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Ever since I started writing about health, the great debate over whether or not to eat meat and from what sources has continued on. Have you ever wondered if grass-fed beef is healthier? Is it worth the extra cost and effort to seek it out? Is there a real difference?
In a nutshell, yes! There is a distinct difference between red meat raised on a feedlot versus grass-fed, pastured beef from free-range cows. Grass-fed beef contains omega-3 fats, antioxidants, and B vitamins that grain-fed lacks. Grass-fed meat certainly can have a place in a balanced diet.
So why has red meat been dogged by such a bad reputation? There are many reasons. Big Agriculture wants you to blame red meat for the problems that 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 why red meat gets blamed for being a disease-causing food. A lot of research has tried to pin the heart disease and cancer epidemics on saturated fat. You can’t live on hamburger alone, for sure. So while there may be some association when consumed in excess, it can be a balanced part of a nutritious diet.
Research from 2018 in Animal Frontiers notes the nutritional value of red meat and considers other factors—like body weight, lack of fiber, and too little exercise—as bigger risks for cancer than red meat.
Plus, red meat isn’t only saturated fat. It contains plenty of healthy nutrients like protein, 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:
- More omega-3 fats, which are anti-inflammatory
- More antioxidant nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin E
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 alone isn’t bad, 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 contain saturated fat, it also contains many other nutrients that offer health benefits. We’ll talk below about the different types of beef you can buy, but for now let’s look at the different nutrients found in grass-fed beef and why they’re good for you.
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.
Stearic Acid and Cholesterol
Stearic acid is a type of saturated fat that can lower LDL cholesterol and is considered to have heart-protective benefits. Grass-fed beef contains more stearic acid than conventional beef. While some research finds that stearic acid may be associated with a greater risk for coronary heart disease, ultimately, a diet that supports heart health is one that contains a variety of foods and nutrients.
You don’t need red meat to provide everything that you need—you just need to know that one food alone isn’t going to make or break your heart health. 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. A 2010 article from the Nutrition Journal found that CLA has a protective effect against cancer, heart disease, and other disorders. Other research from 2019 in Nutrients found that CLA has shown promise in addressing breast cancer, brain cancer, and colon cancer. However, it also notes that some other studies were not able to replicate the benefits of CLA for breast cancer, so more research needs to be done.
Still, CLA has some promising evidence behind it, and grass-fed beef is a great source of it. It’s also naturally found in lamb, dairy products, and butter.
Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and important 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 has a big impact on this though, so grass-fed but grain-finished beef 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:
- 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 that 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 that grass-fed meat tastes and smells different. This is due to the higher levels of CLA, which can alter the taste, texture (marbling), and even the smell of the beef. These changes occur in the last few weeks, and it’s a good way to tell if you’re consuming grass-finished meat or not. Grass-feeding but grain-finishing produces lower levels of CLA, which leads to a milder taste and smell, but less CLA.
The stronger beef taste of grass-finished meat can take some getting used to, but it’s worth it for the extra nutrients!
All red meat, regardless of how it’s raised, is a good source of vitamin B12 and iron, as well as the other nutrients to lesser extents. If grass-fed beef is not 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 is important to distinguish between grass-fed meat that has been raised in a natural environment and meat from cows raised on feedlots. Sometimes referred to as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), these feedlots give animals genetically modified 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 that are common due to no fresh air or space to roam.
You’ve heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but it goes a step further to “you are what you eat eats.” Just as processed and genetically modified grains aren’t good for humans, they aren’t good for cows either. When grass-fed and grain-fed beef are compared, important nutritional differences come down to how healthy the cows were. Free-range, grass-fed cows breathe fresh air, eat their natural diet, and are healthier. Thus, the meat that comes from grass-fed cattle will be healthier, too.
How to Read Labels
You’ve probably gone shopping for beef and seen many types of labels. These can include:
What do these labels mean? Natural and organic beef can still come from feedlots. In many cases, they may be fed better quality grain for food, and organic beef 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 can be fed some grain. That’s because some animals are pastured and allowed to be grass-fed, but then they’re grain-finished for the last few weeks. While this type of grass-fed meat is better than conventional, the optimal type of meat is that which comes from grass-fed and grass-finished cattle.
If you’re buying beef from a store, it may be hard to tell if it’s been grass-finished or grain-finished. Local farmers may be able to tell you more about their cattle-raising process, as well as online retailers, which may be more transparent in where their meat is sourced from.
Where We Buy Beef
Whenever possible, we buy directly from a local farmer so that we can verify the health of the animals and support the local economy. In many areas, it is possible to find farmers who will sell beef by 1/4 or 1/2 of the cow. This is also the most economical choice.
When these options aren’t available, we purchase from ButcherBox or US Wellness Meats. I’ve been able to verify the quality of both of these and am happy with the options they provide. Not only can you get ground beef and other typical cuts, but you can also get filet mignon, roasts, and even organ meats.
Belcampo is another option for buying grass-fed meat directly, although it’s not subscription-based and does require a higher order minimum. Still, it’s a great option if you’re looking to buy high quality meat in bulk.
Grass-fed beef is healthier than meat that comes 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 exclusively grass-fed red meat, adding some into your diet can improve the way that you enjoy red meat in your diet.
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.
Do you eat red meat? Grass-fed or grain-fed? Share below!