Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef

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Ever since I started writing about health, the great debate over whether or not to eat meat and from which sources has continued. Have you ever wondered if grass-fed beef is healthier than grain-fed? Is it worth the extra cost and effort to seek it out? Is there a real difference?

In a nutshell, yes! There’s a distinct difference between red meat raised on a feedlot versus grass-fed or pastured beef from free-range cows. Grass-fed beef contains an abundance of omega-3 fats, antioxidants, and B vitamins that grain-fed lacks. Grass-fed meat certainly can have a place in a balanced diet.

Why has red meat gotten such a bad reputation? There are many reasons, but many are due to politics and financial interests. Big Agriculture wants you to blame red meat for the problems their corn, sugar, soy, gluten, and feedlot-raised meat cause.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

The Supposed Problem With Red Meat

Saturated fat is often why red meat gets blamed for causing disease. Much research has tried to pin the heart disease and cancer epidemics on saturated fat. But the lipid heart hypothesis popularized in the 1980s has some major holes.

In 2015, the World Health Organization listed processed meat as a known carcinogen. Several American studies found a higher risk of colon cancer with red meat consumption. However similar studies in Europe found no association. This could be because lunchmeat, sausages, and other cured meats in Europe don’t include the added carcinogens found in US produced meats. 

Much of the research implicating beef in cancer and heart disease doesn’t consider what the cow was fed or how the meat was processed. 

You can’t live on hamburger alone, ‘tis true. But while there may be some association when consumed in excess (as there is with anything in excess), it can absolutely be part of a balanced and nutritious diet.

Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef

Research from 2018 in Animal Frontiers notes the nutritional value of red meat, considering other factors—like body weight, lack of fiber, and too little exercise—as more significant contributors to colon cancer than red meat.

Plus, red meat isn’t only saturated fat. It contains plenty of healthy nutrients like protein (made up of amino acids), omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, iron, zinc, and phosphorus. Grain-fed beef contains these nutrients, too. But grass-fed beef contains more of certain nutrient types, specifically:

  • Up to five times more omega-3 fats, which are anti-inflammatory
  • More antioxidant vitamins like vitamin A and vitamin E
  • Twice as much Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)

Saturated fats are not bad alone—it’s how you balance your food plan. Are you eating vegetables, fruits, fiber, and other proteins, like omega-3 rich seafood? You’re not going to “catch” heart disease by eating a delicious ribeye for dinner. But that’s how a lot of the talk about red meat is framed!

Red meat itself isn’t detrimental, but like many other foods, there are more and less optimal ways to consume it. Let’s look more at the nutrients it contains.

Nutrients in Grass-Fed Beef

While red meat does indeed contain saturated fat, it contains less fat than its grain-fed counterpart. That means it generally contains fewer calories. It also has a more favorable composition of fatty acids and contains many other nutrients that offer health benefits. 

The nutrient composition of grass-fed beef can vary from one animal to the next, and even based on the location they’re raised. But this is generally true for all grass-fed meat.

We’ll talk below about the different types of quality meat you can buy. But for now, let’s look at the nutrients found in grass-fed beef and why they’re good for you. 

Stearic Acid and Cholesterol

Stearic acid is a type of saturated fat that can lower LDL cholesterol and may have heart-protective benefits. Grass-fed beef contains more stearic acid than conventional beef. While some research finds stearic acid may be associated with a greater risk for coronary heart disease, ultimately, a heart-healthy diet contains a variety of foods and nutrients.

You don’t need red meat to provide everything you need—you just need to know that one food group isn’t going to make or break your heart health. (Unless we’re talking flour or sugar). For the record, I don’t worry about cholesterol levels (here’s why). But it’s good to see more positive associations for red meat.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)

Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) is a potent antioxidant present in grass-fed beef. A 2010 article from the Nutrition Journal found CLA may protect against cancer, heart disease, and other disorders. Other 2019 research in Nutrients showed CLA may help breast, brain, and colon cancers. But it also notes other studies couldn’t replicate the benefits of CLA for breast cancer, so more research is needed.

Still, CLA has some promising evidence backing it, and grass-fed beef is an excellent source. CLA is also naturally found in lamb, dairy products, and butter.

Omega-3 Fats

Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and crucial for health. Beef isn’t a spectacular source of them, but grass-fed beef can have 3-4 times the omega-3 fatty acid content that grain-fed beef does. 

The animal’s diet right before slaughter significantly impacts levels. So, beef that’s mostly grass-fed but grain-finished might not have the same benefits. Seafood is a much better source of omega-3 fats than beef, but grass-fed beef is still a good source. (More on omega-3s and omega-6s here)

Vitamins and Minerals

Grass-fed beef also contains more of certain nutrients than conventionally raised beef, like:

  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • B vitamins
  • Vitamin E, glutathione, and other antioxidants
  • Pro-vitamin A carotenoids like beta-carotene

Have you ever cooked grass-fed ground beef or other cuts and noticed the fat it produces has a yellowish tint? That’s because of carotenoids, which are antioxidants. These same compounds give carrots and sweet potatoes their orange color and that’s why grass-fed beef fat is more yellow.

But How Does It Taste?

