The Explainer is now making occasional house calls, offering his services to settle everyday squabbles over questions large and small. For this feature, readers visit Facebook to vote for the debate or conundrum they think is most deserving of the Explainer’s attention. The winner of the first installment, and the topic for today’s column, is a new take on an old favorite—the gustatory merits of rarely eaten animals. The Explainer has already speculated on the flavor of dinosaur, compared whale meat to moose meat, and explored the lost art of horse cookery. Now a cadre of graduate students at the University of Michigan inquires: Does sloth meat taste good?
Not to people living in Ann Arbor, or most other parts of the globe. Outside of a handful of indigenous South American tribes, there isn’t much of a tradition of eating sloth meat. Researchers who work in Amazonia and have sampled the dish report that it’s slimy, chewy and gamey, and most feel that one serving is enough for a lifetime. Still, as with any food, personal reactions differ. Daniel Everett, a linguist who has spent more than seven years living with the Pirahã people of Brazil, agrees that unseasoned sloth is tough and slightly gamey, but he finds the meat palatable and vaguely reminiscent of pork.
You’re not likely to ever try sloth. It’s illegal to hunt the animal in Brazil, where many of them live. Although tribal groups can get away with violating the law, few have shown much interest. Eating sloth meat is taboo for a large number of the tribes living in the sloth’s habitat. The average tribesman in the animal’s range eats just 0.064 sloths annually.
If you somehow find yourself in possession of a sloth carcass and want to eat like a tribesman, preparation is simple. The Pirahã singe off the hair, gut the animal, and roast chunks of muscle over a fire. When the meat is thoroughly cooked, they tear off pieces with their hands and eat it plain. For the American palate, however, a little culinary doctoring can go a long way. Everett prefers to tenderize the meat in a pressure cooker for 40 minutes, season it with cilantro, garlic, salt, and chili sauce, and add it to tacos.
Some among the debaters in Ann Arbor reasoned that, since a sloth rarely moves more than a few hundred feet in a day, its meat should exhibit a delicious, veal-like tenderness. This is based on a misunderstanding of what makes meat tender.
Strands of collagen, the source of meat’s toughness, are found throughout animal muscle. As an animal ages, the strands begin to bond together. The more bonds that form, the tougher the meat becomes—it’s like adding more fibers to a rope. Research suggests that age and genetic makeup, not an animal’s activity level, determine the number of collagen bonds in its muscles. Veal is tender because the calf is slaughtered young, not because the animal is confined. That’s why ranchers continue to offer veal, even though confinement crates are on the way out.
If anything, the sloth’s sedentary lifestyle makes its meat tougher. Research suggests that consumers find the fast-twitch muscle in a chicken breast more tender than the slow-twitch muscle of the drumstick. Because their ancestors have been moving so slowly for so long, sloths are basically all dark meat—slow-twitch muscle from head to toe.
The final problem with using sloth for food is that there’s not much meat in an individual animal. The average cow is between 49 and 63 percent muscle. By contrast, a sloth is just 25 to 30 percent muscle.
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Explainer thanks Daniel Everett of Bentley University and author of Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, Flora Lu of UC Santa Cruz, Joanna Overing of the University of St. Andrews, and Macdonald Wick of the Ohio State University.