Snack Facts: Why Grass-Fed Beef?
Why grass-fed beef?
Grass-fed beef might not be what you picture. The real deal can be hard to verify and afford. But it may be even better for you than you think. And it’s calling into question decades of orthodox nutritional warnings about red meat.
Pasture vs. Feedlot
The basic idea behind the grass-fed label is feeding cows (and other cud-chewers such as sheep, bison, and goats) the diet they evolved to eat.
Before World War II, beef cattle typically spent their entire lives on pasture. Farmers did sometimes supplement with grain, a then-luxury that would today disqualify them from the grass-fed label. But for the most part, cattle ate what they’d evolved to eat: grass and other fibrous green plants found on grasslands. It could take as much as five years to grow a beef steer to the point where it was ready for slaughter. As a result, beef was expensive.
With the advent of industrialized agriculture in the 1950s, producers discovered a way to speed up the process so cows would be ready for slaughter in about 15 months. The secret to this warp-speed acceleration was removing the cows from pasture after six to twelve months, and “finishing” them on feedlots for three to six months on a calorie-intense diet dominated by corn. This practice of accelerating growth in the last few months with a diet of grain and other high energy feed is what mainly distinguishes conventional from grass-fed beef.
Feedlot beef can’t be separated from the technologies and practices that make it possible. A product of the post-war petrochemical revolution built on cheap oil, it cannot exist without the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that create a cheap surplus of corn, and the antibiotics that fend off the bovine health problems caused by the unnatural diet and crowded quarters. It relies on hormones and yet more antibiotics to further boost growth. And the vast scale to which feedlots have grown (earning them a new name along the way, CAFOs, for “Confined Animal Feeding Operation”) creates such “externalities” as correspondingly gigantic manure lagoons.
These features cause a myriad of ill effects to human health and the environment. But the core nutritional problem the grass-fed label addresses is the finishing of cattle on grain, mostly corn.
The trouble with grain
As members of the ruminant family, cows evolved to eat grass, not grain. Feeding them grain makes their rumen (their first stomach) more acidic than it’s meant to be, harming their health in a number of ways that get passed on to us directly or indirectly. The rumen can become bloated, inflamed, and ulcerated, often leading serious conditions such as bacteria-induced liver abscesses and “feedlot polio” (paralysis from lack of Vitamin B1). The dreaded E. coli 0157 is a newcomer that probably evolved in the more acidic digestive system of grain-fed cows.
Producers try to manage the situation with various drugs, including antibiotics and buffering agents. But even when they succeed in keeping the animals relatively well, grain feeding radically alters beef’s nutritional profile, mostly for the worse.
Defenders of conventional beef rightly point out that their product is still highly nutritious. But the nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef are so superior that it’s literally a different animal than the one that crops up in studies showing health risks from eating red meat.
The nutritional superiority of grass-fed
|More favorable ratio of Omega 3-to Omega-6 fats||Improves cardiovascular and brain health, lowers inflammation, modulates immune system, reduces cancer risk.|
|More conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and its precursor trans vaccenic acid (TVA)||This potent nutrient, the good fat you may never have heard of, confers dramatic benefits on cancer, cardiovascular and bone health, immune function, insulin resistance, and body composition.|
|More beta-carotene||An antioxidant and precursor to Vitamin A; essential to growth and healing of tissue and bone, eye and skin health, and immune system function.|
|More Vitamin E||One of the most important nutrients for mopping up free radicals and preventing lipid oxidation; key to cardiovascular and skin health and influences such activities as gene expression and enzyme function.|
|More glutathione and superoxide dismutase||These vital antioxidants interact to protect the body’s cells against oxidative stress; as such they are a prime defense against chronic disease and degeneration of every kind.|
|More of the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin||Help the body’s cells turn carbs into energy. Thiamin is involved in muscle and nerve health and riboflavin in eye health.|
|More calcium, magnesium, and potassium||These minerals play a role in just about every activity in the body, from enzyme reactions, cell metabolism, and bone health, to nerve transmission, cardiovascular function and fluid balance.|
The differences in nutrient levels are significant, by a factor of two to four in some cases. Nutrients are at their highest levels when cows are eating grass and other forage plants that are growing, which means highest in the spring and summer. This is especially true for beta-carotene and CLA, which are also far scarcer in cows eating stored forage like hay and silage. Some experts recommend buying extra beef in spring and summer and freezing it for winter. Grass-fed beef, like so many whole foods, is really a seasonal product.
Okay, but what exactly is grass-fed beef? Is there some sort of standard?
Defenders of conventional beef like to point out that conventionally raised cows do in fact spend most of their abbreviated lives on pasture. But those last few months radically alter both animals’ health and the nutritional profile of the resulting beef, wiping out the benefits created by the cow’s pre-feedlot diet.