Some people also notice grass-fed meat tastes and smells different. That’s due to higher levels of CLA, which can alter the taste, texture (marbling), and even the smell of the beef. 

These changes occur over the last few weeks before slaughter. So, it’s a decent way to tell whether you’re consuming grass-finished meat. Grass-feeding but grain-finishing produces lower levels of CLA, which leads to a milder taste and smell, but less CLA.

The relatively strong taste of grass-finished beef can take some getting used to, but it’s worth it for the extra nutrients!

All red meat, regardless of its raising method, is a good source of vitamin B12 and iron as well as the other nutrients to lesser extents. If grass-fed beef isn’t available in your area or you can’t squeeze it into the budget, don’t let that deter you from eating red meat in general!

Sourcing and Quality of Red Meat: Which Type is Best?

It’s vital to distinguish between grass-fed meat that’s been raised in a natural environment and meat from cows raised on feedlots. 

These are sometimes referred to as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). These feedlots give animals GMO grain for food instead of the natural free-range diet they would eat. They’re also kept in close quarters and often given antibiotics to address infections typical of cows with no fresh air or space to roam.

Candy, Sugar, and Mold

Grain may not be the only thing CAFO cows are eating. Mold and mycotoxin contamination are common in the grain supply. Instead of throwing out moldy grain though, farmers often mix the moldy grain in with the good. According to current standards, it’s acceptable to use up to 40-50% moldy grain to feed livestock. 

In 1993 the FDA increased the level of certain molds allowed on wheat for both human and livestock consumption. In 2010 the upper limit was again increased, allowing even more moldy grains into the food supply. 

Farmers are turning to even more creative ways to cheaply feed conventionally raised cows. They’re feeding them candy like gummy worms, sprinkles, and candy bars. Fanning, a livestock nutritionist says this practice has gone on for decades and is a great way to reduce costs. 

Chuck Hurst, another livestock nutritionist comments that sugar helps fatten cows and it’s an important part of their diet. 

You can probably guess what I think about those statements!

Finding Healthy Beef

You’ve likely heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” But it actually goes a step further than that to: “You are what you eat eats.” Just as processed and GMO grains aren’t good for humans, they also aren’t good for cows. 

When you compare grass-fed and grain-fed beef, many nutritional differences go back to how healthy the cows were before slaughter. Free-range, grass-fed cows breathe fresh air, eat their natural diet, and are healthier than grain-fed, feedlot cows. Thus, the meat from grass-fed cattle will also be healthier to eat.

How to Read Labels

You’ve probably gone shopping for beef and seen many types of labels. These can include:

  • Grass-fed
  • Grass-finished
  • Natural
  • USDA organic

What do these labels mean? Natural and organic beef can still come from feedlots. In many cases, they may receive better quality grain for food, and organic beef cows won’t be given antibiotics or growth hormones. So, this beef is marginally better than conventional meat. But it’s not grass-fed.

Here’s the kicker. Even “grass-fed” beef may consume some grain. That’s because some animals are pastured and allowed to be grass-fed, but then for the last few weeks, they receive grain. That makes them “grain-finished” rather than “grass-finished.” While this type of grass-fed meat is better than conventional, the optimal type of meat comes from grass-fed and grass-finished cattle.

When buying beef from a store, it may be hard to tell if it’s grass-finished or grain-finished. Local farmers may be able to tell you more about their cattle-raising process. It’s also possible to get this information from online retailers, who may be more transparent in sharing their meat sourcing.

Where We Buy Beef

Whenever possible, we skip the grocery store and buy directly from a local farmer. That way, we can both verify the health of the animals and support the local economy. 

In many areas, it’s possible to find farmers who sell beef by 1/4 or 1/2 of a cow. This is also the most economical choice as you’re buying in bulk and are able to pick up at the farm or butcher rather than pay for shipping.

When these options aren’t available, we order from ButcherBox or US Wellness Meats. I’ve taken the time to verify that both companies offer meats of the highest quality, and I am happy with their options. Not only can you get ground beef and other typical cuts, but you can also get pasture-raised…

  • Patties
  • Steaks: skirt steak, ribeye steak, sirloin steak, strip steak
  • Roasts like chuck roast
  • Beef brisket
  • Beef short ribs
  • Tenderloin
  • Filet mignon
  • Oxtail
  • Tallow (If you don’t want to render it yourself)
  • Even beef liver and other organ meats.

Sometimes, you can even get beef bones or hoofs to make your own bone broth. It’s great to get home delivery service on these high-quality beef products. 

Bottom Line on Grass-fed Beef

Grass-fed beef is healthier than meat from grain-fed cattle. It contains different and better nutritional profiles, like more omega-3 fats and CLA, which is heart-healthy. Even if you can’t buy 100% grass-fed red meat, adding some into your diet can improve your enjoyment of red meat.

 Don’t forget the veggies! A diet combining meat from animals that have spent their entire lives out in the fields as they were designed to, and plenty of organic, non-GMO vegetables, is the foundation of a healthy body and life.

Do you eat red meat? If so, grass-fed or grain-fed? Share below!

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Ernesto “E” Gutierrez. Dr. E is a physician by training and an educator by choice. His training background includes an MD degree and additional degrees in Age Management and Regenerative Medicine. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

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