The popularity of grass-fed beef has been on the rise lately, thanks in large part to the various pieces of media that are exposing the horrors of conventional meat production. In my case, it was the film Food Inc. and Michael Pollan's outstanding book The Omnivore's Dilemma that brought the issue to my attention. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about when I say "grass-fed beef", here's a brief explanation: Cattle have evolved over time to eat grass. They get all the nutrition they need from grass alone. However, in modern beef production, cattle are fed a diet of mostly corn and other grains, which can cause all sorts of health problems, but it fattens them much more quickly and increases production. While this allows farmers to produce more beef faster, the whole process is extremely wasteful and destructive to the environment. And although the price on the beef you see in the supermarket is affordable, this does not in any way reflect the true cost of that beef. When you factor in all the corn grown specifically to raise the cattle, the antibiotics needed to keep them in decent health, and the environmental problems, just to name a few of the costs, the actual price of that beef looks a little different. The only reason it's available to consumers at such a low price is because of government subsidies. As a result of all of this, an increasing number of people are opting to seek out grass-fed beef, meaning that the cows only eat grass and are allowed to graze in fields as they please. This type of beef production is healthier for the cattle, better for the environment, and is a much lower-input process overall. In addition to the philosophical reasons to choose grass-fed beef, though, there are a number of nutritional benefits as well, and that will be my main focus for today.
First, I'd just like to say that beef gets a bad rap, and I'm sick of it. For years, doctors and health authorities have been telling us to limit red meat intake because of its association with chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes. It's not true, and here's some good evidence. In reality, beef is one of the most nutrient-dense meat choices you could make. It's an excellent source of a variety of important micronutrients, like iron, vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, and various B-vitamins. So despite the political and philosophical problems I have with conventional meat production, I still think the beef produced out of it is healthy to eat. If you can afford to spend a little more money to get grass-fed beef, however, you'll be getting a superior product, both in taste and nutritional content. Let's break down some of the health benefits of grass-fed beef, shall we?
By now everyone has probably heard about the healthy omega-3 fatty acids in fish. Many of you probably take a fish oil supplement. You also may have heard that the only way to get these fatty acids, known as EPA and DHA, is through fish or fish oil. Well, you've been bamboozled. You can get these very same healthy, anti-inflammatory fats from grass-fed beef. According to this paper, which reviews much of the previous research on grass-fed beef, the grass-fed variety contains about 5 times more omega-3 fatty acids than that of its conventional, grain-fed counterpart. What may be more important, though, is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. Omega-6's produce an inflammatory effect in the body, while omega-3's produce an anti-inflammatory response. The balance of these two fatty acids is critical, as most Americans consume far too many omega-6's and end up with chronic inflammation, which exacerbates just about every chronic health problem there is. The ideal ratio of omega-6:omega-3 in the diet is probably somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1. When taken the average of the seven studies reviewed in that paper, grass-fed beef has a ratio of 2.2:1, as compared to grain-fed beef, which had an average of 7.7:1. So, whereas grass-fed beef has an ideal omega-6:omega-3 ratio, the ratio in the conventional, grain-fed variety is unbalanced and likely to contribute to chronic inflammation. It should be noted, too, that both types of beef contain roughly equal amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, so it is the lack of omega-3's in grain-fed beef that ruins the ratio.
Another important fatty acid in grass-fed beef is known as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). A somewhat recent discovery, CLA in the diet has been shown in experimental animal models to prevent cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes; yes, the very same diseases that public health authorities tell us are caused by red meat. In very high doses only attainable through supplementation, CLA has also been shown to have powerful fat-loss properties. It is unclear as to what is the optimal intake of CLA, but it has been established that just about everyone would benefit from more CLA in their diets. Grass-fed beef contains about twice the CLA of grain-fed beef, so making the switch to grass-fed would definitely help to get more CLA into the diet.
Due to a diet of fresh grasses, grass-fed cattle produce meat with about 7 times more beta-carotene. Beta-carotene, which is commonly only found in high amounts in plant foods, is a precursor to vitamin A, which is a critical fat-soluble vitamin responsible for normal vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell division, and cell differentiation. Vitamin A is also involved in the regulation of immune function by supporting the production and function of white blood cells. While there is no RDA for beta-carotene, the Institute of Medicine suggests that consuming 3 mg of beta-carotene daily is associated with a lowered risk of chronic disease. Just a 6 oz. portion of grass-fed beef will provide about half of that daily requirement.
Grass-fed beef contains on average about 3 times more vitamin E than grain-fed beef. Vitamin E is a very important fat-soluble vitamin that acts as an antioxidant in the body, preventing cells from damage from free radicals. Its presence helps to prevent chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease. There is also evidence that vitamin E enhances immune function. While even grass-fed beef is relatively low in vitamin E, it is still worth noting its superiority compared to grain-fed beef.
GT and SOD
Glutathione (GT) and superoxide dismutase (SOD), although not as thoroughly studied as some of the other nutrients on this list, are powerful antioxidants. These compounds defend cells from free radical damage and ultimately help to prevent chronic disease. Both are found in significantly higher concentrations in grass-fed beef versus grain-fed beef.
So there are a number of health benefits to choosing grass-fed beef over conventional beef. But where do you buy it? The problem is it's not always convenient to find the stuff. Your regular neighborhood grocery store definitely doesn't sell it, and it may even be hard to find at a health food store like Trader Joe's or Whole Foods. Here's what to look for: The label should say either "100% grass-fed" or "grass-finished". Simply "grass-fed" isn't good enough; in this case, the cattle may have eaten grain for the last few weeks of their lives, and this ruins the health benefits. Whole Foods is often guilty of labeling their beef simply "grass-fed", and I'm sure they trick just about everyone into thinking it's the real thing when it probably isn't. Although, to be fair, I have seen "100% grass-fed" there once in a while. Fortunately, there are other ways to get your grass-fed beef. I personally buy mine on the internet at grasslandbeef.com. It's a trusted source, and its incredibly convenient to have your meat delivered to your door. Probably the best option, although it requires a bit more work, is to get it from a local farm or at a farmer's market. Local food is more sustainable, and I guarantee you there are plenty of farms in your area producing grass-fed meat. Find out at eatwild.com. Many farms will sell whole cows or half cows at very affordable prices, and it comes packaged and ready to eat. If you've got the money to buy it all at once and the freezer space to store it, this is by far the cheapest way to get grass-fed beef.
As I said before, conventional beef is fine to eat. Aside from the problems created by conventional meat production, it is nutritionally an important part of a healthy diet. But if you're looking to get all you can out of your beef, grass-fed meat is nutritionally superior in a number of ways. It contains more omega-3 fatty acids, cancer-fighting CLA, and antioxidants, all of which will help you prevent chronic disease and promote health. Plus, it tastes a whole lot better, but that's just my opinion. Give it a try for yourself!