I feel very passionate about this subject because I believe one cherished pillar of the American way of life, that is, consumption of beef, has been completely vilified by the mainstream American media and the scientific community as being a major source of medical and ecological problems for it’s U.S. citizens. I am here to present a larger picture of the beef threat and I want you to be the judge. My initial interest in grass-fed beef goes back to my teen-age roots where my family has a farm in Grubville, MO. We butchered and ate the grass-fed cows we raised on the farm. I have great memories of those times.
My emotional fire was lit, however, when I saw a very prestigious peer reviewed journal come down squarely on the side of proving that red meat in general caused cancer, heart disease, and all cause mortality (i.e. injuries and disease-related deaths) (Meat Intake and Mortality-Archives of Internal Medicine 2009). THAT GOT MY ATTENTION. How could something so succulent and delicious, be it a juicy hamburger or a mouth-watering steak, be bad for you? I was so intrigued with the findings of that study that I set out to do some major investigative work. This ten-year study of roughly over ½ million people came to the conclusion that consuming greater than 5 oz. of beef per day risked a 30% greater mortality rate compared to consuming 2/3 of an ounce per day. If you dig into the fine print of the article though you will find that the subjects consuming the greatest amount of red meat had an abundance of non-healthy characteristics in common, “more likely a current smoker, have a higher body mass index, and have a higher daily intake of energy, total fat, saturated fat, and they tended to have lower education and physical activity levels and lower fruit, vegetable fiber, and vitamin supplement intakes.” The definition of “red meat” also came from a variety of sources of beef and pork, including processed and cured. So the red meat in this study was obviously not consistent.
In general, the greater percentage of studies linking chronic diseases to red meat consumption, i.e. colorectal cancer, breast cancer, non-specific cancers and cardiovascular disease have major barriers to generalizability, coupled with the lack of scientific studies investigating the correlation of chronic disease with the consumption of healthier sub-groups of the “red meat” classification, i.e grain-fed vs. grass-fed beef. Moreover, I believe it is incumbent upon us rational thinking humans to gather the entire tome of evidence before dismissing, in this case, an entire class of food.
Please note, when I talk about grass-fed beef I mean beef that is only fed grass throughout it’s entire life.
This is where our story begins:
I. Let’s Get Back to our “Grass” Roots!– The scientific world has been trying to explain, with research beginning in the twentieth century, the specific dietary reasons for the ever rising rates of chronic disease, and grain-fed animals, i.e. cows, borne of the Agricultural Revolution, is one of it’s chief suspects. Our Paleolithic ancestors I believe would shudder if they saw what our current diet has morphed into: From man’s hunter-gatherer origins to a diet where corn and/or soybeans are now at the root of our food chain, from animal feed to food additives, i.e. high fructose corn syrup, believed to also be the root of the world’s chronic disease epidemic. So the grain transition showered down to all of our food sources. Grass-fed ruminant animals (predominantly cows), meant for human consumption, were replaced with predominantly grain-fed ruminant animals, with the benefit of fattening the animals much quicker for market, making beef more available and affordable for the masses. First, understand that ruminant animals, i.e. cows, sheep, bison have a single stomach with a highly evolved digestive organ, called the rumen that has the singular ability of converting grass into a high quality protein. With the cow’s process of burping and rechewing it’s (grass) food for a second chew a/k/a “chewing it’s cud”, with the addition of saliva, the stomach environment remains on the healthy base side (as opposed to an unhealthy acidic side). However, substitute corn for the cow’s food “du jour” and you’ve got one heck of a gassy problem. I say gassy problem because when a cow is chewing grain, the rumen basically ferments all of the food the cow takes down the first time but instead of releasing that fermentation in a natural way (you know, by passing gas and burping), a formation of slime takes over the rumen and basically puts a plug on any release of gas, leading the rumen to expand like a balloon, causing the animal to suffocate. “In general, a concentrated diet of corn can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acid stomach, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a kind of bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal, but usually just makes him sick (The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan). “ So the bottom line here for the cow that is forced to eat corn is, “It’s Not Nice to Fool With Mother Nature!”
