutrients.
Titbit: If it weren’t for the collagen, bones would be hard and inflexible. The presence of collage fibres prevents them from being brittle and breaking easily.
What are the different types of beef bones?
As with meat cuts, there are different terms given to bones depending on which part of the world you’re from. So it’s no wonder we’re a bit confused! (See Quality Grill Parts for an education in some of these terms).
Us Aussies like to ‘call a spade a spade’, so these are the simple categories that bones from beef (as well as lamb and pork) can be classified into:
- neck bones,
- knuckles (which describes any joint bone),
- feet, and
- other (includes shoulder, rib, shank, and breast bones).
It’s likely though that you’ll hear more general terms used like ‘meaty bones’ (with a bit of meat on them like chuck bones), soup/broth bones, jointy bones (cartilage-rich bones and connective tissues that contain joints) or marrow bones (the humerus and femur bones are the best-known).
And as a general rule of thumb, the more unknown or obscure the type of bone, the cheaper it is!
Just when we thought we’d got this whole bone classification thing down, we discover that sometimes names can be misleading!
Oxtail, despite containing many small bones, is actually classified as an organ meat (but yes, you’re correct in assuming this cut is the tail from a steer or heifer!). And although oxtail is not included in our standard beef bone boxes, it’s one of only a few cuts that offers a double-bang for your buck. The meat can be savoured when slow-cooked in a braising liquid, and then the bones can be used to make an amazing gelatinous broth.
What is so special about bone marrow?
“Bone marrow is the soft, fatty tissue inside the bone cavity of large bones where blood cells are produced. Marrow is nutrient-dense and contains collagen for improved joint function, plus easily digestible forms of zinc, phosphorous, calcium, and iron. It is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, lipids, and Vitamin A. Marrow has been shown to boost immunity and wound-healing, support brain and hormone function, and aid in digestion by rebuilding damaged intestinal lining” (How and Why to Use Bone Marrow).
There are actually two different types of marrow in bones, yellow and red. At birth, all bone marrow is red, which then gradually changes to yellow marrow with age.
Most people are familiar with the yellow marrow found in femur and humerus bones. Conversely, the lesser appreciated red marrow is found mainly in the flat bones, such as the hip bone, ribs, and vertebrae, and at the ends of the femur and humerus. Both yellow and red marrow are important sources of nutrition and help support the immune system when extracted in the cooking of bone broth (Bone Broth for Health Building).
What function do bones play in cattle (and other living things)?
Unlike meat, bones have a unique nutritional profile that enables them to play multiple roles in the body.
Let’s start with the obvious. Bones enable cattle to stand, balance and enjoy a freedom of movement. They also protect their most fragile organs, such as the brain and lungs.
There are also less obvious roles that bones perform. The marrow in bones contain blood vessels which help eliminate or detoxify the body of certain heavy metals.
Bones also store minerals, and mobilise them as needed (Handbook of Meat and Meat Processing, Second Edition edited by Y. H. Hui).
And that’s not all! Bones function like reservoirs: 99% of calcium in the body is concentrated in the skeleton (Beef Cattle Feeding and Nutrition. By Tilden Perry).
What factors determine bone composition?
Bone composition isn’t set in stone and depends upon the species, age, and type of bone. Just like any other living tissue, it changes over time – with new bone being made, and old bone broken down (Handbook of Meat and Meat Processing, Second Edition edited by Y. H. Hui).
Like humans, there are many factors that will contribute positively (or negatively) to bone structure. What the animal ate (including the mineral content and nutrient density of the feed), how it lived, and where it lived all help determine the composition and content of bones, joints, and cartilage (Handbook of Meat and Meat Processing, Second Edition edited by Y. H. Hui).
What’s in beef bones that makes them so good?
We also know that bone broth, when slow simmered, offers us a tremendous nutritional bounty. It stands to reason that this goodness must be extracted from somewhere, and given that bones are the main ingredient, we’d be safe assuming that they’re the gold ticket.
So let’s look briefly at the beneficial concentrated elements found in bones (many of which end up in your well-made bone broth).
You’ve probably heard that bones contain marrow –a highly nutritious fatty protein full of minerals, collagen and gelatin. But they also are also “wonderful sources of minerals, amino acids, vitamins, healthy fats, collagen, gelatin, and nourishing compounds called glycosaminoglycans” (Precision Nutrition). And all this goodness is embedded in protein, fat and fat soluble vitamins.
Every one of these attributes found in bones are vital to maintaining a healthy body.
What else could bones contain?
We want to emphasise the importance of making careful selections with your bones. Especially if you’re fond of making bone broth, or any of the tasty recipe ideas below!
