The Advantages of Grass-Fed Beef

Meat, particularly red meat such as beef, is typically considered a poor choice for healthy eating. And there are good reasons for that. Most American beef comes from cattle grain-fattened in feedlots and pumped full of antibiotics and artificial growth hormones. Beef tends to be high in saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. But all beef is not created equal. Find out why grass-fed is the way to go if you can't say no to the occasional steak or burger.

Grain-Fed Beef

All cattle are grass-fed in the early months of their lives. Then they are shipped to feedlots where they are switched to a high calorie grain/corn-based diet to fatten them up as quickly as possible. They also receive synthetic growth hormone implants (banned in most of the developed world due to the hormone residue that ends up in the meat) as well as copious amounts of antibiotics to make them grow even faster. Sixty percent of the antibiotics used in the United States end up in livestock feed. This practice contributes greatly to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Nutritional Advantages of Grass-Fed Beef

Several studies have compared the nutrient profiles of grain-fed beef to grass-fed beef, and meat from grass-fed cattle clearly comes out ahead. Not only is grass-fed beef lower in overall fat content, but it is specifically lower in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. While lower in unhealthy fats, grass-fed beef contains higher levels of healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Early research indicates that CLA may be able to lower the risk of cancer, atherosclerosis, and diabetes. Grass-fed cattle have been shown to produce 2-3 times more CLA than feedlot cattle raised on grain-based diets.

The biggest advantage of grass-fed beef may be the dramatically improved omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid profile. An omega-3 to omega-6 ratio between 1:1 and 1:4 is considered ideal, but the average American diet is closer to 1:20. This severe imbalance has been implicated in everything from cancer to clinical depression. In fact, the latest research suggests that a full one third of cancers are preventable by maintaining an omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid balance of 1:4 or better. Excess omega-6 consumption and omega-3 deficiencies are also strongly correlated with the sharp increase in inflammatory disorders. And while grass-fed beef still contains slightly more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, the average omega-3 to omega-6 ratio in grass-fed beef is an ideal 1:1.5. Grain-fed beef, by comparison, has an average omega-3 to omega-6 ratio of 1:7.7.

Finally, grass-fed beef is higher than grain-fed beef in a number of disease-fighting antioxidants. Vitamin E levels are 3-4 times higher in grass-fed beef, and levels of the vitamin A precursor beta-carotene are 7 times higher. Grass-fed beef also contains greater amounts of the anti-cancer agents glutathione (GT), superoxide dismutase (SOD), and catalase (CAT).

Buying Grass-Fed Beef

Since all beef starts out grass-fed, beef producers can legally slap a "grass-fed" label on beef products from animals that spent half their lives in feedlots, fattened on grains and drugs. Buying certified organic beef is also no guarantee that you're getting grass-fed meat. It is, however, a guarantee that the cattle had access to the outdoors, weren't given antibiotics or growth hormones, grazed on land not treated with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and ate certified organic feed that probably included grains or soy products (unless a grass-fed label is added to the certified organic label).

Many nutritionists recommend looking for grass-fed beef with the "USDA Process Verified" shield. Any beef products displaying the USDA grass-fed label must come from cattle fed only mother's milk, grass (including hay) and other greens throughout their entire lifetime. However, while the animals must have access to pasture during the "growing season," they can be confined to a pen and fed only hay (which is less nutritious than fresh grasses and results in a somewhat less impressive nutrient profile) for many months of the year. Even more disturbing is the fact that beef products sporting the "USDA Process Verified" shield may legally come from cattle raised on growth hormones and antibiotics. Grass-fed does not mean drug-free.

Unless, that is, a beef product displays a grass-fed label from the American Grassfed Association (AGA). The AGA's definition of what constitutes grass-fed beef is much stricter than the USDA definition: Cattle must have continuous access to pasture and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones. This is the label we suggest you look for when shopping for grass-fed beef.