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