Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t, but either way, you’re going to learn about it. Introducing: Wagyu Beef, the newest craze (and craving) in the red meat world. Move over Kobe Beef there’s a new cow(boy) in town and it’s taking over the pallets of health-conscious meat lovers all over the United States. Why you may ask?
These Japanese cattle make for a beautiful, marbled, tender, and delicious type of beef. Aside from its taste and texture, the health benefits of Wagyu Beef are enough to make it a big deal, and quite possibly by the end of this article, to become your new favorite type of red meat!
We put Wagyu Beef head to head with Kobe Beef (the renowned, superior [and expensive!] meat) and see who comes out on top in this match - keep reading!
What is Wagyu Beef?
In the red corner, we’ve got lightweight Wagyu Beef, weighing in at a 4-ounce serving with 280 calories, 18 grams of protein, 10 percent of the daily recommended value of iron, 20 grams of fat (including 8 grams of saturated fat) and 60 grams of sodium.
Wagyu Beef is not a particular cut of a typical cow found here in the USA. Wagyu is actually a type of breed of beef cattle, specifically a Japanese beef cattle breed derived from a native Asian cattle. Did we just blow your mind? Yes, but keep reading.
WAGYU Simplified - The Japanese Meaning
The term ‘WAGYU’ actually refers to all Japanese beef cattle, where ‘WA’ means Japanese and ‘GYU’ means cow. Originally these draft animals were used for agricultural purposes because of their physical strength and endurance. You may notice that a cut of Wagyu Beef displays a more ‘marbling’ than most other types and cuts of meat found here in the US.
This particular type of cow is known for its marbling, which is also the reason why they have more of an endurance capacity than other types of cows. Marbling simply means that the animal has more intra-muscular fat cells which in turn provide a more readily available energy source. Aesthetically speaking, Wagyu cattle are either black or red and are a horned breed.
Wagyu Breed History in Japan
Given their impressive history and research of their genetic strains, Wagyu beef can be traced back to more than 35,000 years ago (Holy COW!). Today’s Wagyu cattle, aka modern Wagyu, are a cross between the native cattle in Japan and imported breeds.
The cross between the native Japanese cattle and imported breeds can be traced to 1868. When the Meiji restoration happened, the government made a big effort to introduce Western food habits and culture into the Japanese culture, which resulted in the import of various types of cattle including Brown Swiss, Devon, Shorthorn, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Korean. While most of those words don’t mean anything to the average beef eater, what matters in that the genetic combinations lasted until 1910 (that’s 42 years!) resulting in Wagyu Beef.
Japanese Cattle Breeds - The 4 Breeds of Wagyu
After the Western cattle breeds were mixed with the Japanese cattle, the result was four breeds considered to be Wagyu: Japanese Black (predominantly the type of Wagyu exported into the US), Japanese Brown (the US calls this the ‘Red Wagyu’), Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn.
Wagyu Breed History in USA – Timeline
It wasn’t until 1975 when the first Wagyu cattle were imported into the United States. And guess what? There were only 4 cows to begin with: two black and two red bulls.
- THE YEAR 1989: By 1989 the Japanese reduced tariffs on imported beef and actually tried to encourage the main U.S. to produce the same, high quality, for Japan.
- THE YEAR 1990-2003: Moving into the 1990s, production and further imports of the breeds were occurring in the United States (mostly black, but some Red Wagyu). While most of the produced meat was exported back to Japan, it wasn’t until 2003 that the storyline changed.
- THE YEAR 2003: In 2003, Japan (and other countries) stopped the import of beef to the United States, due to BSE, formally known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or to the layman, Mad Cow Disease (YIKES!) in Japan. While the disease incident stopped other countries from consuming the meat, once the issue was fixed and the viral disease was suppressed, the U.S. population, chefs, and others continued to import the Japanese Beef (this included Kobe)
What is Kobe Beef?
In the blue corner, we’ve got heavyweight Kobe Beef, weighing in at a 4-ounce serving boasting 330 calories, 22 grams of protein per serving, an equal 10 percent of the daily recommended value of iron, 28 grams of fat (including 11 grams of saturated fat and 1.5 grams of trans-fat per serving) and 75 grams of sodium. It’s known (similarly to Wagyu) for its robust meat flavor and price tag (some U.S. restaurants charge more than $300 per steak!).
Japan’s Kobe beef is the Rolls-Royce of red meat, the world’s most famously luxurious steak. It’s also the world’s most counterfeited beef. Kobe beef is technically Wagyu beef from the Tajima strain of the Japanese Black cattle breed. According to the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association, after the breed merge in the late 1800’s authentic Kobe Beef aka “Sukiyaki” and other meat dishes were available in Japan. But until the late 1970s? The term “Kobe Beef” wasn’t clearly defined.
