Is Grass-Fed-Beef Worth The Extra Money?

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If you eat red meat and beef is a substantial portion of your diet, you might have been paying recent attention to the debate over just what is the healthiest type of meat to buy. Grass-fed beef often costs anywhere from 2-3x more than conventional, grain-fed beef1
. The question is: is grass-fed beef really that much healthier than conventional beef?

To know whether or not it truly is a healthier option, the first thing to ask is “what does grass-fed even mean?” To make an informed decision about what you’re buying and eating, you certainly need the facts first. We’re going to look both the differences in how the meat is treated & processed, and ultimately, how this affects your health.

What Does “Grass-Fed” Really Mean?

How the cattle are treated, starting way back at the farm, has a big impact on what you buy once you’re choosing your beef in the grocery store.

Agriculturally speaking, the feeding period in cattle relevant to the grass-fed debate can be divided into 3 phases:

Phase 1) This phase extends from birth, when the animal lives solely on milk, until 7-9 months of age, when some grass is consumed in the pasture.

Phase 2) This phase comprises about half of the grass-fed debate and extends from phase 1 until shortly before harvest (when the cattle is slaughtered). The cattle spend most of their life in this period feeding on either grains or grass.

Phase 3) The notorious finishing period – this is the whole other half of the grass-fed debate. It is a period of rapid growth immediately prior to harvest; some animals are grass-fed but finished on grains. Since a disproportionate amount of weight is gained during the finishing period2, some in the pro-grass-fed crowd argue that this is the most important time to be grass-fed.

At the grocery store, your options can be broken down into 4 categories according to the amount of time your cattle was exposed to grains. Here’s the list, ordered from least to most grain exposure:

  1. Veal – this beef comes from calves that were never intentionally fed grains; it’s usually males because they don’t produce milk.
  2. 100% grass-fed – these animals spent their whole life in the pasture.
  3. Grass-fed & grain-finished.
  4. Conventional, grain-fed beef.

Accordingly, the price of beef from those 4 categories usually decreases in stepwise fashion; veal being the most expensive and conventional grain-fed beef being the least expensive.

How Does The Quality Of Beef You Choose Impact Your Health?

Interestingly, the impact of these farming techniques on meat quality and its correlation to human health have simply not been studied in great detail.

However, that fact makes the data easier to analyze (because there’s simply not a lot of it!).

And to further simplify things, we’re going to look only at the difference in beef that is 100% grass-fed vs. 100% grain-fed.

In 2008, a group of researchers compared grass-fed to grain-fed beef with samples obtained on 3 separate occasions from farms all over the continental United States3. This is significant because the nutrient quality of grass and grains is going to vary widely based on geography, so selecting a diverse array of samples is important. This beef they tested is the beef you eat… these researchers selected beef from the farms that supply local restaurants, grocery stores, etc.

So, what did they find?

The results showed that the nutritional profiles were actually rather similar. Grass-fed beef fat was more yellow, which might indicate more vitamin A and carotenoids4, although grass-fed beef was modestly leaner (less marbling). Furthermore, grass-fed beef had fewer monounsaturated fats (like those found in olive oil), but more omega-3’s (like those found in fish oil) and saturated fats (like those found in most animal fats in general). But these differences were small. The only quantitatively important difference was the significantly lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats (9.6 vs. 2.45), which suggest that grass-fed beef might be more “anti-inflammatory” than conventional grain-fed beef.

Another study attempted to quantify the effects of finishing grass-fed cattle on grains for 0, 1, or 2 months5. They showed that the more time that was spent on grains prior to harvest resulted in more saturated fats (inconsistent with above findings), more monounsaturated fats (consistent with above findings), and a significantly lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats (consistent with above findings).

To summarize the findings from these two studies, we see that for the most part, grass-fed and grain-fed beef are relatively similar with the exception of a potentially more anti-inflammatory fatty acid profile for grass-fed beef.

So Does It Matter If I Buy Grass-Fed Beef?

Fortunately, another group tested this directly by feeding people either grass-finished or grain-finished beef for 4 weeks and analyzing their blood6. The data showed that those assigned to grass-fed beef had significantly higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids in their blood, a lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, and most importantly, higher levels of “DHA.” DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is one of the reasons why so many nutritionists recommend eating more fish. It is the quintessential fish oil fatty acid responsible for fish oils “anti-inflammatory” effect7. In other words, it’s good for you.

