These days, people are becoming more conscious about their health and the food they are introducing into their diets and bodies. There’s a general belief that organic and GMO-free is the way to go, while there’s yet another school of thought that feels GMO is the way to the future, in order to ensure sustainability for both man and earth.
The debate is hot for all food groups, whether it is fruits and vegetables or meat. Since, there are many different viewpoints on this matter and opinions are often based on multiple factors such as the nutrients, environment, management of farmlands, among others, we need to focus on the factor that is most important to us when selecting meat for our diet: is it safe and nutritious?
This article focuses on the nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef, the difference between grass-fed and grain fed beef, identifying quality beef, and whether this is something that everyone should consider or is this important for people on specific diets, such as the keto diet.
What Is Grass-Fed Beef?
As the name implies, grass-fed beef refers to cattle that has been fed on grass exclusively, after weaning, and has always fed on open pastures. Normally, calves are born in early spring and feed their mother’s milk, who are grass-fed, too. Once they are weaned, they roam around the pastures and feed freely on the grass and other plants, like alfa-alfa, that is available freely in their environment. In short, they are on a completely organic diet.
When we say that the cattle are on an organic diet, doesn’t mean they are organic, too. The USDA has strict standards for organic beef which specify that organic beef should not be hormone or antibiotic-treated and the cattle should have access to organic food, i.e., open pastures consisting of grass and other plants, grown and found naturally.
The reason all grass-fed cattle might not qualify as organic is because after a period of eight to nine months, the grass-fed cattle is moved into Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, also known as CAFO, which are large feedlots, where the cattle is then kept on a diet of grains.
The cattle in CAFOs are kept in small stalls and are fed corn and soy-based grains to fatten them up rapidly, along with small amounts of hay. Also, in order to boost growth within a short period of time, the cattle are given antibiotics and growth hormones, at which point they almost entirely, cease to be organic. The cattle live in these feedlots only for a few months before being moved to the slaughterhouse.
Since the USDA does not provide any specific definition for what constitutes grass-fed beef, the fact that the cattle had access to its mother’s milk along with green pastures and various other plants qualifies it to be a grass-fed beef, if not organic grass-fed beef. However, the lack of a standard checklist of how much grass feed is expected to tag certain beef as grass-fed, it is up to you to make the judgement. If possible, try to check the “100% grass-fed” mark on the label to ensure it is indeed grass-fed beef you’re buying.
Choosing Grass-Fed over Grain-Fed Beef
Apart from the fact that grass-fed cattle have had access to green pastures, hence organic nutrition during their growing years, there are some more factors that differentiate the two types of beef. Unlike grass-fed cattle, grain fed cattle are often given growth hormones and antibiotics which makes the beef susceptible to ‘superbugs’ – bacteria that have developed resistance to three or more types of antibiotics.
What the cow eats has a big impact on the kind of beef you get from it. As such, grass-fed beef happens to be more nutritious as compared to its grain fed counterpart. When it comes to nutrients, one of the biggest components that differentiates the two, is the composition of fatty acids.
Here is a breakup of the fatty acids available in grass-fed and grain fed beef:
Monosaturated fat – These are unhealthy fats that increase the risk of heart disease and various other health problems. Grass-fed beef contains substantially low amounts of monosaturated fat as compared to grain-fed beef.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) – This particular fat is known for its property of burning body fat and aiding in weight loss. Grass-fed beef contains two times more CLA as compared to grain fed beef.
Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats – These fats are responsible for lowering LDL (bad cholesterol) levels and improving HDL (good cholesterol) levels, and also helps in reducing chances of heart diseases. Both grass-fed and grain fed cattle contain similar amounts of Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats in them.
Omega-3s – Omega 3 are crucial fats which are important to improve heart health, reduce triglycerides, lower blood pressures and prohibit the formation of arterial plaques. Humans cannot manufacture omega 3 fatty acids within their body, as such, it is important they include it in their diets to reap its benefits. Grass-fed beef contains as much as two times more omega 3 fatty acids as compared to grain fed beef and makes it a substantially better source of this healthy fat.
Here’s a look into the levels of omega 3 the USDA mentions that can be found in various cuts of 100 grams serving of grass-fed beef:
Our body needs approximately 300 to 1000 mg of fatty acids, each day. Low-fat fishes like haddock and the tilapia contain 136 grams and 134 grams of omega 3 fatty acids, respectively, which make them a richer source of this particular fat. However, when it comes to beef and an acceptable amount of omega 3 fats, grass-fed beef is your best bet.
Apart from the good fat component, both grass-fed and grain fed beef contain a wide range of extremely important micronutrients such as vitamins B12, B6, B3, iron, zinc, and selenium. Not only is it a high-quality protein rich, but also a rich source of nutrients such as carnosine and creatine which are essential for muscle and brain development.
Although both grass-fed and grain fed beef contain these elements, grass-fed beef provides higher amounts of vitamin A (beta carotene) and vitamin E (antioxidant) as compared to grain fed beef. Overall, grass-fed beef happens to be a better source of antioxidants as compared to grain fed beef.
Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
Here are a few benefits that grass-fed beef offers its consumers:
How and Where to Buy Grass-Fed Beef?
The problem with buying beef in supermarkets is there is no way you can know if they are completely grass-fed, partially grass-fed or grass-fed at all. You can always check the label to find out if it’s “100% grass-fed” beef. However, if you are unsure and would like to buy grass-fed beef from a trusted, reliable source, then it is better to buy it from farmers’ markets or wholefood markets where you will know that the beef indeed has come from the farm and if not organic is at least, grass-fed. At farmer’s markets, you can even talk to the farmer to learn more about how and where the cattle are grown and what is their diet like. You can also look for a seal of approval from the AGA (American Grassfed Association) to ensure you are buying quality product.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth the Extra Money?
It goes beyond saying that grass-fed beef, indeed, provides more nutrition and dietary benefits as compared to grain fed beef. As such, the premium price tag is considered worth it for many who can afford it.
Sometimes, it is not only about affordability but availability, as well. If you do not have access to whole food markets or farmers’ markets where you can hope to find premium and rich cuts of grass-fed beef, you might have to find a supplier online and do some research to find out if they raise and manage their cattle responsibly, and can mail you the grass-fed beef, so that access isn’t an issue for you anymore.
If you think buying grass-fed beef is turning out to be more expensive than having grain fed beef, you can always ensure supplementing your diet with grass-fed beef from time to time instead of going on a grass-fed beef diet completely. In this way, you will get a higher amount of lean meat with the good fats in your diet, instead of not having any at all.