The Many Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
While you have probably heard a lot about healthy foods, beef does not normally top the list. While the beef cattle industry wants you to believe that beef is the meat you should eat, that it’s “What’s For Dinner”, most health experts agree that eating meat, beef especially, is not your best choice for improved health. But those opinions change when we come to American grass-fed (finished) beef.
Beef products from cattle that are grass-fed are entirely different in a number of ways, and have an enormous number of benefits for your health, your local economy, and the environment. When we look at how beef cattle are now fed in large commercial feeding operations (CAFOs), we can understand why that’s bad, and what the many advantages of grass-fed cattle are.
Cattle have been on this planet for a very, very long time, but only in the last few thousand years have humans become agrarian and begun farming cattle. In the early years of cattle production, those cattle grazed and ate grass. Recently, cattle have been converted to grain as a food, because cattle production becomes cheaper and easier with grain feeding. Cattle that put on weight quickly get to market sooner— increasing profits for the producer. Commercial feedlot operations speed gain by feeding animals grain, treating them with synthetic hormones, and doctoring their food with antibiotics. Many large-scale dairy farmers and feedlot operators also save money by feeding the cows “by-product feedstuffs” as well. In general, this means waste products from the manufacture of human food. In particular, it can mean sterilized city garbage, candy, bubble gum, floor sweepings from plants that manufacture animal food, bakery, potato wastes or a scientific blend of pasta and candy.
The problem is, cattle – beef cattle or milk cattle – did not evolve to eat whole grain, or any grain at all, and certainly not candy! Cattle’s natural food is grass. The scientific evidence is now beyond reproach and the reason these health benefits are all possible is simple; cattle were meant to eat green, leafy, natural plants, not grain. When cattle are "finished" and eat grain, their fat contains a higher amount of omega-6 fatty acids. When cattle consume green leafy plants, as they were designed to do, their fat contains a higher amount of omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are called “good fats” because they play a vital role in every cell and system in your body. For example, of all the fats, they are the most heart-friendly. People who have ample amounts of omega-3s in their diet are less likely to have high blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat. Remarkably, they are 50 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack.  Omega-3s are essential for your brain as well. People with a diet rich in omega-3s are less likely to suffer from depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder (hyperactivity), or Alzheimer’s disease.  Many scientists have discovered that a diet higher in omega 3 fatty acids improves your health for a variety of reasons, but one of the most important things it does is that it helps decrease inflammation in the body naturally. Inflammation, as it turns out, is at the root cause of many illnesses seen in America and around the world.
While omega-6 fatty acids are essential for health, the amount consumed by most Americans increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, inflammatory diseases, and cancer. Omega-6s are most abundant in vegetable oils such as corn oil, safflower oil, and cottonseed oils. (Olive oil is low in omega- 6 fatty acids.) Few people realize that grain-fed animals are also a major source of omega-6s. Meat and dairy products from animals fed a high-grain diet, which is the typical feedlot diet, have up to ten times more omega-6s than products from animals raised on their natural diet of pasture.
What we really need are Omega 6 and Omega 3 in a 1:1 ratio. What we usually get in our food is a ratio of 15:1 up to over 50:1. This is especially true of meat and commercially-raised beef in particular. So why are fatty acid ratios so important? When you have a proper ratio of fatty acids, as you can get from grass-fed beef, you have a decreased risk of dementia, heart disease, cancer and stroke. These are scientifically proven benefits of proper ratios of Omega 6 and 3. Meat from grass-fed animals has two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals. This improves the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which is crucial to overall health.