As with most food items, it pays to be aware of exactly what you’re buying (and what you may also be getting without your knowledge or consent).
It sounds cliche, but quality really does matter.
Always choose certified organic, grass-fed bones where possible, or at the very least opt for grass-fed if that’s what you can find. If you’re not certain of the source of the bones, ask the question, “Where’s this beef from, and how was it raised?” (The Beef With Beef Labels: Do You Know What They Mean?) And remember, you’ll see very little visual difference between these categories, so it will be difficult to tell with certainty unless you’re able to talk with the farmer or purveyor.
Why the cautionary approach to purchasing bones?
Any toxins, including chemicals, pesticides and heavy metals have the potential to disrupt the functioning of the animal. Therefore, animals have been created in such a way that instead of circulating throughout the body, these toxins are stored away in their bone, marrow and internal fat.
In fact, bones are the #1 place where lead and other heavy metals are stored. And while this helps keep the animal relatively ‘safe’ and unaffected, the toxins remain in the bones for life.
When these same bones are slowly simmered for many hours, your broth will contain valuable nutrition (including gelatin, minerals and amino acids). But if you’re not careful, you may also be releasing unwanted toxins from bones into your precious bone broth.
On a positive note, there’s another good reason to opt for 100% grass-fed bones. And that is because they consistently produce a gelatinous and super-tasty bone broth.
Who’d refuse a claim like that?!
Where can I access organic, grass-fed bones?
Nowadays it’s relatively common to see beef bones being sold – from supermarket to butcher, farmer’s market to online vendors. But it’s not always so easy to source organic, grass-fed bones.
If you’re struggling to find a reliable, trustworthy source of bones, then take heart. Here’s some wise words from best-selling author Sarah of The Healthy Home Economist: “always choose nutrition first. With the nutrition, you have a good chance at health; without it you have no chance even if the food choices are toxin-free“. In other words, don’t let a lack of organic or grass-fed bones stop you from making bone broth. There’s certainly more to gain than lose by doing so.
You can rest assured that all our products – including bones – are certified organic and solely pasture-fed.
What uses, besides food, do bones have?
As we’ve discovered researching this fascinating topic, there seem to be endless uses for bones!
Early civilisations used bones to make practical items like buttons, shovels and housing materials, and much more recently, plastic. During the 1930s depression and the war years, bones were collected and used in the production of steel, explosives and munitions, glue (for aeroplane construction), soap and agricultural fertilizer.
Did you Know?
What do tea parties and bones have in common?
The answer is of course, bones!
Bone china tea cups, known for their strength and whiteness, are made from approximately 50% bone ash derived from animal bones. The bones are cleaned, sterilised by heating them to 1000 °C, and then ground with water to provide the raw material for making bone china.
Wow – we’ll never look at a bone the same way again!
TAKE HOME TIP
Due to the global resurgence in the popularity of nutrient-rich bone broth, you’ll now see bones being sold in butchers, supermarkets and online. But why bother with bones at all? What’s in those bones that makes them such a treasure-house of goodness?
Bones are an every-changing living tissue (comprised of collagen, minerals and water), with the health and living conditions of the animal being reflected in the bone composition.
Bones contain a dizzying amount of “essential nutrients – anti-inflammatory and gut-healing proteins, healthy fats, and a wealth of minerals just waiting to be used” (Paleo Foods: Bone Broth). Even more importantly, these nutrients are bio-available (easily absorbed and used by your body) when you make and consume bone broth.
Because each type of bone has different levels of health-promoting compounds, it’s prudent to use a wide variety and from different animal sources. (And that’s why the bone in your T Bone steak isn’t really counted!). Try using a mixture of meaty bones, joints and marrow bones when making your bone broth.
But there’s a catch ….
Provenance (the place of origin) of the bones is paramount – a healthy animal is essential for the nutrients that it can provide you.
As bones are often the store-houses of more than just minerals (think toxins and heavy metals), it’s important to look for organic and grass-fed bones wherever possible.
Splurge, and buy the best bones you can afford – even then, they’re still one of the most economical food items around!
But if you can’t source organic, grass-fed bones easily, don’t let that stop you making your own bone broth. The health benefits you gain from bone broth made with ‘ordinary’ bones are still greater than not consuming it at all.
We’re focussed on the health of our family, and that of your family too. So that’s why we supply high quality bones from our own certified organic, pasture-fed, naturally reared animals.
You can be confident, then, that your resulting mug of bone broth will nourish and fortify you, moving you towards optimal health, so you can enjoy life with family and friends.