I was on a health & fitness website. The juicy steak picture immediately drew my eye. I immediately started reading through the recipe, when bam, there it was in the ingredients list: “grass-fed beef.”
Why “grass-fed beef” instead of just “beef?” Is it going to taste different if the beef is not grass-fed? Is the recipe healthier or less healthy if it is grass-fed? Are there any hidden grass-fed beef benefits? Why is the “grass-fed” label so important that it’s there on the ingredient list of a recipe?
A quick Google search finds a number of websites praising the grass-fed beef benefits. Most of them talked about its better fatty acid profile (we discuss this later.) But I also found gems like this one on the website of an 100% grass-fed beef company:
Grass fed beef cattle are raised on pastures all their lives, living solely on a natural diet of grass. They are free to roam and graze at their leisure with the sun on their backs and grass at their feet. Conversely, corn fed beef cattle are spatially confined to feedlots where they are plumped by an unnatural diet of corn which is commonly supplemented with hormones and antibiotics.
It appears that the hype goes far beyond the “health benefits” and into animal welfare. I decided to investigate. I looked into the research comparing grass-fed beef with grain-fed beef and, not to provide any spoilers, I concluded that the grass-fed beef benefits are completely overhyped (and sometimes simply not true.) From a health perspective, you’ll be much better off instead of splitting hairs with what beef to buy, to make sure you exercise. Let’s review.
First, what is grass-fed beef?
From the conference call notes of the Agricultural Marketing Service of USDA:
Producers or companies making a 100% Grass-Fed claims on their meat and meat product labels should be fed Grass (Forage) Fed 100% after being weaned from their mother’s milk.
There is currently no federal standard defining “Grass-Fed.” However, farmers can apply to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and get a grass-fed claim on their label.
If we see Grass Fed on a label at a store we can assume that its 100% grass fed?
Yes, unless it states a percentage. For example: 50% Grass-Fed, 50% Grain-Fed or 90% Grass-Fed, 10% Grain-fed.
Grass-fed beef vs. grain-fed beef: The (overhyped) grass-fed beef benefits.
Now let’s get started with the claims surrounding beef.
1. Grass-fed beef is healthier than grain-fed beef: Not exactly.
There are a number of claims around beef. One is about the grass-fed beef’s omega-3 fatty acids profile, another is about leanness, and another about it being a better vitamin source. Overall, it’s true there are some nutritional differences between grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef. The question though is – do those nutritional differences actually make a difference? Will we be healthier because of them? Let’s review.
Grass-fed beef vs. grain-fed beef: Fatty acids
You may have heard that grass-fed beef has a better omega-3/omega-6 profile than grain fed beef. This is actually true and supported by studies.
Because beef is not really a source of omega-3s and omega-6s, this grass-fed beef benefit becomes inconsequential and/or irrelevant. Tamar Haspel illustrates this at the Washington Post:
An 100-gram serving (a little under four ounces) of grass-fed top sirloin contains 65 milligrams of omega-3 fats, loin has 40 and rib-eye has 37. So even that 65-milligram amount is only about 22 milligrams more than that for regular beef and still far below levels in low-fat fishes such as tilapia (134 milligrams) and haddock (136). The omega-3 powerhouse king salmon has 1,270 milligrams.
Setting the omega-3/omega-6 situation aside, the picture of which beef is best gets more complicated as we examine more facts: Leheska et. al., in their 2014 study found that grass-fed beef had significantly less content of MUFA (monounsaturated fat = good fat, just like olive oil, ) and researchers in Texas A&M found it had more saturated fat and transfat.
Grass-fed beef vs. grain-fed beef: Leanness
Daley et al., in their 2010 study report that grass-finished cattle are typically lower in total fat as compared to grain-fed contemporaries. This is useful to know but still kind of irrelevant in this debate, as you can find lean beef that’s both grass-fed and grain-fed. Just check the labels at the store.