II. The ABCs of Beef Nutrition-The old saying “You are what you eat, eats!” is the underlying premise for our chronic disease problems with not only red meat, but every source of animal protein we consume. “The primary indictment against the beef industry is its premise: herbivores should eat grain. In nature, no herbivore eats grain. This grain adds unnecessary fat to the carcass, which translates into grease and fat for people (Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin).” Specific differences in grass-fed as opposed to grain-fed ruminant animals exhibit the following lipid profiles:
- Less Fat- Grass-fed ruminant (cows) have between ½ and 1/3 less total fat than grain-fed ruminant animals. Grass-fed meat has the low-fat content that is similar to wild game or a skinless chicken breast. In addition, some studies have shown that lean meat does not increase the risk of increased total cholesterol or low-density lipoprotein that is attributable to cardiovascular disease (Hunninghake, 2000, Beuchesne-Rondeau, et al., 2003, Li, et al., 2005) OR the risk of colorectal cancer (Navarro, et al., 2003).
- Fewer Calories- “A six-ounce loin from a grass-fed cow may have 92 fewer calories than a six-ounce loin from a grain-fed cow. If you eat a typical amount of beef per year-about 67 pounds in the U.S.-switching to grass-fed beef will save you 16,642 calories per year. All of that being equal, you will lose 9 ½ pounds in two years without having to change your eating habits or use an ounce of willpower (Pasture Perfect by Jo Robinson).“
- Less Saturated Fat- Saturated fatty acid content is lower and significantly lower in some ruminants that are grass-fed as opposed to grain-fed and one of the types of saturated fat, stearic acid, is significantly elevated. “Stearic acid has been shown to have no net impact on serum cholesterol concentrations in humans (Daley, et al, 2010). Stearic acid also has been shown in a study to have anti-atherogenic (it does not promote plaque formation) and anti-thrombogenic (it does not promote blood coagulation) properties in men (Kelly, et al., 2003).
- More Balanced Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acid profile- Know that both of these types of fats are essential for life. Omega 6 fatty acids are in general more inflammatory, linked to the blood clotting process. Omega 3 fatty acids have more “fire quenching” and “clot busting” properties. The key here is to have the right balance, which to date, health experts recommend, should be in a range of 4 to 1 through a 1 to 1 ratio of Omega 6 over Omega 3. Foods elevated in Omega 6s are the grains, namely corn and soybeans. The Omega 6 to Omega 3 balance in grain-fed cows is in the range of 5 to 1 all the way to 15 to 1. These imbalances have been linked to inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease and cancer. The Omega 6 to Omega 3 balance in grass-fed cows is in the healthier range of 3 to 1, all the way down to a 1 to 1 range.
- More Conjugated Linoleic Acid- Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) is produced significantly more by grass-fed, as opposed to grain-fed ruminant animals. Through the process of rumination, or the ruminant’s rechewing what has already been chewed in it’s multichambered stomach, it has the remarkable ability to create this healthy Omega 6 fatty acid. CLA boasts extensive scientific studies touting it’s anticarcinogenic and anti-atherogenic qualities.
- More Omega 3 Fatty Acid- This source of nutrition has taken the hit the most in force feeding our cows grain. Enter, grass-fed beef: since the cow is consuming what he (or she) innately was born to eat, the ensuing meat is a rich source of Omega 3 fatty acids (remember, having those “fire quenching” and “clot-busting” properties), estimated at 2 to 10 times the amount in grain-fed meat. Just like the fish in the sea that are a rich source of Omega 3 fatty acids because of their algae diet, so to with the grass-fed cow.