Some producers have exploited the technicality that all cows begin life on pasture to market their feedlot-finished beef as grass-fed. As producers who eschewed feedlots for a grass-based diet throughout the animal’s life struggled to distinguish their product from this unfair competition, terms like “grass-finished” and “100 percent grass-fed” emerged.
In 2007 the USDA stepped in with a definition that theoretically banished grain from the diet of animals whose meat is sold as grass-fed. But the sly wording has proved a double-edged sword. It stipulates that “grass and forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning.” But you may be surprised to learn that it says nothing about antibiotics, hormones or pesticides. If you’re relying on USDA labeling and you want these features as well, you must purchase beef that’s labeled both grass-fed and organic.
In addition, the standard is vague about access to pasture, leaving room for the possibility that animals could be mostly inside eating technically permissible feeds that qualify as “forage,” such as silage, pellets, and hay, with nominal access to the outdoors and little real input from the growing greens that create much of the nutritional benefits. Silage (grass or other plants compacted and stored in airtight conditions, often fermented), which is allowed under the standard, can be as much as 30 percent grain.
Producers of truly grass-fed meat often use the term pastured to convey the idea that pasture—grassland range—is where the cattle spend their days and get their food, and that they are doing more than following the letter of the limited and loopholed USDA definition.
Don’t these purists just want to return to the past?
True grass-fed beef production, though it involves pasture, is not pastoral—its realities don’t leave much room for a nostalgic attempt to return to a lost rural past. Though inspired by the past, it’s really something new. As the Union of Concerned Scientists puts it, “Pasture-based farming takes advantage of … natural process, rather than ignoring or struggling against it. The sophisticated techniques employed by modern pasture-based farms are anything but old-fashioned—even if some aspects of the approach borrow from the best of traditional practices. New pasture rotation methods, better genetics, and new understandings of pasture ecology, animal nutrition, meat quality, and marketing are all components of today’s grass-fed farm operations.”
(http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/solutions/advance-sustainable-agriculture/greener-pastures-faqs.html#.VUkdO3xOWUk). It does fit in with Paleo Diet theory, which advocates a return to foods we evolved to eat before the advent of agriculture. But whether that theory proves correct or not, grass-fed meat does seem to meet our current nutritional requirements better than conventionally raised meat.
Shedding light on USDA labels:
Organic vs. grass-fed. The USDA organic standard requires access to pasture, but it does not rule out grain; only the grass-fed label does that. Pasture access may be nominal and it can be and often is finished on grain. What the organic label does do is rule out antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides. And organic beef does have a better nutritional profile than conventional. But as grain increases, the unique nutritional properties of grass-fed decrease.
Buyer beware: If you’re relying on USDA labeling and you want grass-fed meat that’s also free of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides, it must be labeled both grass-fed and organic.
Pastured vs. grass-fed. The concept of grass-fed was developed for cows and other ruminants (cud-chewers, such as sheep, bison, and goats), whose natural diet is grass. “Pastured” can refer to ruminants, but includes non-ruminants such as pigs and chickens, who may benefit from pasture (which affords insects, grubs, worms, and fungi, as well as edible plants and space for natural behavior) but are not grazing animals and can’t live on green plants alone. It is not a USDA term, and there is not currently a USDA standard for it.
The lack of a USDA standard, though bound to eventually result in abuse as big producers move in, does have a good side. USDA standards often enable large corporate producers to move in and co-opt a movement, and are usually designed with loopholes (or “reasonable compromises,” depending on one’s point of view) that enable that process. The way farmers and marketers are using the term now, it indicates not only a diet suited to the animal’s biology but a kind of “beyond organic” production which is not about finding loopholes but being responsible and accountable for stewardship of people, animals, and nature.
Grass-fed loopholes. As stated above, the USDA grass-fed standard, while clear about banishing grain, is vague on the nature of pasture access. Animals could be inside eating stored forage like silage, pellets, and hay, with nominal access to the outdoors and little real input from the growing greens that create much of the nutritional benefits. In addition silage (grass or other plants compacted and stored in airtight conditions, often fermented), which is allowed under the standard, can be as much as 30 percent grain.
Above all, the grass-fed designation does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides, despite the high likelihood that consumers will assume it does. So if you’re relying on USDA labeling and you want grass-fed meat that’s also free of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides, it must be labeled both grass-fed and organic. Learning about your farmer is a better way to verify quality, especially since earning the USDA label can actually make best practices harder to achieve.
Some producers who object to this likelihood of consumer deception have formed standards associations of their own, such as the American Grassfed Association. There is no substitute for research and asking producers directly about their standards.
For more about USDA labeling terms, including “natural” and “free-range,” see
Judith Silverstein is a Berkeley-based holistic nutritionist specializing in helping people with food intolerances and chronic illnesses find nourishing, healing, joyful, and practical ways to eat. She also advises people seeking to transition away from the standard American diet, including how to source, prepare, budget, and minimize exposure to the negative aspects of the industrial food system. She is a big fan of GrubMarket’s mission to bring eaters and farmers closer together.