Still, I asked Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, an obesity and family physician, whether lean beef has any health benefits compared to less lean beef. “It really depends on the totality of your diet,” he said. “For the most part, I tell my patients to buy leaner cuts of beef or very lean ground beef and have them get their fat sources from mostly plants eg olive oil, nuts, and avocados.”
In other words, there’s no proof that grass-fed beef is better for you, esp. when comparing beef pieces that have the same amount of fat percentage. Saying the grass-fed beef is healthier is at a minimum jumping to conclusions, or more accurately, making up claims.
Grass-fed beef vs. grain-fed beef: Vitamins
Grass-fed beef is richer in Vitamins A and E. However, this doesn’t seem to make a difference. Quoting Food Insight, a non-profit education company:
Several sources have highlighted that grass-fed beef could be beneficial in having more Vitamin A & E than grain-fed beef. Actually, neither beef provides Vitamin A. Grass-fed beef provides only .02 mg more of Vitamin E per serving than grain-fed beef, so if you’re concerned about your vitamin intake, you will be much better off looking towards carrots, almonds, and fortified products.
The recommendation is to get beef that has a lower fat content, regardless of whether that beef was grass-fed or grain-fed or anything in between.”Regarding grass-fed vs. non grass-fed, if you get leaner choices, the differences in health outcomes are minuscule. The reason you go for grass fed may lie in taste preference and also the treatment of the cow,” said Dr. Nadolsky.
(Hint: If you’re a labeling nerd, I strongly recommend you check out National Nutrient Database. You can search any food, and find its nutritional composition. It’s pretty awesome to have all this information at your fingertips.)
2. Grass seems to be better food for cattle than grain. But is that true?
So you’re not attracted to grass-fed beef because of its health claims. Maybe it just seemed more “natural” to you. Maybe it seemed “better” for the cattle. But is that true? Farmers don’t arbitrarily come up with dietary plans for cattle. Their vets and expert nutritionists advise them on what is best for their animals. Michelle Miller, the farmer behind the popular facebook page Farm Babe, explained:
Nutritional plans are industry standard information. We work with vets and industry experts who use TMR (total mixed rations) or self-fed rations which has a proper balance of protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, etc.
The popular argument that cattle is “not supposed to eat grain” is simply not true, say vets everywhere. And the misconception that corn is bad for cows is also not true. Miller explained:
ALL beef cattle are grass-fed and raised on their mothers until they are weaned at about 7-10 months of age. There is a common misconception that cattle should not eat corn. As an ancestor of the teosinte plant, corn is technically a type of grass. The difference between teosinte and maize (corn) is about 5 genes. We have been feeding corn to our happy, healthy cattle for decades with great success.
And now that’ve covered food, let’s address living conditions.
3. Grain-fed cattle get to go outside on a regular basis too. It’s not just grass-fed cattle who get to go on a stroll.
To make this clear – the grass-fed label only examines what cattle are eating, it does not examine how much time cattle spend outside. So this argument is tangential at best.
Still because it does get mixed up with grass-fed beef on the internet I brought the claim that “grain-fed beef is confined” to Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe. She immediately stroke back:
Almost all beef cattle have access to the outdoors, it’s much more common for beef to have both indoor and outdoor access, regardless on the size of the operation. I think when people haven’t worked with livestock, they think of the term “feedlot” with a negative connotation. A feedlot is just an area of space, a pen if you will… It can have as few as 10 head or thousands.
Personally, ours are always outside, but they can go in the barn if they like. Depends on the weather usually. I would say that’s pretty industry standard.
Feedlots come with specifications on the number of cattle they can fit. Just like elevators say “15 people max” – same with feedlots. And as Miller said, they can come in smaller sizes or they can be so big they can accommodate thousands of cattle (e.g., Cactus feeders with tens of thousands.)
4. Both grass-fed and grain-fed cattle are given antibiotics (but in both cases your meat will not have traces.)
Honestly, I don’t understand the consumer push for no antibiotics. Antibiotics provide necessary care to a sick animal. It’s one thing to advocate against overuse of antibiotics, and totally another to advocate against ALL use of antibiotics. You cannot be a friend of the animals and yet deny them a drug that could lessen their pain or save their lives.