Here are some other factors to consider:

  • If you can’t eat fish, a significantly more potent source of omega-3 fish oil fatty acids (regardless of whether it is farmed or wild!8), then grass-fed beef will provide some benefits. If you’re a regular consumer of salmon, for example, then the addition of grass-fed beef is not going to improve the overall fatty acid profile of your diet very much.
  • If you eat a lot of red meat, then you’re potentially exposing yourself to a lot of nutritive and non-nutritive compounds (eg, antibiotics, etc.). In this case, you may want to consider incorporating some grass-fed into your diet.
  • Alternatively, there are a lot of health-related reasons why people choose grass-fed that haven’t been rigorously tested. For example, most grass-fed beef is also “organic,” and hasn’t been exposed to a lot of artificial hormones and high levels of antibiotics. For some, this is seen as highly beneficial, and it very well might be… although it hasn’t been rigorously tested.

In conclusion, there are a lot of reasons why consumers with the means to do so select grass-fed over conventional beef. If their decision is based on perceived health benefits, then the studies suggest they might be right. That said, conventional grain-fed beef may not by very healthy, but it’s still likely healthier than sugary junk food and otherwise empty calories.

References

  1. Grain-fed beef is an entirely post-agricultural phenomenon, as it became a cheaper way to fatten cattle. Prior to this herds fed on the land and grass that was available, which if one goes by paleo-diet theory, is a much more natural form of beef. This is also theoretical, but something to consider.
  2. Aldai N, Dugan ME, Kramer JK, et al. Length of concentrate finishing affects the fatty acid composition of grass-fed and genetically lean beef: an emphasis on trans-18:1 and conjugated linoleic acid profiles. Animal : an international journal of animal bioscience. Aug 2011;5(10):1643-1652.
  3. Leheska JM, Thompson LD, Howe JC, et al. Effects of conventional and grass-feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef. Journal of animal science. Dec 2008;86(12):3575-3585.
  4. Leheska JM, Thompson LD, Howe JC, et al. Effects of conventional and grass-feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef. Journal of animal science. Dec 2008;86(12):3575-3585.
  5. Aldai N, Dugan ME, Kramer JK, et al. Length of concentrate finishing affects the fatty acid composition of grass-fed and genetically lean beef: an emphasis on trans-18:1 and conjugated linoleic acid profiles. Animal : an international journal of animal bioscience. Aug 2011;5(10):1643-1652.
  6. McAfee AJ, McSorley EM, Cuskelly GJ, et al. Red meat from animals offered a grass diet increases plasma and platelet n-3 PUFA in healthy consumers. Br J Nutr. Jan 2011;105(1):80-89.
  7. Oh DY, Lagakos WS. The role of G-protein-coupled receptors in mediating the effect of fatty acids on inflammation and insulin sensitivity. Curr Opin Clin Nutr. Jul 2011;14(4):322-327.
  8. Lagakos WS. Fish blog, take I. The poor, misunderstood calorie 2011; http://caloriesproper.com/?p=202. Accessed 2/20/2013, 2013.
Medically reviewed by Michael Ryan, M.D.
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12 Comments on “Is Grass-Fed-Beef Worth The Extra Money?

  1. Seb
    March 20, 2013 #

    100% grass fed sounds the best and healthiest and it might even taste better!

  2. uncadonego
    March 21, 2013 #

    Anyone ever read the 1971 book “Diet For A Small Planet”? Cows can turn the cheapest crappiest grazing acreage that won’t grow anything else and turn it into quality protein. Instead we do the exact opposite, for less nutritional value. The book calls it a protein factory in reverse.

    1. Bill Lagakos
      March 22, 2013 #

      Hi uncadonego,
      Thanks for the comment. I haven’t read the book, but that’s an interesting angle. (the ‘protein factory in reverse’ line is actually pretty funny). I try to keep my focus on the nutritional side of things.
      -Bill
      http://www.builtlean.com/author/william-lagakos/

  3. March 22, 2013 #

    Great article! Just never undermine the quality of product (meat ) we get when the animals are grazing grass and not locked in with grainy food and antibiotics. There are several articles on animal welfare and taste and quality of meat.
    In this age where people are using supplements and weight loss Programs to help get into shape unhealthy foods like beef has minimal value.

