You may have heard one of our practitioners recommend grass-fed beef or maybe even one of your friends. This is a trending topic right now, and a controversial one at that. Is grass-fed beef really that different from conventionally raised beef?
First, we must define what grass-fed beef is. Grass-fed beef describes cattle that are exclusively fed grass and forage (herbs or other grass or grains in their vegetative state) after weaning. All cattle in the US are started on grass at the beginning of their lives, but most are then switched to grain if they are raised conventionally. With that being said, the term “grass-fed” is referring to the fact they have never been fed corn or wheat in their lives.
Difference in Nutrient Content
The most noted difference in the nutrient content of grass-fed vs conventional beef is the fat profile. Grass-fed beef contains a much larger amount of omega-3 fatty acids, compared to conventionally raised beef, which is higher in the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Charles Benbrook, PhD, who studies meat quality, stated to Today’s Dietitian that the shift of omega-3:omega-6 ratio in grain-fed beef is remarkable. In grass-fed beef, research has shown a ratio of 1:1 or 3:1. In animals that are grain-fed and spend their lives in feedlots rather than pastures, omega-3:omega-6 ratios range from 5:1 to 7:1. This huge increase in omega-6 fatty acids has an impact on human health. The SAD (Standard American Diet) has an omega-3:omega-6 ratio of 15:1 to 16.7:1 on average. This very high ratio promotes the pathogenesis of disease, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Omega-3s can actually have a suppressive effect on disease. The ideal diet would have an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 1:1 to 3:1.
One of the biggest critiques of the comparison of grass-fed vs conventional beef’s fat profile is that grass-fed beef is not necessarily considered a “good source” of omega-3s as a serving of grass-fed beef only has 37-65 mg of omega-3s present. Comparing this to fish (considered a good source of omega-3s), which has 134-1270 mg of omega-3s per serving. It is recommended to get at least 1000 mg of omega-3s per day. People who do not like fish and or do not supplement with fish oil, may find it hard to get this amount. Although grass-fed beef does not have a significant amount of this total daily recommendation, it still has more than you would be getting with grain-fed beef, along with less of its inflammatory counterparts.
Environmental Impact and Other Considerations
The environmental impact of grass-fed vs conventionally raised beef is still under debate. Some research maintains that pasture-raised and grazing cattle reduces energy input and land resources by a significant amount. Research also shows that grass-fed beef can decrease soil erosion, increase soil fertility and improve water quality. Others debate this by saying well-managed grain farming can have different environmental benefits such as emitting less methane gas due to faster growing cattle, who are not alive as long.
Other considerations are cost and taste. Some would say that grass-fed beef has a “earthy” taste, but others don’t notice it at all. We are what we eat, so it is obvious that a cow eating only grass would taste a bit different than a cow that only eats grains. Grass-fed beef can also cost a lot more than grain-fed beef. For this, you just need to take into consideration the long-term health benefits of what a better fat profile can do for your body, and support decreased healthcare costs overtime.
Up until January 16, 2017, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) had a verified Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim Standard. Meaning, that if someone wanted to label their product as “grass-fed” they would need to meet the standards produced by the USDA. That has recently been withdrawn due to authority rules within the USDA and Congress. Although, this probably won’t mean much change for the grass-fed beef industry. For a company to put their own grass-fed label on a product, it would still need to get approval from the USDA’s Process Verified Program or another USDA-Certified Auditing program that would hold them to the objective industry-defined grass-fed standards. There are also a few independent labeling standard certifications such as “American Grassfed”, “Certified Grassfed by the Animal Welfare Association”, and “Food Alliance Certified Grassfed”. Since labeling can be deceptive, it is best to look for one of three independent labels mentioned or the “USDA Process Verified” seal.
Overall, grass-fed beef can be better for your long-term health by contributing to building up the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids in your body. Although taste and cost are something to consider, money may be saved in the long run, in regards to healthcare. If it fits in your budget, try grass-fed beef out for yourself and see what difference it can make for you!