I don’t personally know anyone that uses antibiotics in beef cattle unless it is absolutely necessary. They’re very expensive, using more than necessary makes no financial sense. Also, if antibiotics are used, the animal must go through a “withdrawal period” before it can legally go to market meaning ALL meat is antibiotic free.
And now that we’re done with antibiotics let’s examine the environmental impact.
5. What grass-fed beef advocates fail to mention: Grain-fed cattle may be better for the environment.
First, let’s start with the good news. Beef production is getting more environmentally friendly in the last decades. “Modern beef production requires considerably fewer resources than the equivalent system in 1977, with 69.9% of animals, 81.4% of feedstuffs, 87.9% of the water, and only 67.0% of the land required to produce 1 billion kg of beef” reports Dr. Capper in her 2011 study that tracks the environmental impact of beef production in the US from 1977 to 2007.
Grain-fed cattle gain weight faster, which makes cattle operations more productive, using less resources and lessening their carbon footprint. In a 2012 study by Dr. Judith Capper that compared the carbon footprint between “conventional” (finished in feedlots with growth-enhancing technology), natural (finished in feedlots with no growth-enhancing technology), and grass-fed (forage-fed, no growth-enhancing technology), conventional “won”, with “natural” coming second, and grass-fed finishing last.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe explained: “Since they also go to market quicker, this helps the environment with less methane gas and a lower carbon footprint.”
Dr. Capper in her study gave us the numbers: Animals within the conventional system had an average slaughter weight of 569 kg and took a total of 444 d to raise from birth to slaughter; compared to 519 kg slaughter weight per animal after a similar time period (464 d) in the natural system; and 486 kg after 679 d in the grass-fed system.
Grass-fed cattle need a whopping 52% longer to get to a weight that’s still lower than their non-grass fed peers.
6. The taste verdict is leaning in favor of grain-fed beef, but at the end of the day, taste is subjective.
You could argue that flavor is subjective. And you’d be right. However, I ought to tell you that studies say that most consumers don’t prefer the taste of grass-fed beef, with organic non-grass-fed and conventional getting more than double the “likes” than organic and grass-fed (Bjorklundet al., 2014.)
Daley et al. wrote in their review: “Trained taste panels, i.e., persons specifically trained to evaluate sensory characteristics in beef, found grass-fed beef less palatable than grain-fed beef in flavor and tenderness.”
Of course, taste has both to do with the foods that you’re used to eating and the specific diet of the animal. Not all grass-fed, or non grass-fed, beef is equal. This one is up to you to decide.
7. The most shining of the grass-fed beef benefits: It’s a lucrative marketing label.
Just like “garden-fresh tomatoes” sound better than “tomatoes,” we have to admit that “grass-fed beef” sounds better than just “beef.” This is actually a commonly-used restaurant menu trick: use savory adjectives and the food sounds more delicious (even though it is the exact same food!) Yum!
In a Cornell review study “Slim by design: Menu strategies for promoting high-margin, healthy foods” researcher Brian Wansink, PhD cites a study where he shows descriptive words increase sales:
They changed the names of restaurant menu items to make them more descriptive; the seafood filet became Succulent Italian Seafood Filet and red beans and rice became Cajun Red Beans and Rice. Sales of these items went up by 28% and they were rated as tastier, even though the recipe was identical. Diners were also willing to pay an average of 12% more money for a menu item with a descriptive name.
And the marketing label pays off, especially when paired with the another magic word: “organic.” In their 2014 study “Growth, carcass characteristics, and profitability of organic versus conventional dairy beef steers” the authors concluded that the grass fed organic steers had 43% greater profit than the conventional ones “due to organic beef price premiums and lower feed costs.”
So I get that. I get marketing and I get the power of labels.
