Beef that is truly 100 percent grass-fed comes from cows that have grazed in pasture year-round rather than being fed a processed diet for much of their life. Standards and labeling laws for grass-fed beef are controversial and confusing. The terms “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” are allowed even if your beef really came from cows that spent little or no time outdoors in a pasture setting. U.S. beef labeled as “grass-fed” but not bearing USDA certification may be the result of various combinations of grass and grain feeding including grass finishing. If the label doesn’t specifically say “100 percent grass-fed,” or carry the USDA or similar certification, there’s no guarantee.
Even under USDA certification standards, however, cows labeled “grass-fed”can be confined much of the year and fed antibiotics or hormones. The USDA’s standards are lower than those of the American Grassfed Association (AGA), an alternative organization that, like the USDA, offers certification for grass-fed beef. The AGA certification standards focus not only on what the cows eat, but also include assurance that they have never been treated with growth hormones or antibiotics, that they have been treated humanely, and that the environment has been protected. If you’re going to make the effort to buy and eat grass-fed, you might as well make sure the label includes the AGA certification stamp or get verification that the cows were 100% grass fed.
Does “Organic” Mean Grass-Fed?
Organic beef by itself doesn’t guarantee the cows were pasture raised or grass fed. The USDA’s organic regulations do little to assure cows’ pasture access or intake of grasses. However, certified organic beef is much less likely than conventional beef to expose you to unwanted pesticide, antibiotic, or hormone residues. Plus, certified organic beef cannot have been genetically modified or irradiated.
Grass-Fed Beef Is Healthier
The biggest health advantage that comes from 100% grass-fed beef is the higher quality of fat. Grass-fed beef contains increased amounts of healthy omega-3 fats and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) while also having less fat overall. However, there are other health advantages to grass fed beef as well. Let’s take a closer look.
- More carotenoids—beta carotene and lutein. Compared to grains, grasses contain a much higher content of important disease-fighting phytonutrients like carotenoids. Grass-fed cows incorporate significantly higher amounts of two important carotenoids—beta-carotene and lutein—into their muscle tissue as compared to grain-fed animals. Beta carotene concentrations, for example, are 7 times higher in grass fed beef.
- More vitamin E. Grass fed beef has an average of three times more vitamin E than grass-fed beef. Vitamin E is an important antioxidant for defense against cancer, heart health, and vision.
- More B vitamins. Concentrations of energy-producing B vitamins like thiamin, riboflavin, and vitamin B12 have been all been found to be higher in grass fed compared to grain-fed beef.
- Less total fat. A grass fed strip steak trimmed of all external fat contains an average of 2.8% total fat compared to 4.4% total fat in the same conventional cut trimmed of external fat. That’s nearly twice as much total fat in the conventional steak.
- More omega-3’s—alpha linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Grass-fed beef contains considerably higher levels of ALA, the same essential fatty acid found in flax, as well as EPA and DHA, the same omega-3’s found in oily fish. These three essential fatty acids are absolutely necessary for good health, especially cardiovascular and brain health.
- More favorable omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. To prevent excessive inflammation in the body, a healthy diet should contain only about 1 to 4 times as much omega-6 fatty acids as omega-3 fatty acids. The standard American diet, however, contains 11 to 30 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3, contributing to the epidemic of chronic inflammation-related diseases. The average omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of grass fed beef is quite healthy at 1.53, while the grain fed ratio comes in at a whopping 7.65!
- More conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Grass-fed beef contains two to three times more CLA than what is found in non-grass-fed beef. CLA is a unique fatty acid associated with possible health promoting effects in obesity, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis, diabetes, insulin resistance, inflammation, and various types of cancer, especially breast cancer.
Additional Grass-Fed Beef Benefits
Besides the health benefits, grass-fed beef offers additional advantages over conventional beef. It’s healthier for the cattle that evolved to eat grass and not much else and therefore decreases the need for treatment with antibiotics. It’s also better for the planet, especially in terms of reduced greenhouse gas production and less reliance on petrochemicals.
For all these reasons and more, it’s worth it for health-conscious and earth-conscious meat eaters to seek out 100 percent grass-fed beef! There are plenty of health-promoting diets that incorporate lean cuts of grass-fed beef. You can find articles on how to include beef into your regular meal plan at Natural Health Advisory’s website, here. Have you found a healthy way to incorporate beef into your diet? Let our readers know your thoughts and tips by commenting below.
References:  J Anim Sci. 2008 Dec;86(12):3575-85.  J Anim Sci. 2009 Sep;87(9):2961-70.  Nutr J. 2010 Mar 10;9:10.