I have mentioned before in passing the differences in the fatty acid profiles of grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef. But today, I’m going to go a little more in depth. Or rather, CNN went in depth and I’m going to highlight some points from their article, and add on where I see fit.
It is widely known that grass-fed beef costs more than traditionally-fed beef. However, it can be much more affordable purchased in bulk directly from a local farm. A single cow can often be split by multiple families with deep freezers. Also, many different cuts of meat will be included, which means that filet mignon will be cheaper by the pound straight from the farm than the grain-fed filets in-store. But grass grows by itself. Grain doesn’t. Why should grass-fed meat cost more? It seems cheaper to produce. What gives? Cows grow faster with a typical diet of grains, corn, some grass, some growth hormones, and some antibiotics. Bigger animals = more meat per animal = lower price.
I’m not one of those people who gets really into environmental issues. I recycle, and I try not to use Styrofoam. But it is definitely true that less energy is expended upon grass-fed cows (they eat grass) than grain-fed cows where the grain has to be grown with whatever pesticides and farm equipment may be necessary. Another benefit is healthier animals. The fatty acid profile of grass-fed animals is not only healthier for us to eat, it’s a healthier way for the animals to live. Not to mention, most feedlot practices are awful and inhumane.
Lastly, it makes healthy, economic sense to buy beef from a local farmer.
I’ll be honest in my experience that it is harder to make grass-fed beef taste amazing. With all that fat missing, what do you expect? But with a little care, I came to the same conclusion that CNN did. Grass-fed beef can be just as good if it is cooked properly. When it isn’t, you just have to chew more.
The big one. Before I get really into it, there are some skeptics that CNN mentions. The first is Chris Raines, a professor of meat science at Penn State. (I had no idea you could be a professor in that topic.) His quote: “Some people get very excited about the fatty-acid profile of grass-fed beef. Then, in the same breath, they’ll talk about how wonderfully lean it is. We’re talking up the good fats that aren’t really there.” Overall, this seems like a legitimate statement. However, the fatty acid profile IS better. Isn’t it better to eat good fats even if there is less fat there? Also, there are more antioxidants, vitamins A and E, beta-carotene, and way less calories! Considering the average American eats 67 pounds of beef per year, these nutrients add up. Just the calories, you would save about 16,600 aka 5.5 pounds of body fat.
The other skeptic is Shalene McNeill, PhD, who is the executive director for human nutrition research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. This expert’s place of employment should lead you to take anything she says with caution. She says “… if you look at it (the difference between grass- and grain-fed beef) in terms of a whole diet, it’s not a significant advantage to human health.” I’d rather not have that extra 5.5 pounds, but maybe that’s just me.
Now, not only does grass-fed beef have benefits, but it’s also usually organic and raised without hormones and antibiotics (check the label). The growth hormones should worry you enough, added hormones can be extremely disruptive. But how about the antibiotics? Why should healthy animals need strong chemical treatments? Here’s why. Inside the gut of a beef cow, there is a huge amount of E. coli bacteria. It is supposed to be there. Grass is tough to break down, and bacteria help. That’s why humans don’t eat grass. We can’t digest it. The highly specialized digestive systems of cattle are meant for the high fiber of grass. When cows are fed grains, especially corn, the high carbohydrate and low fiber content becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. Seriously, there is an 80% increase in gut bacteria (harmful strain of E. coli) of grain-fed cows (1). Before you swear off beef all together, this strain of E. coli is not necessarily harmful to us in naturally-fed beef. Our stomach acid kills it. However, it is very unhealthy for the animals. It creates bloating, and an increase in the animals’ stomach acid (trying to kill it) which increases the likelihood that the bacteria will become resistant. This ups the risk of E. coli contamination for us (2). And that is why there are antibiotics in most beef.
Not paleo, but still hilarious.
1. Russel, James B. Rumen Microbiology and Its Role in Ruminant Nutrition, 2002.
2. Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. (New York: Penguin Press, 2006.) 82.