Grass-fed beef is more expensive at the supermarket conveying quality (it’s actually more expensive because it takes 52% longer (see above) to grow up to a certain weight.) Grass-fed invokes an image of a happy cow roaming in the green fields. We’ve grown up with that image. And we erroneously assume that only grass-fed beef gets to play outside.
Grass-fed or grain-fed beef is a dilemma that you should not have.
After reviewing the data the one benefit that I see as having merit is the environmental benefit of grain-fed beef. This is a big reason to choose grain-fed beef. But from a health perspective, seriously, whether you choose grass-fed or grain-fed beef will hardly make any difference. Instead, this dilemma may incur more problems than benefits:
- First, the dilemma itself is a cause of anxiety. It gets blown out of proportion and it appears as if it has merit and real health consequences. At the time of debating this in your head, you don’t realize you’re debating minutiae.
- Second, you may feel like choosing one of the two as a healthier option will make you healthier, and experience the feeling of “paying your dues” by making better choices. But this choice won’t make any difference to your health, and it may distract you from the things that would actually make a difference – like exercise. So you may keep not exercising, while feeling peaceful because you chose grass-fed beef.
(Want to exercise more? Try Flat Belly Firm Butt, our 16-minute home workout for busy professionals, or Exercise Bliss, our habit-making course for people who tend to regularly start and then stop exercise after a few months.)
There is a lot of misinformation going around on the internet; don’t let it distract you from the things that really matter. When I first presented the grass-fed beef benefits claims to Miller, she got agitated: “This is nothing more than fear mongering and a play on emotion, not facts, to sell their products. Ooh stuff like this pisses me off. Happy, healthy animals produce the best products and I think you’ll find that every producer has the same goal, despite what marketing tactics and labels want you to ‘feel.'”
Instead of debating minutiae about grain-fed or grass-fed beef benefits in the comments, let’s instead talk about the times we thought a trivial health subject was important, got busy with it, and ended up neglecting a more important issue.
Examples: you were often reading about the foods with more antioxidants, but did not schedule your annual lab exam appointment (my dad is guilty of this.) You were buying “organic” but did not do your annual flu vaccine (that’s me!) You get the idea.
It’s ok, no judgement. This exercise actually requires quite a bit of self-awareness, so congrats in advance for even thinking about it!
UPDATE: After the publishing of this article Samuel Klein, MD, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, replied back to me about eating meat with lower or higher fat content:
“Any diet should be viewed in its entirety. If your diet is targeting a certain amount of fat per day, eating meat with a lot of fat is no problem as long as you compensate at other meals.
If keeping calories down is a target, eating meat with less fat will have less calories per portion size but can easily be overcome by consuming a larger portion.
Eating less fat and more carbs might lower LDL-cholesterol but will also increase triglyceride and decrease HDL-cholesterol. A patients physician can help guide if any restrictions in dietary fat are needed.”
Brian Wansink et al., Slim by design: Menu strategies for promoting high-margin, healthy foods, International Journal of Hospitality Management, Volume 42, September 2014, Pages 137–143.
E. A. Bjorklund et al., Fatty acid profiles, meat quality, and sensory attributes of organic versus conventional dairy beef steers, Journal of Dairy Science, 97 :1828–1834.
J. M. Leheska et al., Effects of conventional and grass-feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef, Journal of Animal Science, Vol. 86 No. 12, p. 3575-3585, Published: December 5, 2014.
Cynthia A Daley et al., A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef, Nutr J. 2010; 9: 10.
Capper JL, Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-Fed Beef Production Systems, Animals (Basel). 2012 Apr 10;2(2):127-43.
Capper JL, The environmental impact of beef production in the United States: 1977 compared with 2007, J Anim Sci. 2011 Dec;89(12):4249-61.
E.A. Bjorklund et al., Growth, carcass characteristics, and profitability of organic versus conventional dairy beef steers, Journal of Dairy Science, March 2014 Volume 97, Issue 3, Pages 1817–1827.