Grass-fed beef is increasingly popular, despite the hefty price tag it carries compared with conventional beef. So, is grass-fed beef really worth the money, and does it deserve the health halo it has been given?
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, let’s talk beef basics. While research shows that choosing lean cuts of beef is best, people are digging deeper into their butcher’s case with a focus not only on health but also production methods. As the debates continue (often based more on opinion than science), it is worth diving into what these terms mean.
Did you know that certain standards must be met in order for meat to be categorized and certified in a specific way? Much of this is based on how the cattle was raised and what it ate from birth through harvest. It’s easy to be confused by the copious claims on beef. (Think: grass-fed, conventional, organic, etc.) Here’s a simple breakdown of the main classifications:
1. Grain-Fed Beef (aka conventional beef): Cattle that spend the majority of their lives grazing on grassy pastures but are “finished” for the last 120-200 days on a primarily grain-based diet. This diet is made up of various grains, roughage and nutritional supplements. These cattle may be given antimicrobials to prevent or treat disease as well as hormones to help them grow.
2. Natural Beef: The term “natural,” used on many packaged goods to denote that they are minimally processed, is less useful when referring to raw beef, which is already a minimally processed food.
TIP: Instead look for “naturally raised,” which is a USDA certification that the meat comes from cattle that never received growth hormones, antibiotics or animal by-products. Both “natural” and “naturally raised” beef can be grain- or grass-fed.
3. Certified Organic: Cattle that received 100% organic feed, either from grass or grain, with access to pasture and that were not given hormones or antibiotics.
4. Grass-Fed Beef: It used to be that grass-fed beef came from cattle raised on a pasture, and fed only grass or forage from the time they are weaned until they are harvested. However, starting on January 12, 2016, the USDA announced that it will nix it’s grass-fed labeling program and no longer define this term. Why? Apparently, only four grass-fed beef producers around the country used the USDA standard.
Even in the wake of its announcement, the USDA will still regulate the labeling process for grass-fed beef products (which, like all USDA-regulated food labels, must be approved by the agency before they go to market). You can still find “grass-fed” beef at the store, but now, the agency will no longer define this term, which leads us to the next question.
Here’s a chart to help make sense of it all:
|Natural||–||Likely not||Likely not|
So What Does Grass-Fed Mean?
Who will determine what grass-fed means? USDA says that the handful of users of its grass-fed label must now do one of three things. First, they can adopt the USDA’s existing standard as their own. Second, they can develop their own standard. Or, third, they can rely on an existing grass-fed standard.That third option refers to private labeling standards. Private bodies that certify beef as having been raised on grass already exist. They include American Grassfed, the Food Alliance, and Animal Welfare Approved. Notably, these private certifiers have been among those who pointed out many of the limitations of the USDA standards.
“The USDA definition does a good job of defining what grassfed animals can and cannot be fed,” the Food Alliance writes. “But it does not deal with other issues consumers care about—like the use of hormones and antibiotics, confinement of animals, and environmental stewardship.”
How Grass-Fed Beef Stacks Up
“There is little difference in the nutrient value between grain-fed and grass-fed beef,” says registered dietitian Shelley Johnson, the Nutrition Outreach Director for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Indeed, the USDA Nutrient Database shows that, per 3-ounce (85g) serving, grain-fed beef has about 20 calories more than grass-fed, roughly 2 more grams of total fat and 1 less gram of protein. ! Both types of beef provide all 10 essential nutrients, including protein, iron, zinc and B vitamins.
Nonetheless, proponents of grass-fed beef claim that the cattle’s grass-only diet imbues its meat with higher levels of vitamins A and E (associated with lower inflammation) and omega-3 fats. Some researchers contend that higher amount of omega-3 fats in the diet of grass-fed beef translates to higher omega-3 levels in the final product. Sadly, there aren’t enough studies to say that grass-fed beef can provide a significant amount of any of these nutrients to meaningfully affect your health.
While vitamins A and E have important roles in the body, most of us aren’t deficient in these vitamins if we eat a varied, balanced diet. While both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential to a healthy diet, some research has shown that too many omega-6’s in the diet could cause an increase of inflammation in the body. Whether these small differences are enough to deem grass-fed to be “healthier” is still largely up for debate, and more studies are needed in this area.
A 2008 study by Leheska et al found that every 3-ounce (85g) of grass-fed beef contained 26 milligrams of omega-3 fats compared with 2.4 milligrams in the same amount of grain-fed beef. While this may sound like a a lot, it’s actually not a huge difference if you look at the omega-3 fats recommendations by the National Academy of Medicine, which are 1,100 mg for women daily and 1,600 mg for men. In this context, if you’re trying to get more omega-3’s in your diet, then shoot for foods high in those fats like fatty fish, flaxseeds, walnuts, etc.
|Grass-Fed* (raw)||Grain Fed/Conventional)** (raw)|
|Weight||3- ounce (85g)||3- ounce (85g)|
* USDA Nutrition Database #13047; GB calculator using 13% fat GB raw (grain-fed/conventional)
** USDA NDB GB calculator using 13% fat GB raw
***Omega-3 data from Leheska et al., Journal of Animal Science 2008
When it comes to choosing your beef, it may be less important to think about the diet of the cattle and more important to focus on the cut. Regardless of whether beef is grass-fed or grain-fed, choose lean cuts for optimal nutrition. There are 29 cuts of beef on the market that are classified as “lean,” meaning that they have less than 10 grams of fat, less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat and less than 95mg of cholesterol per 3.5-ounce (98g) serving. At the store, look for the words “loin” or “round” in the name to ensure you’re selecting a healthier option. Other delicious lean cuts include flank steak, strip steak, T-bone and chuck shoulder steak.Which Will You Choose?
Does the information we’ve shared sway your choice one way or the other toward grass-fed or conventional beef? Do you pay more attention to the cut of beef or the production method? This is a hotly debated topic, and we would love to hear your take!