Is Grass-Fed Meat Any Healthier?

Where's the beef? Here's the beef.

A few months ago, we looked at a number of studies that compared organic and conventional produce. The term “organic food” refers to food grown without most artificial fertilizers or pesticides and in a way that emphasizes crop rotation. Organic farming makes the most of natural fertilizers and ensures that the life of the soil is maintained.

The studies suggest that organic produce is not any richer in nutrients than conventional produce. Moreover, and somewhat surprisingly, the studies don’t show any longer-term health benefits including reduced cancer risk. While organic produce may not be healthier for the human body, it is unarguably much better for our extended body: Planet earth.

Today, let’s switch gears and look at grass-fed beef.

First things first, grass-fed and organic are not interchangeable terms. Not all organic beef is grass-fed, and not all grass-fed beef is organic. For one, grass-fed cows could graze on land that has been treated with fertilizers or pesticides. So, check the label if it’s important to you.

Decades ago, all beef was grass-fed. But industrial farmers discovered that grain-based diets could improve the efficiency of their farms. Cows that are fed diets of grass grow slowly; it may take 4 – 5 years until the animal is ready for slaughter. By feeding cows a diet of corn, antibiotics (cows can’t consume corn without them), hormones and protein, today’s conventional cows are slaughtered after just 14 – 16 months. Holding ethical questions aside for a moment, are there any research-supported differences in the nutrient content of grass-fed vs. grain-fed meats?

Yes. According to a report in the Nutrition Journal, it turns out that there are a number of differences:

  • Lower fat content. Grass-fed meat is lower in overall fat and saturated fat. A sirloin steak tested from grain-fed cows, for example, had more than double the total amount of fat compared to a grass-fed cut.
  • Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy and essential fatty acids are more prevalent in grass-fed beef. Grain-fed cows have only 15% – 50% of the omega-3 fatty acids found in grass-feed beef. It’s worth noting, however, that omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed beef are still much lower than some other foods like salmon.
  • Lower dietary cholesterol. Though dietary cholesterol has a relatively small impact on blood cholesterol, individuals with cholesterol concerns should take notice.
  • Increased vitamins A, E and antioxidants. Grass-fed beef is a better source of these important nutrients.

Grass-fed beef has other benefits, too. For one, it has a greener environmental impact. Growing corn requires a tremendous amount of fossil fuel. In addition, grass-fed beef is also less polluting as the animal dung is used as fertilizer for the grass.

In my opinion, grass-fed beef also tastes better. It has a different, more authentic flavor that I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate.

And of course, the ethical implications of industrial farms vs. pasture-centered farms can’t be ignored to a conscious eater. If you are what you eat, I’d much prefer an animal that lived its life on a real farm – and didn’t spend its existence pumped full of drugs and knee-deep in its own feces. But that’s just my two cents.

When I shop, I generally only buy grass-fed beef. The price is significantly higher – but I think it is worth it – even it means eating meat less frequently.

But what do you think? Have you ever tried grass-fed beef? Do you prefer it? Do you think it’s worth the difference in price?

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Comments

  1. Great article! It’s always nice to know something new about healthy eating habits, especially since eating is one of my biggest expenses these days (haven’t bought clothes or video games in a while).

    I try to buy organic, but knowing things that are better in other ways, not just earth-friendly ways, is always good to know as well. I’ll be looking for grass-fed next time!

  2. I haven’t upgraded yet to grass fed or organic meat, but there is a fantastic store about half an hour from my home which deals with ONLY organic or grass fed meat. In fact all of their stock is organic and/or natural.
    And it is well worth it,most certainly

  3. I don’t understand anyone who would argue in favor of grain fed beef. It is the perfect example of a completely broken system. The greed of the industry is clearly shown here. The mistreatment of the animals, the environment and the consumer is something the industry is not held accountable for. All of the negative results of the meat industry are passed on and there are no consequences to the ‘farmers’. The fact of the natter is that the extra cost of more ethically raised meat is the way it should always have been and should be today. Meat should not be inexpensive. Plain and simple. There is a great book called ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safron Foer that completely changed my opinions on meat and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for more info on this topic. Thanks Dave for being another person to bring this topic to light.