Omega-3s are most abundant in seafood and certain nuts and seeds such as flaxseeds and walnuts, but they are also found in animals raised on pasture. The reason is simple. Omega-3s are formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves and algae. Sixty percent of the fatty acids in grass are omega-3s. When cattle are taken off omega-3 rich grass and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on omega-3 poor grain, they begin losing their store of this beneficial fat. Each day that an animal spends in the feedlot, its supply of omega-3s is diminished. When chickens are housed indoors and deprived of greens, their meat and eggs also become artificially low in omega-3s. Eggs from pastured hens can contain as much as 10 times more omega-3s than eggs from factory hens. It has been estimated that only 40 percent of Americans consume an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids. Twenty percent have blood levels so low that they cannot be detected. Switching to the meat, milk, and dairy products of grass-fed animals is one way to restore this vital nutrient to your diet.
The CLA Bonus. Meat and dairy products from grass-fed ruminants are the richest known source of another type of good fat called “conjugated linoleic acid” or CLA. When ruminants are raised on fresh pasture alone, their products contain from three to five times more CLA than products from animals fed conventional diets. (A steak from the most marbled grass-fed animals will have the most CLA, as much of the CLA is stored in fat cells.) CLA may be one of our most potent defenses against cancer. In laboratory animals, a very small percentage of CLA—a mere 0.1 percent of total calories—greatly reduced tumor growth.  There is new evidence that CLA may also reduce cancer risk in humans. In a Finnish study, women who had the highest levels of CLA in their diet, had a 60 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those with the lowest levels. Switching from grain-fed to grass-fed meat and dairy products places women in this lowest risk category. Researcher Tilak Dhiman from Utah State University estimates that you may be able to lower your risk of cancer simply by eating the following grass-fed products each day: one glass of whole milk, one ounce of cheese, and one serving of meat. For decades, we’ve been told that eating full-fat dairy products increases the risk of heart attack. Now, a study from the Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that the more full-fat dairy products people consume, the lower their risk of heart attack—provided the cows were grass-fed.
The reason grass-fed milk is protective is that it has up to five times more conjugated linoleic acid or CLA. CLA is a healthy fat found in the meat and milk of grazing animals. People who eat grass-fed dairy products absorb the CLA and store it in their tissues. In this new study of over 3,500 people, those with the highest levels of CLA in their tissues had a fifty percent lower risk of heart attack than those with the lowest levels. Keeping Bessy on grass could prevent more heart attacks than putting people on expensive pharmaceutical drugs with all their troubling side effects.
In 1993, when the Food and Drug Agency approved the use of synthetic hormones to increase milk production in dairy cows, the FDA assured a worried public that recombinant bST would not diminish the nutritional value of the milk. In an interview, Commissioner David A. Kessler, M.D., stated that “there is virtually no difference in milk from treated and untreated cows. In fact, it’s not possible using current scientific techniques to tell them apart.” Seven years later, there is new evidence that synthetic hormones reduce levels of conjugated linoleic acid or CLA in beef, depriving consumers of a naturally occurring and potentially lifesaving substance. It is not known at this time whether bST has a similar effect on milk products. Nonetheless, this is yet another example of researchers altering a natural product before fully understanding its many benefits.
Vitamin E. In addition to being higher in omega-3s and CLA, meat from grass-fed animals is also higher in vitamin E. The meat from the pastured cattle is four times higher in vitamin E than the meat from the feedlot cattle and, interestingly, almost twice as high as the meat from the feedlot cattle given vitamin E supplements.  In humans, vitamin E is linked with a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. This potent antioxidant may also have anti-aging properties, and not surprisingly, most Americans are deficient in vitamin E.
In summary, grass-fed beef is better for human health than grain-fed beef in ten different ways, according to the most comprehensive analysis to date. The 2009 study was a joint effort between the USDA and researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina. Compared with grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef was:
1. Lower in total fat
2. Higher in beta-carotene
3. Higher in vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol)
4. Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
5. Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium
6. Higher in total omega-3s
7. A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84)
8. Higher in CLA (cis-9 trans-11), a potential cancer fighter
9. Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)
10. Lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease
(Source: S.K. Duckett et al, Journal of Animal Science, (published online) June 2009, “Effects of winter stocker growth rate and finishing system on: III. Tissue proximate, fatty acid, vitamin and cholesterol content.”)
