Reading time: 6 min 4 sec
Takeaway: Grass-fed beef is supposedly better than “regular” beef. But why? This post lays out the definition(s) of grass-fed beef, potential benefits and where to find it if you decide it’s what you want.
I really struggled with this post. I concluded the best thing is to share what I’ve learned in the past couple of years about grass-fed beef. There’s loads more to learn, but let’s do what my dad always recommended for public discourse – KISS! (Keep it simple, stupid.)
P.S. Notice all the qualifiers I’m using in this post–they are intentional! Where a cow is raised and slaughtered, the breed of cow, the amount and type of forage available, etc., affect the nutritional profile, flavor and carbon footprint of beef production. These create quite a few variables in the equation when determining which is “better”.
What’s your beef?
You’re a responsible person. You want to eat well, but not spend too much. And maybe you eat beef irregularly, but when you do, you want it to be delicious, good for you, and good for the planet. Are these things even possible? Are they mutually exclusive? And, more practically, which hamburger meat should you buy-the cheaper “conventional” one or one labelled “grass-fed”?
The short answer is, “It depends.” Which one you should buy depends on what you value most; this post endeavors to help you decide, based on facts.
Grass-fed vs. “regular” beef characteristics
Before we get underway, some definitions to get us on common ground.
Grass-fed or Pastured
Did you see my post on labels? Essentially, “grass-fed” or “pastured” means little, unless it’s backed up by something like American Grass-fed Association or you’re talking straight to the farmer who can tell you what they mean by grass-fed. About 80% of beef in the US, by weight, comes from when cows graze on grass. Most cows, whether strictly grass-fed or finished in a feedlot with grain, spent the first 6-9 months or so of their lives grazing in a pasture.
“Regular” beef, that is, beef not labelled as grass-fed, grass-finished or pastured generally spends about two-thirds of its life in pastures.
100% Grass-fed/Pastured, Grass-finished
These labels are trying to let you know that their cows have only eaten grass. How strict this is will vary by the producer.
Some of the first information I read about grass-fed beef was how healthy it is compared to regular beef. Like many health claims, that is not wholly true. I also liked the idea of cows living a life closer to their nature and without needing grain to be produced to boost their weight, a practice that could increase the environmental footprint of beef production.
Health and Nutrition Claims (compared to grain-finished beef)
- More conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
- More Vitamin A
- More omega-6 fatty acids give it a better ration of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids
- Lower fat content
And now for the qualifiers…
Put simply, compared to grain-finished beef, these things are all true. However, most are only marginally better in grain-fed beef.
- CLA – This one is legit, there is significantly more CLA in beef than other sources. That said, I can’t find conclusive evidence that CLA is good for us. Also, studies note that you can get increased amounts of CLA from just increasing the fat content of the beef you eat, rather than switching to grass-fed. If you find better data that CLA is conclusively good, let me know in the comments!
- Vitamin A – The National Institute of Health (NIH) shows that a serving of beef liver has 444 percent of our recommended daily value (RDV). For comparison, one sweet potato has 561 percent of the RDV.
- Omega-6:Omega-3 – A great blog-post on Grass Based Health shows the various amounts of measured ratios in grass versus grain fed beef. They range from as low as 1.44 in grass and 13.6 in grain-fed beef (a lower ratio is better). So, yeah, there is a better ratio. That’s great. BUT…compared to other sources, like fatty fish, the overall amount of omega 3 is abysmally low (tuna has about 30 times more omega 3).
- Lower fat content – Roughly half as much fat, per four studies cited here-see Table 2. That sounds impressive, but it’s only about 2-4 grams difference in a 100 gram serving. (The recommended daily allowance of total fat based on a 2000 calorie diet is 65 grams of fat, so 4 grams is only 6% of the RDA.)
- Lower carbon footprint.
- Improved carbon-carrying capacity of grasslands. (This means there are a greater total number and higher activity of plants and micro-organisms that are helping take more carbon from the atmosphere.)
Both of these should lead to fewer greenhouse gasses; however, like most things related to life-cycle analysis, it depends on a number of variables.
Cattle production produces greenhouse gasses at a number of points in the value chain, including:
- When they belch. Because they’re ruminants, this means their food is fermenting in their stomachs. Different foods lead to different amounts of gas.
- When they poop. Ditto to above.
- When they are fed supplemental food, whether it’s grain, grass or otherwise. The carbon involved in producing the food adds to the footprint of the cow. Grains typically require more nitrogen based fertilizer than grass production, which means grains have a higher carbon footprint. You also have to account for drying and transportation to the feeding area for most grains.
- The breed, as some breeds are better at converting forage into calories, that is, they turn grass into meat quicker and with fewer methane emissions.
- The food stock. Grains generally cause cows to emit more methane than eating grass.
- Time to slaughter. More food, even in the pasture, can lead to more methane emissions. Since grass-fed cows may be on pasture up to a year longer, the reduction in emissions from eating grasses can be offset by the total amount of food they eat over their lifetime and the methane produced thereby. Therefore, grass-fed and grain-fed cows may have the same amount of lifetime gas emissions.
Papers I’ve found (here and here) indicate conventional beef has a lower footprint.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention animal welfare. This is more qualitative and subjective. Even if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, you may be concerned about animal welfare. It’s a constant internal struggle of fact vs. feeling for me–I can read and cite the facts, but when it comes down to it, it’s my heart that ultimately decides. I prefer to know my food lived an idyllic life, and I’m willing to pay more and/or eat less of it. Just as foregoing meat is a personal choice, this is as well. I prefer farms that have been Animal Welfare Approved. Their list of criteria is robust, as is their certification system.
To be transparent with you, I would have enjoyed demonstrating that research indicates grass-fed beef is better for us and the planet. Scientifically-speaking, telling you such would be going against the facts we have today. Perhaps next time I’ll look at papers following antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance and find something there. (Coincidentally, there was a podcast from Eat This all about antibiotics. See here and here.)
I know we didn’t make any sweeping conclusions here; however, I hope you feel like you’ve gained a bit of knowledge to help you decide what’s aligns with your values.
Where to find grass-fed (and finished) beef in the Piedmont Triad
Firsthand Foods – Find them in Deep Roots Market in downtown Greensboro
At the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market:
Six Gunn Farm
Meadows Family Farm
Rothchild Angus Farm