- More Vaccenic Acid-Vaccenic acid is the major trans fat in ruminant fat and is a precursor to CLA. Please don’t be mistaken, the classification of trans fat that is imparted to the industrially produced hydrogenated fats is NOT the same. Those industrial trans fats are renowned for their unhealthy links to chronic disease. However, in regards to the consumption of Vaccenic Acid, “recent data suggest that consumption of this trans fat may impart health benefits beyond those associated with CLA (See Human Health Benefits of Vaccenic Acid ).” Vaccenic acid is available in elevated amounts for grass-fed as opposed to grain-fed beef.
III. Ecological Sustainability-There is growing concern about the current state of our industrial, global food system. It is unsustainable. A prime example of unsustainable agriculture is the current operation of the CAFO or concentrated animal feed operations that the majority of grain-fed beef emanates from. CAFO are large, multinational feeding farms designed for fattening animals before slaughter, utilizing corn as their primary method of sustenance. “The current industrial farm animal production system often poses unacceptable risks to the public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals…the negative effects of the systems are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to ignore. Significant changes must be implemented and must start now (Sustaining People Through Agriculture, Health Consequences of a Corporate Food System by John Ikerd).” On a personal note, we currently live in a rural community where the CAFO has had a direct impact on our neighbors. Here are just a few of the many negative ecologic detriments:
- The additional wear and tear on the roads from the constant transportation of the animals.
- Additional fuel usage to transport the animals to and from the CAFOs.
- Manure run-off that more times than not, enters into the nearby streams and kills the surrounding wildlife.
- Rampant soil erosion from confining large amounts of animals in a small area.
- Increased amounts of pesticides and fertilizers necessary to grow the abundance of grain necessary to feed the animals.
- The overwhelming acridity emanating from the CAFO for miles around.
Enter, grass farming, the antithesis of the big CAFO operations. Grass farming gets back to the circle of life and is a winning solution ecologically:
- Intensive Rotational Grazing- the cows are mob grazed on one portion of sectioned-off pasture and rotated frequently to avoid over-grazing. The other sections of pasture are allowed to “rest” to maximize the forage’s quality and quantity for the herd’s next meal. This also has the effect of maximizing the quality of the meat’s flavor and texture.
- Soil erosion is reduced.
- Reduction of the utilization of pesticides and fertilizers.
- Reducing fossil fuels for the transport of the commodities AND animals.
- Groundwater and surface pollution are minimized.
- Greenhouse gases are reduced.
- Manure-run off is non-existent-The next time you happen to see a cow in the field, just notice it’s backside for manure stains. If that cow has been totally grass-fed, you’ll notice there is little manure run-off on their backsides. The grass-fed cow will excrete (poop) patties that fertilize the grasses naturally, repeating the circle of life.
IV. Vitality of the Community Farms- Sustainable (grass) farming gets us back to the small farmer/community, eliminating the corporate approach. It’s family friendly, getting back to the children taking responsibility for the chores. The future of farming mandates the confrontation of issues facing our children’s food supply on all fronts: socially, ecologically and economically. Grass farming meets all of those needs, locally, nationally and globally. There is no better example of the new breed of grass farmer than the owner of U.S. Wellness Meats, John Wood. Mr. Wood started out raising cattle the conventional way, by at first growing animals on pastures, then feeding them grain in confinement their final four months and selling them off. In 1993 he attended a holistic land management seminar and his eyes were opened to grass-farming the way his grandfather did. The seminar emphasized how grass-fed beef was better for the land, the animals and the bottom line. His first grass-fed animal was harvested in 1997 and the slaughterhouse labeled it “prime”, which shocked Mr. Wood. He then replicated those same results on grass-fed beef he harvested in 1998 and 1999 and also discovered the health benefits of grass-fed beef. It was after the successful harvest of grass-fed beef in 1999 that he formed U.S. Wellness Meats, along with three other farming families. U.S. Wellness Meats has enjoyed stellar growth over the years. Mr. Wood even has had the benefit of his children coming back to work for the company after they finished college. “These days, farm kids leave. I’ve got two of my kids coming back to work and live in a rural community with a sense of purpose. And that’s not the usual thing. I couldn’t be more proud.”