Remember that grass-fed meat is superior to certified organic meat because most organic beef is given organic corn to eat, which is associated with a lot of the health problems beef is known for. Don´t worry about the certified grass fed label on grass fed meat to dictate whether or not you are receiving health benefits from the beef you eat. To avoid labeling confusion, consult with a local farmer (farmers markets are an excellent resource) or agriculture programs in your area to find out which products are raised in pasture without being fed antibiotics or hormones.
Farmers who raise their animals on pasture enjoy a number of benefits including being able to raise their families in a peaceful environment and eat nutritious, all-natural food. They are also spared the health hazards associated with factory farming. Just as important, many farmers are able to make a living selling their pastured products directly to consumers or restaurants. When properly managed, raising animals on pasture instead of factory farms is a net benefit to the environment. To begin with, a diet of grazed grass requires much less fossil fuel than a feedlot diet of dried corn and soy. On pasture, grazing animals do their own fertilizing and harvesting. The ground is covered with greens all year round, so it does an excellent job of harvesting solar energy and holding on to top soil and moisture. And grazed pasture removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere more effectively than any other land use, including forestland and un-grazed prairie, helping to slow global warming.
As the public becomes more aware of the benefits of pastured products, thousands of small family farms will be able to survive, resulting in a marked improvement in our personal and environmental health, as well as the economy of our local, rural community. So support your local farmers, so they can support you!
1. Siscovick, D. S., T. E. Raghunathan, et al. (1995). “Dietary Intake and Cell Membrane Levels of Long-Chain n-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and the Risk of Primary Cardiac Arrest.” JAMA 274(17): 1363-1367.
2. Simopolous, A. P. and Jo Robinson (1999). The Omega Diet. New York, HarperCollins. My previous book, a collaboration with Dr. Artemis P. Simopoulos, devotes an entire chapter to the vital role that omega-3s play in brain function.
3. Duckett, S. K., D. G. Wagner, et al. (1993). “Effects of time on feed on beef nutrient composition.” J Anim Sci 71(8): 2079-88.
4. Lopez-Bote, C. J., R.Sanz Arias, A.I. Rey, A. Castano, B. Isabel, J. Thos (1998). “Effect of free-range feeding on omega-3 fatty acids and alpha-tocopherol content and oxidative stability of eggs.” Animal Feed Science and Technology 72: 33-40.
5. Dolecek, T. A. and G. Grandits (1991). “Dietary Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Mortality in the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial (MRFIT).” World Rev Nutr Diet 66: 205-16.
6. Dhiman, T. R., G. R. Anand, et al. (1999). “Conjugated linoleic acid content of milk from cows fed different diets.” J Dairy Sci 82(10): 2146-56. Interestingly, when the pasture was machine-harvested and then fed to the animals as hay, the cows produced far less CLA than when they were grazing on that pasture, even though the hay was made from the very same grass. The fat that the animals use to produce CLA is oxidized during the wilting, drying process. For maximum CLA, animals need to be grazing living pasture.
7. Ip, C, J.A. Scimeca, et al. (1994) “Conjugated linoleic acid. A powerful anti-carcinogen from animal fat sources.” p. 1053. Cancer 74(3 suppl):1050-4.
8. Smit, Liesbeth A, Ana Baylin, and Hannia Campos. 2010. Conjugated linoleic acid in adipose tissue and risk of myocardial infarction. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Published ahead of print, May 12, 2010.
9. Fritsche S, Rumsey TS, Yurawecz MP, Ku Y, Fritsche J. “Influence of growth promoting implants on fatty acid composition including conjugated linoleic acid isomers in beef fat. Eur. Food Res. Technol. 212:621-629 (2001)
10.Smith, G.C. “Dietary supplementation of vitamin E to cattle to improve shelf life and case life of beef for domestic and international markets.” Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado 80523-1171