In other words, there was no way to prove if Kobe Beef was authentic, so people starting asking questions and when there were no answers, meat distributors and consumers joined forces and established the Kobe Beef Marketing & Distribution Promotion Association in 1983.
Is “Kobe Beef” the Same as Wagyu?
No, Wagyu is not the same as Kobe Beef. While “WAGYU” translates to “Japanese Cow”, technically any cow from Japan can be named Wagyu. What the difference comes down to, between Kobe Beef and Wagyu is what type of cow it comes from. So before you order that Japanese steak, make sure you know what you’re getting, what type of Wagyu beef it is, and what you’re paying for!
USDA Bans Kobe Beef
No beef from Japan, not any bit of it, was allowed to be imported into the United States after 2009 due to fears of contamination and the very contagious viral disease BFE (remember, this is Mad Cow Disease!). At the same time, due to the profitability and popularity of Kobe Beef and its unique taste, hundreds of restaurants, stores, and chefs were straight-up LYING that Kobe Beef was offered, and trust us, the top-dollar was paid for. Kobe beef and the U.S. were ripping off consumers.
By the year 2012, the USDA started lifting some restrictions on Kobe Beef and allowing a small amount of import. As of July 2016, as reported by Forbes, the U.S. population could find authentic Japanese Kobe Beef at 9 restaurants, but along with it, came more complications and confusion for the consumer.
The “Kobe Beef” Lie - Food’s Biggest Scam
In June of 2013 the biggest ever outright scam on the website Kickstarter was pulled just minutes before the transaction went through. A campaign titled "KOBE RED - 100% JAPANESE BEER FED KOBE BEEF JERKY" first appeared on Kickstarter on May 14, 2013, and it raised $120,000 from 3,300 backers.
How did it raise so much money you ask?
To put this into perspective, only about 4,000 head of cattle qualify each year to be considered real Kobe Beef out of the entire world production. Of that, about 90% stays in Japan and the remaining goes to Macao, Singapore, and Hong Kong. What about the United States you ask? Out of the three million pounds of Kobe beef produced annually, less than 5,000 pounds makes it to the US market.
To be retailed or sold as 100% pure Kobe beef in the United States, the Kobe Beef Association (in Japan) gives out licenses to specific individuals (like a chef, for example), restaurants, or hotels to buy and save their meat (you can access this global list online).
In short, the scarcity of the meat led to the "Kobe Beef scam", which in turn, became the biggest food scam in American history.
The “Kobe-Style” Beef That Americans Know Today
After the USDA loosened the reigns on the import of Kobe Beef into the U.S. in 2012, a more complicated issue arose - gray areas - what exactly is “Kobe Beef”? Common terms thrown around were “Japanese Beef,” “Japanese Wagyu,” “Domestic Wagyu,” or Wagyu in general.
Remember when we told you WAGYU really just means Japanese Cow? Well technically, if you think about it, any cow from Japan can be called WAGYU. So how are you supposed to know the difference between the two? You sort of… can’t. At least in full confidence, that is.
There are many umbrella terms, like domestic Wagyu, and the key selling point and way that beef is marketed is underneath the “Kobe” name. You see, the term Kobe Beef is actually a registered trademark of the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association in Japan.
So if you see “Kobe-style” beef here in the states, just know, it’s not 100% Kobe Beef. As a consumer, think of it this way, buyer beware and unless you know who the farmer is, where the meat came from, what cows it came from, and are able to verify it, just know that the meat you may be consuming is *most likely* NOT Kobe Beef or Japanese Wagyu. In contrast, similarly to Japan, we do have the American Wagyu Association that tries to implement and regulate Wagyu here in the U.S. they “can only encourage” consumers to look for appropriate labeling when attempting to purchase Wagyu.
At the end of the day, does it honestly matter? (Probably not to most people, in all honesty.)
Why is Wagyu Beef So Expensive?
Only the very best, scientifically proven genetics, of Wagyu cattle, are used for production and trust us, they put it to the test. Japanese production of Wagyu beef is highly regulated and for progeny testing (that means genetic testing, assuring that the current selection has indeed come from its progeny or genetic line. Sound expensive? It is, and guess what? It contributes to the overall cost for the end consumer, like me (and probably soon, you, too!).
