10 Things You Didn't Know About Grass-Fed Meat
The meat aisle at your local supermarket is littered with labels—so you've likely noticed the term "grass-fed" and "grass-finished" on many cuts of red meat. If you've heard all the buzz behind grass-fed beef, you probably already know that it's healthier than conventionally-raised meat. But, why is it better for you? And is the heftier price tag of grass-fed meat really worth it?
To get the lowdown on why grass-fed and finished meats reign supreme, we spoke to multiple experts who share everything you need to know before picking your next grass-fed protein, whether it be a rib-eye, a burger, or beef jerky. Spoiler alert: shelling out extra cash for grass-fed meat is worth it. Find out why—and then convince your family and friends to get on the grain-free bandwagon, too!
One thing to note: The term "grass-fed" significantly differs from "grass-fed and grass-finished" meat. Because the term "grass-fed" is no longer regulated by the FDA, manufacturers can feed their cattle grass at some point in their lives—but not for their entire lives—and deceptively label the meat "grass-fed." To reap all the benefits of grass-fed meat, the animal must be fed a grass diet (free of grains) for their entire lives. If they're only fed a grass diet for a portion of their lives and not for the entirety, the meat would be deemed grass-fed and grain-finished. The addition of "grass-finished" on a grass-fed label ensures that the animal only dined on greenery—as well as guarantees you're getting the utmost nutritious cut. While grass-fed, grain-finished meat isn't as wholesome as grass-fed and grass-finished, you'd still reap more benefits than eating conventionally-raised meat. Now, learn the differences of grass-fed (as well as grass-finished meat) against conventionally-raised meat.
Grass-fed meat provides more healthy fats.
Not only is grass-fed meat more lean than its conventional counterparts, but it also contains higher levels of healthy fats. "Research shows that grass-fed cows significantly improve the fatty acid composition of beef. Grass-fed meats are also richer in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids," Jessica Handy, RD, tells us. Additionally, grass-fed meat boasts a more desirable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio—with a higher concentration of omega-3s to combat inflammation.
"Grass-fed animals have a higher concentration of α-linolenic acid and other omega-3s, while grain feeding results in higher amounts of linoleic acid and other omega-6s," Chad Clem, Director of Research and Development at Applegate Natural & Organic Meats, tells us. Because the typical American diet is already high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s, a proportion that can lead to inflammation, it is important to supplement your diet with additional omega-3s—and grass-fed meat is a wonderful source.
What's more, it's worth noting the differences in saturated fat composition of grain-fed versus grass-fed meat, Esther Blum, MS, RD, CDN, CNS, tells us. "There are three main types of saturated fat found in red meat: stearic acid, palmitic acid, and myristic acid. Grass-fed beef consistently contains a higher proportion of stearic acid, which does not raise blood cholesterol levels. This higher proportion of stearic acid means that grass-fed beef also contains lower proportions of palmitic and myristic acid, which are more likely to raise cholesterol."
Grass-fed meat is one of the best sources of protein.
Grass-fed beef is an excellent source of protein—just three ounces (the standard serving size of red meat) of grass-fed ground beef boasts about 18 grams of the muscle-building macro. "The amino acids are also more bioavailable than plant-based protein sources," Handy says. Unlike most plant-based sources of protein, animal proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own and therefore has to obtain from food.
Grass-fed meat is full of antioxidants.
Glutathione (GT), is a new protein identified in foods that has the profound ability to get rid of free radicals within the cell, Clem tells us. Since GT compounds are higher in grass-fed beef than grain-fed, the meat can help protect the cell from oxidized lipids or proteins, preventing DNA damage. What's more, "Grass-fed beef is also higher in superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase (CAT)—which are coupled enzymes that work together as powerful antioxidants—than beef from grain-fed cattle," Clem says.
Grass-fed meat is packed with vitamins.
Cattle finished on grass have higher levels of A-tocopherol (vitamin E) in the final meat product than cattle fed high-grain diets, Clem says, citing studies that show that grass-finished beef contains three times more vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant, than grain-fed. "Vitamin E helps delay the oxidative deterioration of the meat, which causes the meat to turn brown in color." What's more, grass-fed meat also contains higher levels of vitamin A, which is beneficial for skin and eye health. "Cattle that graze on solely grasses produce raw meat with a yellowish tint in the fat due to the carotenoids in the grasses. When making hay products for grain-fed cattle, around 80 percent of the carotenoid content can be destroyed," Clem adds.
Grass-fed cattle improve the planet's biodiversity.
Biodiversity refers to the Earth's biological diversity and the variety of organisms that call our planet home. "Plants, wildlife, microorganisms, and fungi have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with grazing animals for thousands of years," Handy tells us. "When we mimic these natural systems with cattle, a term also known as 'biomimicry,' we see improvements in the biodiversity and ecology of the land."
"Well-managed cattle mimic the traditional patterns of wild herds by moving across grasslands, tilling and fertilizing the earth, aerating soils, and helping the grass to grow," Mike Murray, CEO of grass-fed meat brand Teton Waters Ranch, tells us. "Holistic management of cattle promotes the landscape to flourish as it would naturally, encouraging native species to stay in these habitats and create a more diverse ecosystem which in turn makes it more resilient. Because 100 percent grass-fed cattle are allowed to graze on a buffet of the best plants and grasses, they eat exactly what their body needs at the time." In turn, this nutrient-rich diet results in higher quality meat. "They get the nutrients from a more diverse diet, helping them to be healthier than feedlot-fed cattle. Healthy cows that eat a diverse diet of natural grasses and plants produce better-tasting beef with added vitamins and minerals, making it more nutritionally dense," Murray says.
