Grass-Fed Beef: Are the Benefits Real?
Ask any hunter and they will tell you that cooking and eating game birds is a completely different animal (pun intended) than store-bought, pen raised fowl. Game birds are less fatty, require different preparation to compensate for the leanness and bone density, and also have a richer flavor due in part to their varied, natural diet in the wild.
Although “wild cows” haven’t roamed the earth for centuries, the controversy surrounding grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef persists to this day. Fortunately, 21st-century ranchers, dieticians and doctors have pinpointed exactly what the benefits are of a healthy diet that includes grass-fed beef.
What Exactly IS Grass-Fed?
We have all seen the commercials depicting “happy cows” roaming green California rolling hills and singing songs about how amazing their lives are. In reality, the nuts and bolts definition of grass-fed is harder to pin down.
In addition to questions about real health advantages, there is also a bit of confusion about what exactly grass-fed beef really means. The American Grass-fed Association defines grass-fed cows as “those that have eaten nothing but grass and forage from weaning to harvest, have not been raised in confinement, and have never been fed antibiotics or growth hormones.” However, outside of the strict certifications of organizations like the AGA, on a governmental level the actual definition of grass-fed is a bit more ambiguous.
The USDA does not have official certifications for grass-fed beef. In fact, some cattle are grazed on grass for most of their lives, then “finished” in feed lots to prepare for harvesting because of the additional time and expense required for grass-fed cattle to reach maturity and a weight suitable for slaughter. This is not reflected in ratings from government agencies, and this meat can still claim to be “grass fed” on packaging.
Now that we’ve ascertained what grass-fed beef is, let’s talk about the real question. Is grass-fed beef better for you?
Turns out the answer is yes. The diet of a fully grass-fed cow is rich in forage and nutrients from plants, resulting in lower calorie content and overall percentage of total fat, and actually contains higher levels of “healthy fats” in the form of Omega 3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Grazed animals have much higher levels of these good fats than lot-raised cows, with clear evidence that this contributes to better immunity and reduced risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Feedlot finishing increases levels of acidity in cattle, and thus instances of diseases like E. Coli. The close quarters of the lot requires ranchers to use antibiotics to control for disease, which is then passed on to the meat and other derived products that you consume. Grass-fed, organic cows have not been treated with antibiotics and hormones, and thus have a much lower risk of having been exposed to dangerous diseases.
Finally, producing beef that is grass-fed has been shown to be far less harmful to the environment than feed lot produced meat. Rotating pastures, reduced runoff, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and less crowded animal conditions all serve to reduce the carbon footprint of meat production from cows on the ecosystem.
Of course, if you are considering a change in your diet it is always wise to consult your physician, but the evidence is clear that especially when compared to traditional feed-lot raised beef, a regime that includes lower-fat, grass-fed beef can be not only part of a healthy diet, but advantageous to our environment as well.