The Nutritional Content of a Rat

May 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, the New York Times reported on the Chinese government’s crackdown on a 63+ person crime ring that has spent the past few years selling the citizens of Shanghai and neighboring areas $1.6 million dollars’ worth of lamb that was, in fact, rat.*

Now, the Chinese officials appear to have made this announcement to assure their residents that the problem was being forcefully addressed, and that the government had its eye on this sort of thing, etc, etc. But the effect was to alert anyone in the region who’d eaten lamb in recent history that they probably ate rodent instead, and isn’t that a delightful thought from which there’s really no going back.

I have so many questions. Where did the rats come from? Was nobody suspicious about how very, very tiny their legs of lamb had become? What is the nutritional content of a rat anyway?

The first question I leave to the Chinese government. The second—no, probably not: according to the Daily Mail, at least one vendor was selling the stuff as “lamb rolls,” i.e., not necessarily sheep-shaped at all, which I suggest you try to not think about next time you’re in a mystery meat situation. But as far as nutritional content goes, turns out I’m not the first one who’s ever asked this. Rat calories are in fact, an important point of concern for the conscientious ophidiophile who doesn’t want his snake’s dinner going straight to its not-exactly-waistline.

In 2002, a trio of New York conservation scientists definitely answered this very question not only as it pertains to rats, but for many animals I would prefer not to eat, including jumping mice, gray squirrels, bearded dragon lizards, southern toads, and both white- and black-tailed prairie dogs. Granted, the authors aimed the paper towards zookeepers, but in case you do find yourself needing to know this one day, then let me be the first to tell you that mice do have nearly 15 times the vitamin A content of tadpoles, but in fairness, tadpoles are 93.1% water, so they don’t have much of anything anyway.

High in protein, but not necessarily a Weight Watchers favorite. Photo credit: George Bernard/Science Photo Library

Not a Weight Watchers favorite. Photo credit: George Bernard/Science Photo Library

Back to rats: According to Petsmart, your average adult rat is going to weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 grams—lady rats a little less, gentlemen a little more. (I won’t consider baby rats here,  partly because my gut tells me they would be tougher to disguise as lamb, although they do share a share a horrifying resemblance to Vienna sausages, and partly because, like tadpoles, they don’t have much to them. One rat pup only has about six or seven calories to it.)

Still reading? OK. So as it turns out, gram for gram, rat is not the worst thing in the world that you can eat, although there is plenty better. One 300-gram rat contains 648 Calories, 63 grams of protein, and 33 grams of fat. That’s not great for the healthy eater—the same amount of actual lamb shoulder provides just 402 Calories and 61 grams of protein, and just 16 grams fat—but it is certainly an improvement over what 300 grams of New York Sirloin would you net you (684 Cal, 62g protein, 47g fat).

But as we all know, there is more to life than calories. Sure, rats don’t have any potassium worth writing home about, but our standard 300-gramer does provide 14 milligrams of iron, which is nothing to sneeze at. That time I failed the hematocrit test at the blood donation tent, the nurse on duty told me to eat raisins, but even 300 grams of them would only have given me 5.7mg iron. That’s barely more than the equivalent amount of guinea pig.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to spice up your sex life, I do recommend a different meal. One rat would only net you 6mg of zinc, which isn’t a ton if you shooting for an aphrodisiac. Equivalent amounts oysters or perhaps in a pinch, southern toad, would provide up to 118mg and 56mg of zinc, respectively.

One note of caution: If, having read this, you find yourself tempted to shrug off Shanghai’s sheepish conundrum and explore the world of rodent-based entree, I would point out that my exploration here did not account for the other ingredients found in the fraudulent meat, which includes gelatin, nitrates, and various dye chemicals presumably meant to make the rat look a little more sheepish, if you get my drift. If you are rat-curious, I suggest you find your rat meat elsewhere.

*Among other meats, including fox and mink. This, by the way, means that we are taxonomically not exactly dealing with a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but we do have a Canidae in sheep’s clothing.

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