    1. March 22, 2013 #

      Hi Ashok,
      Thanks! There’s definitely room for high quality beef in a healthy diet. It is a great source of protein that is packed with vitamins and minerals.
      Bill
      http://www.builtlean.com/author/william-lagakos/

  4. Kristin
    March 22, 2013 #

    Beyond the health benefits for the body, one should also look at the bigger picture. Whether you choose grass or corn finished, I think it is important to look for critters not treated with antibiotics as it is adding to the problem of creating antibiotic resistant bacteria.

    1. March 22, 2013 #

      Hi Kristin,
      I think we’re in luck in this department we’re in luck – in the few grocery stores where I’ve seen grass-fed beef, it’s frequently been USDA Organic and antibiotic-free. My guess is that if a farmer is going to go as far as grass-feeding, they’re more likely to take the extra step to be certified Organic as well.
      best,
      Bill
      http://www.builtlean.com/author/william-lagakos/

      1. Kristin
        March 23, 2013 #

        My understanding is that antibiotics are more of an issue in feedlots due to the issues of stress, overcrowding and the fact that corn can make the cows ill as all grain diet is too rich for them. That said I do know a local farmer in my area that corn finishes his cattle with no antibiotics or hormones.
        In addition the grass fed stuff is more expensive and marketed as more healthy; hence the crowd that buys it tends to be the ‘health nut/organic’ peoples who wouldn’t touch it if it had hormones and antibiotics. I can’t say I have ever seen grass fed beef not in this category :)

  5. Dylan Klein @Calories in Context
    March 27, 2013 #

    Bill, as per usual, a great review of the literature. I myself think the issue of consuming conventional vs. grass-fed beef is trivial given that anyone concerned about n-3’s most likely isn’t getting their daily quota from beef (that’s just silly). I mean – using the Leheska et al. paper – you would have to consume over 100g of fat from grass-fed beef alone in order to get ~1g of n-3’s (not the most prudent way of going about n-3 consumption). And even though it’s easier than consuming over 400g of fat from conventional, grain-fed beef, either choice isn’t going to impart THAT much of a health benefit in terms of lipid profile and health outcomes. To my point, in the three human studies I am aware of (Gilmore et al. 2011, McAfee et al. 2011, Brown et al. 2011), grain-fed was shown to increase HDL (Gilmore), grass-fed was shown to increase n-3 (as you already pointed out), although no differences were seen in serum cholesterol, TGs, or blood pressure (McAfee), and no differences were seen in insulin sensitivity, lipid profile, or body comp with the consumption of either grass-fed or grain-fed (Brown).

    1. March 27, 2013 #

      Hi Dylan,
      Thanks. And thanks for the info. Agreed – grain and grass-fed beef are more similar than they are different. There are all those theoretical advantages (antibiotics, hormones, etc.) and the ethical ones, etc., but ‘huge impact on body composition and well-being’ doesn’t make the list. That said, I buy grass-fed when it’s on sale.
      best,
      Bill

  6. Paul
    April 2, 2013 #

    As an Australian, it is interesting to read about how Americans view the production of their meat.

    From my research, most, if not all grains fed to cattle are genetically modified. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the way Monsanto was able to obtain approval of its products. Monsanto’s products were not independently tested by the FDA because they were regarded as “substantially equivalent” to their natural counterparts. In other words, genetically modified organisms were neither regulated nor controlled due to corruption within the FDA and the American political system.

    Today, Monsanto’s products saturate the marketplace (even here in Australia). So, it is no wonder that, as you say, the impact of these techniques “have simply not been studied in great detail.” A lot of money and lawsuits have ensured that scientists and farmers remain timid and silent.

    Independent studies have been conducted outside of the USA. Scientists have found that genetically modifed produce actually changes the organs within the bodies of test animals. GMOs, furthermore, weaken the animal’s immunity, and increase their risk of developing cancer.

    I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. People should do their own research (which is not hard these days!), especially when it relates to what you put inside your body. But even if you don’t care about your own health, would you really want to support a company like Monsanto with all your hard earned dollars? I’d pay a few extra dollars any day to buy grass fed meat, if for no other reason than to support local farmers. But if you do care about your health, I cannot imagine that you would allow the company who once produced Agent Orange, and who now manipulates the dna of food, anywhere near your dinner plate.

    1. April 2, 2013 #

      Thanks for sharing, Paul. You certainly make some interesting points.

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