by Rich Coffman
I have made many improvements in my nutrition over the last year. Like most health oriented people, my goal is simple: to eat the best quality food possible. This article dives into the reasons why grass-fed beef is a healthier choice that is worth the premium price.
I had heard many times that grass-fed beef is better than conventional grain-fed beef. Initially, despite being told that it was more nutritious, I was not willing to fork up and pay more. I thought to myself, "meat is meat, it all tastes delicious to me."
When I began fine tuning which foods I put in my body to optimize my diet, I decided to take another look at grass-fed and did a little research.
Why is Grass-fed More Expensive?
Price is a big factor when considering grass-fed beef. I think it's important to understand why grass-fed is more expensive to get a better understanding of its true quality. Is grass-fed more pricey because it is more nutrient rich?
I’ve found that grass-fed meat’s added value is derived from the extra time and space. The life of modern day, conventional grain-fed cattle is different on all fronts from grass-fed cattle. The only similarity is that they both end up on the dinner plate.
Conventional feedlot operations are designed to put weight on cattle as fast as possible. The cattle are fed a dense mix of grains and... other things, which packs the pounds on faster than normal pasture grazing. Grass-fed ranchers choose to let the cattle grow and put on weight naturally. After all, good things come to those who wait.
The rapid weight gain that is standard operating procedure for feedlot cattle is good for revenue, but not good for the animals’ health or quality of life. The lifespan of a feedlot cow is much shorter, with operations regularly slaughtering animals just after their first year. Factory cattle operations generate revenue based on quantity, not quality. Large volumes of cattle are the only way to make a profit. In general, the principle of quality gets shelved.
Grass-fed cattle, on the other hand, have more time and space to fatten up naturally, commonly up to an extra year. This time and care plays into the price of grass-fed beef, as the ranchers of grass-fed cattle have higher expenses in maintaining the land, paying the mortgage and taxes on their vast grasslands which are required for a healthy and vibrant herd to graze.
If you’ve ever done any research for yourself you’ve likely discovered that grass-fed is more nutritious. While there are many benefits, I’ve highlighted those that I feel are most important.
Vitamins and Minerals
Grass-fed beef is rich in vitamins and minerals, more so than feedlot beef. This has been proven by a number of studies including one by the USDA and Clemson University and published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2009. Briefly, this is what they found:
- Grass-fed beef usually has up to 7 or 8 mcg/gram of Vitamin E compared to 1 to 2 mcg/gram in grain-fed beef
- Grass-fed beef is higher in beta-carotene. It is also higher in riboflavin and thiamine, common B Vitamins
- Grass-fed beef shows a higher content of potassium, magnesium and calcium
Grass-fed beef is an excellent protein source for Conjugated Lineolic Acid (CLA). CLA has been shown to improve the body's immune system. The presence of CLA has also been correlated with the reduction in risk of obesity, cancer and diabetes.
Studies show that depending on conditions, grass-fed beef can contain between 2 and 7 times the amount of omega-3s compared to commodity beef. Grass-fed offers a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids as well.
Throughout history, man's intake of omega-6 and omega-3 was naturally at a ratio of 2:1. Since the Industrial Revolution, the ratio has been skewed upwards to approximately 15:1. The consumption of grass-fed beef offers a better ratio of these bioactive fats.
That said, all beef is very low in total PUFA, so while this part of the total equation is something to be aware of, your best approach is to reduce the amount of things you eat with high total PUFA and especially high omega-6 fats. Replace those foods in your diet with grassfed beef and you'll reduce both total PUFA and omega-6.
When cattle eat grass and other plants (as they were meant to), their immune systems stay strong. With a stronger immune system, grass-fed cattle have less E. coli in their system compared to their grain-fed counterparts, meaning people eating grass-fed beef are less likely to succumb to bacterial infection from E. coli.
A study at Cornell University by Francisco Diez-Gonzalez and James Russell noted that our digestive systems’ naturally occurring acids can kill E. coli from grass-fed beef far easier than beef from grain-fed cattle. Due an unnatural diet of grain, cattle for commodity beef have an abnormally high level of acidity, which E. coli become accustomed to. On occasions when that resistant E coli is passed into our body, the acid present in our system is not strong enough to kill it, increasing the likelihood for infection.
There is no need for antibiotics among herds of cattle naturally grazing in open pastures. In large feedlots common with many factory farming corporations, the cattle are confined to small spaces with cattle given enough room to eat and possibly turn around. In some operations, hundreds and even thousands of cattle can be condensed to just a few acres.
Disease spreads easily in tight spaces such as this, and when conditions are unsanitary, disease can devastate a herd. To protect against the problems caused by these poor conditions, antibiotics are overused on the cattle. This overuse helps generate antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and unpredictable downstream effects.
It works like this: an introduced antibiotic will kill 99% of bacteria, but the strongest 1% of bacteria that remains has newly open real estate to multiply and spread to with no competition. The process is repeated–new antibiotics are introduced, killing most of the bacteria–and each time only the strongest of the strong survive. Drug resistant "super bugs" evolve out of this process.
Many people might not know what exactly is in their beef, but if given the choice, most people would likely prefer meat free of synthetic growth hormones. Ranchers of grass-fed cattle typically do not use growth hormones because of their commitment to quality beef; many choose an all natural approach instead. While it’s not essential, you would be hard pressed to find grass-fed beef that is not proudly hormone free.
The majority of grain feed for commercial cattle is now grown from GMO (genetically modified organism) crops. GMO food can be eaten directly or it can be consumed indirectly through eating GMO grain-fed beef. Despite their current popularity and overwhelming use, there have been no studies done on the long-term side effects of GMOs on the human body. There are many people against GMO use for many reasons, but that is another story altogether.
Research from France's Caen University which was published in 2012 demonstrates that rats which were fed a lifetime of genetically modified corn had a dramatically higher rate of cancer and tumors, and their lives were much shorter. Because of the unknowns and research like this, it is best to avoid ingesting anything that is genetically modified.
Safe to Say
I'm thinking grass-fed beef is worthy of its price tag. Money can be saved if it's purchased in bulk or if purchased on-site to avoid shipping expenses. In the last handful of years people have begun to wake up and understand food on a deeper level. Connections are again being drawn between the earth and the plate.
The choice was easy for me when I discovered the pitfalls of our modern day factory farms and feedlots that dominate the food industry. I support my local grass-fed beef rancher with my stomach and encourage others to do the same with theirs. From the pasture to the plate, grass-fed beef is better on all levels–it’s a full spectrum of goodness.