Americans are eating less meat. In 2012, a Department of Agriculture report showed that meat and poultry consumption fell to about 12.2 percent less in 2012 than it was in 2007. Beef consumption has been declining for about the past 20 years, with pork and chicken also falling over the last five years.
There are a number of reasons for the change, including the recession, the increased awareness of the antibiotics used in animal feed, and scientific studies showing that we’d all be healthier if we ate meat less often.
Though many people have opted for meatless diets, there is still a good share of the population that enjoys eating meat. If you’re one of those folks, this post is for you. Here, we explore the benefits of grass-fed beef over other options, and help you determine how to find the best quality meat the next time you want to pick up a few steaks for the barbeque.
Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
Traditionally, beef cattle were kept in small pens and fed grain. The result was a particularly fatty beef associated with heart disease and other health problems.
Shoppers are now seeing more grass-fed beef in regular grocery stores. In its purest form, grass-fed means that the cow eats from a pasture for the length of its life, and is not “finished” on a diet of grains and supplements for rapid weight gain. The benefits include the following:
- Higher quality of fat: Grass-fed beef has higher amounts of healthy omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed, and less fat overall. A study published in 2006 looked at fatty acid concentrations in Australian beef, comparing grass-fed to short-term grain fed and long-term feedlot fed. Results showed a significantly higher level of total omega-3 fatty acids and long-chain n-3 fatty acids in the grass-fed beef than the grain fed. Cuts of beef from the grain-fed feedlot group had higher levels of saturated and dangerous trans fats than similar cuts from the other two groups, indicating that an increased length of grain feeding was associated with more fat deposited in the carcass. Only the grass-fed beef reached the target of more than 30mg of long chain n-3 fatty acids/100 grams muscle as recommended by the Food Standard Australia and New Zealand for a food to be considered a source of omega-3 fatty acids.
- More vitamins: A 2008 study found that beef from pasture-raised cattle had a higher level of B-vitamins, thiamine and riboflavin. Pasture-raised beef also had more calcium, magnesium, and vitamin K than grain-fed.
- Better omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio: The standard western diet provides more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s, which can lead to excessive inflammation in the body, increasing the risk of a number of common diseases. According to the previous study, pasture-raised beef had greater contents of omega-3 fatty acids and a decreased omega-6 to omega-3 ratio compared with grain fed beef. The ratio of n-6 to n-3 fatty acids was 4.84 for grain-fed beef and 1.65 for pasture-raised beef.
- More antioxidants: Grass-fed beef has more healthy antioxidants. A 2010 review of studies showed that grass-fed beef had higher levels of vitamin A and E, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants like glutathione and superoxide dismutase (SOD). This study also quoted an earlier 2005 study that found pasture-fed steers had significantly higher amounts of beta-carotene compared to grain-fed animals—a 7-fold increase.
How to Find the Good Stuff
Finding real grass-fed beef isn’t always easy. Marketers will be marketers, and many put “grass-fed” on the label when the cows are actually “finished off” with grain at a feedlot. Here are a few tips to make sure you’re getting the real thing:
- Look for meats carrying the U.S. Department of Agriculture “process verified shield” for those meats that have met specific standards for grass feeding.
- Mother Earth News reports that the American Grassfed Association label is an even better guarantee of real, grass-fed beef. According to them, “Even under USDA certification standards, cows labeled grass-fed can be confined much of the year and fed antibiotics or hormones. The USDA’s standards are lower than those of the American Grassfed Association (AGA)….” This organization assures the cows have never been treated with growth hormones or antibiotics, that they have been treated humanely, and that the environment has been protected.
- If the label says “grass-fed” but does not carry one of these seals, the meat may be the result of a combination of grass and grain feeding.
- Take the word “organic” on meat with a grain of salt. It doesn’t guarantee anything unless you see a seal. That may show that the beef wasn’t exposed to antibiotics, hormones, or pesticide residues, and that it was not genetically modified or irradiated.
Do you enjoy grass-fed beef? Any tips on cooking? Please let us know.
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Ponnampalam EN, et al., “Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health,” Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2006;15(1):21-9, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16500874.
S.K. Duckett, et al., “Effects of witner stocker growth rate and finishing system on: III. Tissue proximate, fatty acid, vitamin, and cholesterol content,” J Anim Sci. September 2009; 87(9):2961-2970, http://www.journalofanimalscience.org/content/87/9/2961.long.
Cynthia A. Daley, et al., “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef,” Nutrition Journal, 2010; 9(10): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/.
“Grass-Fed Beef Health Benefits: A Meat-Buyer’s Guide,” Mother Earth News, December 23, 2013, http://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/grass-fed-beef-health-benefits-zbcz1312.aspx.