V. The Health and Welfare of our Citizens- Grain-fed beef has a lower sticker price because the cow’s food source is cheap, but the price we pay as a nation in additional healthcare costs isn’t worth it. Add to that the antibiotics that are given to the CAFO animals (we aren’t just talking cows here, but ALL sources of meat in CAFO operations), so they don’t get sick and die from the force feeding of corn. We as humans end up eating the antibiotics through the meat the animals produce and guess what? We, as a nation are developing a burden of antibiotic resistant bacteria in general, all at the price of CHEAP FOOD! No doubt you’ve heard of the MRSA and other “mega-bugs” that our medical community is losing the battle against?
You paid for it! Please know that you as a taxpayer are paying indirectly for surplus crops that are fed to the animals in the CAFOs because they are supported by the federal farm bill. “Indirect grain subsidies to CAFOs between 1997 and 2005 amounted to almost $35 Billion, that’s about $4 Billion per year (The Hidden Costs of CAFOs by the Union of Concerned Scientists).”
VI. Taste is Where It’s At!- So here is the fun part. I really would like you to do your own taste test on grass-fed vs. grain-fed meat. Pick a quality cut of steak. That will make the taste test that more challenging. Pick the same cuts of meat and use the same marinade, if you so desire. In the grain-fed world of steaks, optimal marbling is the gold standard for deciding the value of beef and in this case, an optimal steak (Beef Marbling with GPR 43 Makes Juicier, More Tender and Flavorful Meat). I would encourage you to grill your steak to medium rare for the optimal flavor. “’The juice that flows out of a steak is rich in umami, the savory tonic that quenches the craving for meat. While it is heat that releases the juice from the steak, too much exposure to heat can release too much juice: a well-done steak has 80% less umami than one cooked to medium rare. When a steak meets intense heat it turns brown-Maillard reactions-here the chemistry of the steak give rise to a dizzying number of complex and often delicious chemicals…found in grilled or roasted beef and nothing else (Steak by Mark Schatzker).”
As far as the difference in grilling, the grass-fed steak has less fat so we seared it (just like the grain fed steak) but took it off the grill a little sooner and put it on the back grill to cook indirectly to our desired doneness of medium rare. Our results with a ribeye cut of grass-fed and grain-fed steak were as follows:
Grain-fed Ribeye (R)-Good fatty and a little mealy taste on the first bite, however the taste stopped after the second bite. It had a greasy taste with no flavor by the third bite. There was no lingering taste of earthiness. I required some steak sauce to finish this cut of meat.
Grass-fed Ribeye (L)- A complex, earthy taste with a hint of grassiness that didn’t stop until I finished my entire steak. It had a chewier consistency than the grain-fed beef. The umami taste was evident, quenching my taste for a real steak.
As a recap, here is why I believe grass-fed beef is superior to grain-fed beef:
- Evolution-The cow was born to eat grass!
- Nutrition-Less fat, less calories, less saturated fat, better Omega 6 to Omega 3 balance, more Omega 3s, more CLA and more Vaccenic Acid.
- Ecological-The grain-fed cow leaves a huge carbon foot print but the grass-fed cow just follows the circle of life.
- Vitality of Community Farms-The small farmer/small community makes a comeback with his family intact by operating a sustainable farm.
- Health and Welfare of Our Citizens-By getting away from surplus food sources and going back to sustainable food, we can reverse the nation’s health crisis.
- Taste is Where It’s At- Do the taste test and really analyze each bite. See if you come up with the same results Randy and I did. We believe umami taste won the day with the grass-fed ribeye.
As a bonus, if you look back at the whole package of why grass-fed beef is superior to grain-fed beef, I promise, the grass-fed beef tastes even better!