Wondering if grass fed beef is healthier than regular beef? Confused about how to read labels? Get the facts!
Last summer, I was invited to visit a cattle farm and a feedlot with the Ohio Beef Council. I’ll be honest: My first reaction was Why on Earth would I want to visit a feedlot?
Then I quickly checked myself. As someone who buys, cooks, and eats beef, I should see for myself where my food is coming from. And as a dietitian and blogger who fields a lot of questions from people about what kind of food to buy (including meat), it makes sense for me to know the facts.
So I went to the feedlot. And I found out that some things I thought I knew about cattle and beef were wrong, especially when it came to grass fed beef. Grass fed beef is something I’ve bought in the past from local farmers in bulk. I still do like buying meat in bulk and I still do like the flavor of grass fed beef. But it turns out that some of my thinking on the topic was a bit black-and-white.
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After the visit, I spent a long time on the phone with Francis Fluharty, PhD, a research professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at The Ohio State University, to talk more about it. This post isn’t sponsored by anyone, and I wasn’t paid to write it. I just wanted to share what I learned so that if you buy and eat beef, you can be better informed when making decisions too.
What You Should Know About Grass Fed Beef
Fact: All cows eat grass.
Documentaries like “Food, Inc.” make it seem like some cattle spend their entire lives in a pen eating grain. I’ve also read articles online that compare grass-fed cattle to “cattle raised in feedlots”. But for the first seven months of life, all cattle are “grass fed cows”. They graze on grass, drink their mother’s milk, and spend a lot of time in pasture (I took the photo above at a conventional cattle farm here in Ohio). It’s only when they’re transferred from the pasture to the feedlot that they’re fed a diet that’s higher in grain (about 65-70 percent corn but still contains some hay and other forage) for the last 6-8 months of their lives.
Fact: “Grass Fed Beef” is not the same as “Grass Finished Beef”.
All cattle eat grass. If you want to buy grass fed beef from cattle that have spent their entire lives eating only grass, make sure you’re getting 100% grass-fed beef, sometimes called “grass finished beef”.
Fact: “Grass Fed” is not the same as organic beef.
Unlike conventionally-raised cattle, 100% grass fed cattle must have access to pasture their entire lives and be only pasture- and forage-fed (with no grain). But as with conventional, there are no restrictions on pesticide use on the farm or use of antibiotics. Likewise, beef labeled “organic” may come from cattle that were grain-fed too. If you want truly organic, 100% grass-fed meat, you’ll need to specifically look for those two labels.
Fact: 100% grass fed beef is hard for many farmers to produce.
Here in Ohio, farmers need 1-2 acres for every cow/calf pair they have. That acreage requirement goes up in other places–in some very dry areas of the Southwest, that may be 25 acres. While cattle that are also grain-fed go to market after just 13-15 months of life, cattle that are entirely grass fed take 20-24 months to be ready and result in lighter-weight cattle and less meat per animal. That requires an enormous amount of land and time, something that’s not feasible for many farmers. And in climates that have harsh winters (like Ohio), it’s impossible for cows to graze outdoors all year long.
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Fact: Grass fed beef may not necessarily be healthier.
Is grass fed beef healthier than regular beef? It’s often cited for being richer in healthy fats. It’s true that cattle raised only on grass do produce meat that’s higher in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a fat that’s been studied for possible heart health benefits. Yet CLA is largely found in fat that many people trim off. CLA is also found in the fat that’s marbled throughout the beef, but grass-fed beef tends to be leaner, with less marbling overall than conventional beef.
Fact: “Food Inc.” doesn’t represent all farms.
Like most people, I watched “Food, Inc.” and was horrified by what I saw. But since then, I’ve had the opportunity to visit several different kinds of farms (both organic and conventional) and meet the people who run them. I’ve also been able to talk candidly with farmers, and they’re saddened by the way they’re depicted in that film and others. There will always be bad apples in every industry, but the farmers I’ve talked to care about their animals and want to provide good food for consumers.
The Bottom Line on Grass Fed Beef
If you buy beef, buy the kind that you can afford and that tastes best to you (grass-fed beef has a slightly different flavor, though I like both). If you’re specifically looking for 100% grass fed beef or organic beef, read labels carefully.