Since the purest Wagyu beef is Japanese, if you’re going to import this type of beef (or you’re purchasing it imported into the U.S.) you’re going to pay a price tag that reflects all the efforts that go into assuring that quality. If it’s from Japan, it’s going to be regarded as “Miyazakigyu” and graded A5 for its superior marbling, color, firmness, and tenderness. If it’s raised here in the U.S., it’s still going to come at a cost much higher than other selections of beef, but not quite as high as Japanese Wagyu.
The Wagyu Olympics
To ensure the quality of your beef, as well as the health benefits, the highest quality of Wagyu beef produced in Japan is from Miyazaki, the southern-most prefecture of Japan located on the island of Kyushu. Why is this the finest? It’s proven: every five years there is a National Wagyu Competition in Japan, often referred to as the “Wagyu Olympics” and producers from every part of the country bring their animals to compete. For the last two consecutive Olympics, the beef from Miyazaki has taken the cake. About 85% of all the Wagyu raised in Japan are formed from Miyazaki genetics.
The quality of American Wagyu isn’t inferior to Japanese Wagyu, it’s just a little different. Breeding and calving operations are regionally located throughout the United States and they’re dedicated to producing Imperial Wagyu Beef, graded by the USDA officials (every carcass scores well above Prime) against the toughest quality standards in the world from Japan, unequaled by other American producers.
Read more about the Wagyu Olympics by Reuters: CLICK HERE
**18 month-old female cattle Yoriko, from Kagoshima prefecture, is posed for a photograph during a photo session after winning the breeding cattle category - young female cattle division competition at 11th National Japanese Beef Ability Expo, commonly known as Wagyu Olympics, in Sendai, northern Japan September 10, 2017. The picture was taken on September 10, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato**
The Health Benefits Of Wagyu Beef
Don’t underestimate the powerful punch of Wagyu Beef - this type of meat. The health benefits of Wagyu Beef go far beyond the face-value macronutrients we presented at the beginning of this match.
According to Dr. Tim Crowe, dietician and lecturer at the Deakin University School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences in Melbourne, “The profile of Wagyu marbled beef is very beneficial to human health. The mono-unsaturated to saturated fat ratio is higher in WAGYU than in other beef. But even the saturated fat contained in WAGYU is different. Forty percent is in a version called stearic acid, which is regarded as having a minimal impact in raising cholesterol levels. So really, the profile of marbled WAGYU beef is more beneficial to human health. It can be described as a healthier type of meat.”
Additionally, WAGYU has a higher content of conjugated linoleum acid (CLA), which has been shown to have potent anti-carcinogenic properties, as well as being an anti-inflammatory agent. While fat often has a bad reputation, research done at the University of Wisconsin has found that Wagyu Cattle contain up to 30% more monounsaturated fatty acids than the much-praised Angus cattle and up to 300% more than other, lower quality graded red meats.
What does this mean for you? Consuming Wagyu over other types of red meat may be a better option for your health as part of a well-balanced, nutritious, low-cholesterol diet.
Buying Wagyu Beef
Buying meat can be confusing, to say the least, especially with regard to the “Kobe” myth here in the United States. In an effort to make a high-quality statement about beef to consumers, regardless of the actual quality, you’re going to see terms like “Kobe-style”, “American Kobe”, and “Kobe Beef” only furthering customer confusion and misinformation. While Wagyu can be raised here in the United States, the most superior type (due to genetic purity) is Japanese Wagyu.
The American Wagyu Association acknowledges that “Although our purpose is to educate the consumer about the great attributes of Wagyu we can only encourage our members to market their beef products with confidence and truth in labeling that the customer deserves.” With that being said, they suggest looking for the different purity categories on the packaging, such as “100% Wagyu,” “high-percentage Wagyu,” and “Wagyu influenced beef”. All in all, keep in mind, that the only true, 100% Kobe beef that you’re ever going to get, is going to be if you take a trip to Japan and know ahead of time, you’re going to pay top dollar for it and only a handful of restaurants serve it.
What’s The Beef With Wagyu?
Well if you didn’t learn by now, Wagyu is one of the highest quality red meats you can possibly get. Specifically from the breeds Japanese Black (predominantly the type of Wagyu exported into the US), Japanese Brown (the US calls this the ‘Red Wagyu’). While both Wagyu and Kobe stepped into the ring today, it looks like Wagyu, the red corner is going to take the #1 spot due to its health benefits, quality, testing, and genetic reliability. If you have a few extra pennies to spend and aren’t able to travel to Japan for the real Kobe Beef, then your next best bet if you’re looking for a steak (with a high price tag) then we suggest opting for Wagyu at a restaurant or store. But, buyer beware. Look for the quality rating of the beef and where it comes from before you drop a pretty penny on this type of beef.