Why Choose Grass-Fed Beef Over Grain-Fed Beef?2
Remember the good old days in the healthy eating game? That halcyon era when all you had to do was look for suffixes like “-free” and “-fed?” It helped if what the food was free of was something vilified like fat, salt, or sugar. Even worse were cages. The opposite of freedom. Even the most proudly unhealthy person could understand what was bad about cages! We wanted our animals to be fed grass, too. We weren’t always sure why, but we were assured it was important.
In addition to grass-fed beef, there was also grain-fed beef. What was the big difference? If it was touted on the packaging or even better, the hand-written card in the butcher’s organic section that let you know this was a family operation that probably couldn’t even afford printed plastic placards, it must be good, right? Well, maybe not. To add to the confusion, many cows end up being both grass and grain-fed. It’s enough to make your head spin at the market. But fear not, dear reader. Today we cast aside old superstitions in favor of hard science. With regards to beef, your Age of Enlightenment begins now!
You Are What You Eat
The health adage turned playground insult turned back to health wisdom is especially true in the case of cows. Unfortunately, by that standard, the average cheap beef-producing cow is little more than a collection of the worst ingredients and practices the food industry has to offer. In addition to a slurry of the usual CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) suspects, corn (including husks and cobs), spent grains from breweries and distillers, and soy and soy hulls, even fully wrapped candy deemed unacceptable for human consumption winds up in these cows’ feed!
Even these poorly fed beasts will consume real, honest-to-goodness grass at some point in their lives, so it’s important to make sure that’s not what you’re getting. You might not want to be “that guy” who wants to know every little detail about his or her meat, but most good butchers are happy to talk the ear off a well-informed or curious customer. The magic word here is “grass-finished,” meaning your healthy calf didn’t move onto cheap by-products after a brief interlude grazing grassy open fields.
The Golden Ratio of Essential Fatty Acids in Grass-Fed Beef
Let’s take a quick detour from cattle feed into the relevant world of fat. Omega fats are something else we like to see touted on packaging. As good as both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are, we tend to have way too much of the former and not enough of the latter when, in fact, humans evolved to eat a 1:1 ratio. The ratio in the typical American diet? At least 15:1! The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health found that bringing this ratio down resulted in a host of serious benefits. Colorectal cancer patients had lower cell proliferation, women had a lower risk for breast cancer, and inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and asthma were improved with the difference as small as 2.5:1 and a 4:1 often making all the difference. Once again, the average American diet is closer to a 15:1 ratio.
What’s So Good About Grass?
Grain-fed beef has plenty of omega-6, but barely any omega-3. Grass-fed, on the other hand, has a nearly even ratio of omega fats. You could make up for the excess omega-6 in traditionally grain-fed beef by supplementing with vitamins or other foods rich in omega-3 like fatty fish, or you can let nature do the math for you and just eat grass-fed beef with the perfect ratio.
The micronutrient advantages of grass-fed beef aren’t limited to fats. It also has all kinds of things we need like beta-carotene, energy-enhancing B-vitamins, vitamin E and vitamin K, not to mention fan-favorite “-iums” like magnesium, calcium, and selenium. If you’re not already sold on grass-fed beef, would some Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) sweeten the deal? Grass-fed animals are high in CLA, which is such a great muscle builder that Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig seem to think it’s a key to the New Zealand All-Blacks’ unlikely dominance of professional rugby.
Grass-fed animals are called ruminants. Is that because their slow, careful chewing makes them appear to be caught up in deep thoughts, or do they say people are ruminating because they just look like they’re out in space, slowly analyzing with all the depth of a cow? While the nutritional advantages of grass-fed (and finished) beef are clear, you shouldn’t burn too many brain cells chasing that perfect cut of meticulously maintained meat. When it comes to making healthy lifestyle changes, it’s worth heeding the words of Voltaire: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Photo credit: Brown Cow by James Wheeler