What’s Your Beef?

Grass-fed meat is harder to find, more expensive and harder to cook. Is it worth it?
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No matter what diet you choose to follow, whether it’s Paleo’s no-grain, no-dairy, no-legume approach or the Zone’s balanced ratios of macronutrients or just a generally eat-as-healthy-as-you-can plan, it’s important to eat the highest quality foods. That often means organic fruit and vegetables, but when it comes to animals, where does quality come from?

Let’s start with a little background: Cows eat grass. In fact, most of the beef produced in the U.S. up until the 1940s was from cattle that ate grass. But as the country grew, it eventually became necessary to improve the efficiency of beef production. Agricultural scientists discovered that mass production of beef was attainable by feeding high-energy grains to the cattle; this decreased the amount of time each animal had to be fed before being slaughtered — a shortcut if you will. (And yes, you read that correctly: We feed cows grains to make them fat, yet grains are supposedly “heart-healthy” for humans.)

Cow

Unfortunately, as with all things health related, there are no shortcuts. Research over three decades shows that the type of feed a cow consumes significantly alters the fatty-acid composition and overall antioxidant content of the beef it produces. This is so remarkable that as the concentration of grain increases in a cow’s diet, the ratio of “good fats” to “bad fats” in its meat decreases in a linear fashion. It is also worth noting that within 30 days of switching a cow from a grass-fed diet to a grain-fed diet, the resulting meat suffers dramatically. In fact, a review of existing research, published in Nutrition Journal in 2010, showed that meat from these cows — fed grains for a mere 30 days — will have a far more inflammatory fatty-acid composition and will lack the antioxidant content that is otherwise present in the meat of grass-fed animals.

The Facts on Fats

All fats are not created equal, so to understand the importance of quality and how feeding ruminants (the class of mammals that includes cows) grass contributes to high-quality food products, we must turn our attention first to this most maligned of nutrients. The myth of fats is that they’re bad and can make us fat. However, the truth is that bad fats are bad but good fats are essential — and some even have fat-burning properties. We admit, it’s overwhelmingly confusing. To clear things up a bit, fats are an integral part of the human diet, and consuming healthy fat from high-quality animal sources is important, period. This is where grass feeding comes into play — it improves the quality of fat in an animal’s meat and dairy.

One of the most remarkable advantages — and there are many — to eating grass-fed meat is the fatty-acid profile it offers. There are two main types of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids: omega-6 (inflammatory fats) and omega-3 (anti-inflammatory fats). The ratio of the two fats influences overall health, and maintaining an appropriate balance is critical. The ratio is particularly important because the machinery involved in metabolizing omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats is shared, meaning an excess of one type can interfere with the metabolism of the other type. The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is between 1:1 and 3:1, and above 4:1 is considered problematic. Alarmingly, the ratio of the average American diet has been reported at 15:1! This might not be surprising, considering that the fatty-acid ratio in grain-fed beef, one of the most popular sources of meat among American omnivores, can be as high as 20:1. On the other hand, cattle that have been fed grass — their natural food source, remember — have been reported to produce beef with a fatty-acid profile of 2:1 to 3:1, which, you’ll notice, happens to fall within the range considered ideal for human needs.

Even though feeding cattle grass yields overall leaner meat with way more good fats, bad fats in the meat remain largely unaltered. But as a result of the huge increase in good fats, the omega-6:omega-3 ratio is shifted to favor a more beneficial, anti-inflammatory profile. The bottom line: It’s what the grain-fed meat doesn’t have that is detrimental. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2011 found that individuals who were put on a grass-fed red-meat diet for four weeks had a significantly improved plasma omega-6:omega-3 ratio (it went from 9:1 to 6:1) compared with those on a diet of red meat from animals that had been fed a fortified blend of grains and soy (from 8:1 to 13:1). Because they’re getting substantial amounts of omega-3 fatty acids from their diets, people who regularly consume wild fish and animal products from grass-fed sources generally do not need to supplement with omega-3 fish oil.

Grass-Fed Beef

The Goodness of Grass

Why is grass so magical? It all comes down to the infinitely strange anatomy of the cow and its cousins. As any grade-schooler learns, cows have four stomachs — or, more precisely, their stomachs have four chambers. Those four chambers allow cows to derive nutrients from grass. They do that with the assistance of certain bacteria that ferment the grass — and just so happen to synthesize good fats. And like all other bacteria, the ones in cows’ bellies require a certain type of environment in order to function effectively. When cows consume commercial feed, it changes the pH in their stomachs, making the environment less friendly to the beneficial bacteria. Cattle fed a diet of grass have stomachs that are far more suitable for bacteria to function and produce good fat.

In cattle that eat grass, the bacteria work hard to synthesize conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and trans-vaccenic acid (TVA). TVA is important because it leads to the synthesis of CLA, which aside from its fat-burning potential, has been shown over the past 20 years to have numerous health benefits. What kind of health benefits? Oh, just enhanced immune function, improved regulation of blood sugar, reduced incidence of atherosclerosis and improved tumor suppression.

CLA is also present in dairy products produced by cows that have been fed grass. For example, analyses have shown that cheeses from grass-fed cows were significantly higher in total CLA content compared with conventional or even organic cheese. In fact, the healthiest part of dairy is the fat and the fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., A, D, K-2) it contains. If you can tolerate dairy, you would likely benefit from consuming high-quality whole-fat products like butter, yogurt and cheese from grass-fed cattle.

Beyond the Fat

There are several reasons beyond fatty-acid ratio that support consumption of grass-fed beef products over commercial, grain-fed cattle. First, toxins including antibiotics are typically routinely administered to commercial cattle. (It’s this overuse of antibiotics in beef cattle that is believed to be one of the causes of the unchecked proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria currently facing the medical community.) And to make matters worse, fat tissue is a storage compartment for toxins. That means that when you consume meat from these animals, which we know contains fat tissue, you are exposing yourself to whatever toxins the cows were given. On the other hand, the reason grain-fed cattle need antibiotics and other drugs is because their bodies are not made to digest grain, and doing so creates problems, like rampant inflammation, that have to be dealt with with drugs. Grass-fed cattle, which tend to be much healthier and not need drug injections, yield meat that is likely to be more pure and free from toxins.

Studies also show that grass-fed meat is significantly higher in antioxidants than meat from animals fed grain. Grass-fed meat can contain seven times more beta carotene (a precursor for vitamin A) and three times more alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). No surprise, vitamins are good for you. Beta carotene has been shown to have tumor-suppressing effects on a variety of cancers. In a study of mice with melanoma, beta-carotene treatment inhibited tumor proliferation and angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels) by creating a more anti-inflammatory environment. Meat from grass-fed animals is also richer in CoQ10, an extremely powerful antioxidant; zinc; vitamin B-12; and the antioxidant glutathione, compared with meat from animals raised on a commercial-feed diet.

There are other benefits, too. Grass-fed meat is free from genetically modified organisms (which often pop up in the grain that conventional cattle are fed), growth hormones and other toxic chemicals. It’s not contaminated with wheat, soy, gluten or other allergens that can transfer to the meat from a grain diet and thus is safe even for those with allergies to consume. And finally, animals that are allowed to remain in their natural environment, eating the food they evolved to eat, are happier, less stressed and less susceptible to infection. And all that translates to healthier meat.