Grass-fed cattle carry less E. coli.
A Cornell study published in the journal Science shows that grain-fed cows are more susceptible to E. coli. "Most bacteria are killed by the acid of stomach juice, but E. coli from grain-fed cattle are resistant to strong acids," James B. Russell, a USDA microbiologist and faculty member of the Cornell Section of Microbiology, explains in the study. "When people eat foods contaminated with acid-resistant E. coli—including pathogenic strains like O157:H7—the chance of getting sick increases." However, there is a solution: feeding the cattle hay just five days before slaughter significantly decreased the amount of E. coli.
A large Consumer Reports study demonstrates that eating grass-fed meat instead of conventional decreases your risk of food poisoning and results in fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Out of 300 samples of raw ground beef tested, researchers found that conventional beef was twice as likely to be contaminated with superbugs than all types of sustainably-produced beef, noting that the most significant difference was seen between conventional and grass-fed beef. Only six percent of grass-fed samples contained superbugs. Another study, published by the National Institute of Health, notes that feeding cattle grains may increase human infections with E. coli and that the pathogens from grass-fed animals are killed by an acid shock similar to the conditions of the human stomach, which would, therefore, cut your risk of getting E. coli.
Grass-fed cattle take a long time to reach full weight.
"Grass-fed cattle take a longer time to reach full weight in comparison to grain-fed cattle because grass-fed cattle are allowed to roam on pastures and eat natural grasses," Handy says. "Unlike conventionally-raised meat, grass-fed animals are not fattened on grains in feedlots, nor given growth hormones to speed the process." Because grass-fed cattle aren't exposed to unnecessary medication, this, in turn, ensures that antibiotics actually work on our own immune systems—which you'll read more about below.
Grass-fed cattle are less likely to cause antibiotic resistance in people.
"Cattle are meant to eat grass, not feedlot corn and grain," Murray reminds us. "When allowed to graze on grass as they are meant to, cattle are less likely to get sick and require antibiotics. It takes longer for a grass-fed steer to grow to full maturity, and that is also due to our commitment to no added hormones or antibiotics to promote growth." Not only does the lack of growth-inducing hormones and antibiotics help the cow reach maturity naturally—deeming it more humane for the animals—but it also saves us from becoming immune to antibiotics important for human medicine.
"Antibiotics used for animal production purposes are unnecessary and contribute to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a serious public health concern," says Urvashi Rangan, PhD, Executive Director of Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center. "Infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria can be more difficult to treat and are a major public health problem. Because grass-fed cattle eat only forage, poor health that can arise from grain-intensive diets is prevented. In addition, pastures can only feed herds of a certain size, and in a properly managed pasture, the stressful and crowded disease-promoting conditions of the feedlot are eliminated. Healthier, less stressed animals need fewer antibiotics and other drugs to stay healthy." In simple terms, happy cows yield better meat.
Well-managed grass-fed cattle are more environmentally friendly.
It's no secret that raising cattle takes a huge toll on the environment. About 460 gallons of water are required to produce a mere quarter pound of beef—which is nearly what you'd find in a McDonald's Big Mac—as well as contributes to deforestation and greenhouse gasses. However, those environmentally-detrimental repercussions are mostly relevant to grain-fed meat.
"Well-managed cattle that are moved around different pastures can sequester (store) carbon and help to mitigate climate change," Mike Murray exclaims, enlightening us on how raising cattle responsibly can become a solution to climate change rather than a catalyst. "By moving the cattle around, the microbiota and root systems stay intact, allowing the soil to sequester more carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Murray says.
And Dr. Rangan agrees: "Managing cattle carefully to ensure that pastures are grazed moderately means restoring soil quality and cutting greenhouse gases by keeping carbon in the soil as organic matter rather than releasing it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide."
However, if farmers continue to employ conventional meat farming techniques, that can spell bad news for Mother Nature. "If carbon continues to increase at the rate it is now, this will increase the temperature of the Earth, continuing to disrupt wildlife and their habitats, inducing extreme weather, and many other negative impacts on our Earth," Murray says.
Grass-fed meat tastes differently.
"Most grain-fed beef is finished off with a diet including corn. This creates a slightly sweeter flavor and much more marbling," clinical nutritionist Tara Coleman, CN, states. "When a steak cooks, the fat from this marbling melts into the meat, creating a much more tender cut. Grass-fed tends to taste leaner and quite simply more like meat. Again, this is because of both the cow's diet and the subsequent lower fat content."
What's more, beef, much like wine, contains terroir. Terroir is how a particular region's climate, soils, grasses and aspect (terrain) affect the taste of a natural product—in this case, the beef, Murray tells us. Grass-fed dairy also tastes differently from dairy made with grain-fed cows. Just test it for yourself: try a spoonful of Maple Hill Organic grass-fed yogurt against a spoonful of Dannon's and you'll taste the difference!