Does the UK's Fitness Community Contain Our Most Progressive Meat Eaters?

UK website MuscleFood.com recently added zebra steaks to an already exotic roster of meats in its shop, with all 900 selling out just five hours after launch. They're not the first fitness website to sell protein that's not from a chicken, either...

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Aug 7 2014, 4:30pm

Photo via Flickr user Jon Clegg

If the idea of eating hippo—two-inch-thick skin and all—makes you baulk, what about a lovely, lean bit of zebra? If you're on a protein bent (course you are) and getting through a bag of those Marks & Spencer bags of frozen chicken breasts a week, you might be in the market for a new protein source. But just how adventurous are we, really, when it comes to meat?

Social media shat itself when Jeanette Winterson tweeted a picture of a dead rabbit on a chopping board, its head gently lolloping as if it were sound asleep. She'd killed, skinned and was about to cook it (on the AGA, with rosemary and thyme) because it had been eating all the parsley in her garden. Anyone with a decent mind for sustainability, or knowledge of how murky the meat industry is, would have thought, ah, that makes perfect sense. Rabbits are invasive buggers, and they are also delicious. Not everyone agreed.

We got our knickers in a twist when Budgens stocked squirrel (another invasive species that's completely delicious) a while back. My mum screamed into her fizzy water when I suggested we try the grasshoppers at Wahaca when the waitress came round. "But they're completely sustainable, what we'll all be eating in the future and taste a bit like bacon," I offered. "Oh god. I can't. I just can't." My embarrassment flushed a deeper scarlet than the hibiscus agua fresca in my hand.

Apparently, though, even though "exotic" meat, i.e. anything outside of the chicken-pig-cow-deer-sheep blueprint (hoofprint?), has sort of been touted as a thing for a while now—despite things like llama, which did the rounds on newswires last year, really only being a prized meat for Britain's Ghurkha communities—how ready are we to expand our palates to a new plain of exotic protein?

Many—shudder—"foodies" I know mime retching if insects come up in conversation. When I went to noma last year and ate both ants and a miso-like product made from grasshoppers, I tweeted about it and a certain Grace Dent came back with something like, "NOT DINNER." I see her point. But they did taste nice. I also asked around a few chef friends who all said the same thing—that they'd never cook insects or a new, exotic-to-most protein source for the sake of it. It would have to be for the taste.

There is already a ripe market for it in the fitness community, who, it seems, is one of the most progressive demographics when it comes to meat. UK fitness food site MuscleFood.com recently added zebra steaks to its already pretty exotic roster (think horse, springbok, crocodile, kangaroo, and ostrich) of meats, because of its impressively low fat content of 0.5g per 100g—one tenth of the fat in an identically sized beef steak.

Chest-pressers want their meat as lean as their deltoids, and, according to a spokesperson for MuscleFood, they definitely don't stop at chicken. "We started introducing exotic meats to the range around the beginning of February," says Alex Mills, Brand Relationships Manager for MuscleFood. "After the horse meat scandal we received an influx of requests to sell horse and other more exotic meats."

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Zebra: the new steak? Photo via Flickr user Barbara Eckstein.

Presumably people got bored of horse, which is almost identical in flavour to beef, and started to want something new? "Yes. We had so many requests that we chose to trail other exotic meats like ostrich, buffalo, and kangaroo so our customers could decide for themselves."

The uptake for these meats has been huge. "We have all been amazed," says Mills. "When we launched horse meat we sold out of 1,100 fillet steaks in less than three hours. The most recent addition to our exotic range is zebra steaks. Within five hours of launching, we sold out of just over 900 steaks."

Even though zebra might be "the ultimate meat for fitness enthusiasts and athletes", could we feasibly see it on the shelves next to Lidl's kangaroo steaks? Possibly. Although, there is only one breed of zebra—the Burchell, bred in South Africa—that can currently be legally farmed for meat, so there would be a threshold for demand. You have been able to buy zebra and other "safari meats" online at places like Osgrow for ages, but it feels like, in our protein-obsessed age, the lean, fat-free, galvanising promises of zebra, ostrich, blesbok and impala meat might just expand our collective palates.

A quick scour of bodybuilding forums will show you not just how open to alternative meat sources these people are, but how actively they seek them out. Yes, they are mainly seeking premium leanness, but they are seeking nonetheless. As for the rest of us, maybe it'll take a Gwyneth Paltrow-type to come along and say that zebra is her new favourite superfood before we all start flocking to MuscleFood for stripy steaks.

If it's good enough for Bear Grylls, though, it should be good enough for all of us.