  4. This is a great artical. However the only problem I have is that I live in Hawaii. Which means it is hard yo find those types of meats here. A lot of times the beef has to be imported from the mainland and making the prices sky rocket. For a while now I have been on a mission to become more healthy and reading everything you are writing has really helped me stay on track. Thanks. 🙂

  5. If you have a considerable amount of spendable income then grassfed protein is the way to go. Sure, we all make concessions, but the reality that in this economy something has to be sacrificed. Trust me, I know. I own a bread company. I refuse to use bleached flours, preservatives, and anything you can’t pronounce as an ingredient base. I support those local farmers who raise their animals open ranged and it’s costly. Everything is costly if it’s considered healthy. That’s why it’s a shock that in 2011, 40 million Americans still eat white bread. It’s cheap. And obesity is the wheel spinning the cycle of horrible nutrition making the food industry fat around their greedy waists.

    Keep at it, Davey, teach people, one article at a time. It’s time those doing the right thing won.

  6. So I am mixed on this article. I do recognize that grass-fed beef does have benefits compared to how standard beef is produced these days. However some aspects are missed when we look at grass fed or organic beef. I graduated with a degree in Animal Science, and focused on beef production. 1st of all not all cows in feedlots are given antibiotics and hormones. Secondly the residue of these substances is not detected in quantities any greater than other beef.
    I have visited facilities that slaughter both these kinds of cattle, and trust me the animals I have seen go through which are raised organic or without antibiotics are a sad looking bunch of animals. The animals are less thrifty and often have open wounds or low grade illness that need antibiotics, which they can’t have because of their status as organic.
    Thirdly if we were to raise all of our cattle in a grass-fed manner, we would be far less able to produce the immense amount of food america produces to feed the world.
    While I do see the benefit in nutritional value, we have to look at other effects of this.

  7. I totally agree with you on the whole eating grass fed thing, but I will say that is is possible for cattle to eat corn without needing antibiotics. I can say that our cattle get grain in the winter ( Michigan pastures are kinda useless in the middle of winter) and never need antibiotics.

  8. christopher says:

    grass fed beef has one gr8 advantage since it takes longer for this cattle to raise-4-5 yrs-no hormones.since it takes longer-thats the difference in the price.—i was at a Bison Farm in Holland Michigan a few weeks ago-they were all grazing on grass.in the company store they had an extensive assortment of cuts available mostly from Michigan Wisconsin and Iowa.Veldheer Gardens and Bison Farm.

  9. cows are ruminants: they are meant to eat grasses, not caloric-dense grains. a diet relatively low in roughage alters the micro-environment of their guts, and has been linked to the exponential increase in pathological e-coli contamination of beef.

    the problem lies in the huge supplements the USDA gives to farmers to grow corn. what doesn’t go to livestock ends up as unhealthy high-fructose corn syrup. ecologically, corn-based agrobusiness is a disaster waiting to happen, as corn rapidly depletes soil of nutrients, requiring more and more fertilizer.

    the vast majority of corn-fed beef ends up at McDonalds and Burger King. because of USDA corn subsidies, it is cheaper to purchase a ‘happy meal’ for a family of four than it is to buy them each a portion of fresh vegetables.

    yes, i would be willing to pay a premium for grass-fed beef. however, seeing as the demand for beef in general is largely linked to the fast-food industry, the price might be reasonable if that market was curtailed. however due to the powerful food industry lobby, i wouldn’t expect either corn subsidies or mcdonalds to disappear any time soon.

  10. Yes, the raw meat may still have omega 3 fatty acids and the important nutrients. But, once the meat is exposed to heat above 110 degrees, the nutrients are destroyed. Same goes for salmon, which you have to cook also. It’s better to avoid these foods all together, thus your not affecting any other body system. It’s best to obtain nutrients through plant-based foods.

    R.D.

  11. Food quality should come before your desire to drive that higher priced car or the designer clothing line. It’s great to save money but this stuff goes in your body.

  12. If grass-fed beef is better then I hope that the scientists will find a way to make the cows grow at a faster rate. In this way, the grass-fed beef will be able to compete with grain-fed beef in terms of improving the efficiency of the farms. I like the sound of organic meat especially if there are benefits like lower fat content and higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

  13. Dennis Standberry says:

    you’ve got a fantastic weblog here! would you like to make some invite posts on my weblog?

Trackbacks

  1. […] of corn and supplements. Grass-fed beef, on the other, not only tastes better – but also has improved nutritional content. Grass-fed beef has lower overall fat, lower saturated fat, an increase in heart-healthy omega-3 […]

  2. […] of corn and supplements. Grass-fed beef, on the other, not only tastes better – but also has improved nutritional content. Grass-fed beef has lower overall fat, lower saturated fat, an increase in heart-healthy omega-3 […]

  3. […] also more common for bison to be grass-fed, though you’ll need to check with your supplier. Grass-fed meats offer a number of nutritional advantages. Beyond reduced fat, grass-fed meats are lower in cholesterol, higher in omega-3 fatty acids and […]