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Grass-fed?

We get it. This picture might have some visual appeal, but there is a very slim chance it looks appetizing, even if you’re a vegetarian. Humans just don’t have much of a taste for grass. [Don’t go there, this post is about the kind of stuff cows eat, not the stuff you or your hippie uncle used to (?) smoke.] Fortunately, cattle do not have a problem with it. And so, through the mediation of meat, we get to share in the nutritional value of grass.

There is a lot of discussion in the marketplace these days about “grass-fed” meat, as though it is some kind of new idea. It’s not new. It is literally as old as the hills—at least as long as the hills have been used for grazing cattle. It may be a little difficult to understand precisely what grass-fed means since it means different things to different people and we’ll cover that at some point, but for now let’s look at the bottom line. Nutrition.

In her book Scientific Advances Regarding: Sugar, Salt, & Fat, Gina Willett writes: “Another option to improve the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, if you are a meat eater, is to choose products derived from grass-fed animals…instead of grain-fed. Prior to the 1940s, most beef came from cattle raised on grass.” 

As we said, this is nothing new. However, fresh off saving the world from tyranny in WWII, America turned its attention to saving the world from starvation. The desire to feed the world lead inexorably to the application of mass production techniques to food production and the “factory farm” was born. The desire led to a truly noble endeavor and we applaud the motivation. But like many well-intentioned efforts, there may be negative consequences.

Willett goes on: “The 1950s gave birth to the feedlot, where farmers began to feed cattle high energy grains to increase efficiency (i.e., fatten up the animals quickly) and to improve marbling. Consumers were initially quite pleased with the change, as they preferred the flavor and overall palatability of meat from grain-fed cattle.”

The result was that it became popular to graze cattle on grass for a part of their lives, which is all it takes to say the cattle is grass-fed, so even that term, like the term “free-range” has been co-opted. But once the cattle have reached a certain age, they are moved to a feedlot where they can be fed corn and grains that will fatten them up in just a few months, resulting in additional marbling in the meat which has a tenderizing effect, or as Willett described it, more “palatability.”

Feedlots are another of those pretty good ideas that can have negative consequences. There may be nothing wrong in principle with a feedlot done humanely. Yet, that is not always what happens. Here is an example.  While there may be nothing wrong with preferring fattier meat for its flavor and palatability, those values may come at a nutritional cost. In the end the consumer is free to chose. The last thing we would want to do is become some sort of food Nazis keeping people from eating the occasional corn-fed steak or piece of chocolate cake. In fact, Territorial will very likely carry some grain-finished beef, as long as it is humanely and cleanly raised. And personally I will not give up my chocolate addiction, to paraphrase a well-known meme, until you pry it from my cold dead tongue.

So people get to choose. But an informed choice is usually best. So leaving aside, for now, the question of whether it is possible to treat cattle humanely in a feedlot, let’s look at some of the nutritional trade-offs between grass-fed/grass-finished and grass-fed/grain-finished cattle. 
Willett reports that there are differences in fatty acid and overall antioxidant content between the two methods. “Research shows that grass-fed beef not only has a lower overall fat content, but it also has a more favorable omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. [And] a more desirable SFA [saturated fatty acid] profile…as compared to grain-fed beef. Moreover, grass-fed beef is higher in precursors for vitamin A and E as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants compared to grain-fed counterparts.”

If you want to read further about the significance of omega-3, omega-6 you can do so here from Dr. Daniel Amen.  He argues that omega-6 lessens the risks of diabetic neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies and even ADHD. Omega-3 fatty acids are great for brain health, vision, and reducing inflammation, which, “in turn, may reduce your risk of osteoporosis, some cancers, heart disease, asthma symptoms, and other conditions.” Amen to that.

If you have a scientific bent and prefer your research with more technical, geek-pleasing language, try this article from the National Council of Bio-Technology Information. “A healthy diet should consist of roughly one to four times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. The typical American diet tends to contain 11 to 30 times more omega -6 fatty acids than omega -3, a phenomenon that has been hypothesized as a significant factor in the rising rate of inflammatory disorders in the United States.” And guess what else the data from the NCBI tells us: “Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid (FA) composition and antioxidant content of beef…” [italics mine].

According to Willett, “The only downside from the consumer’s perspective, might be the cost and the taste. Because of these differences in fatty acid content, grass-fed beef has a distinct grass flavor and unique cooking qualities that might pose an issue for some when making the transition from grain-fed beef.”

So, what about that flavor problem? Flavor is pretty subjective, but we happen to like the grass-fed/grass-finished beef flavor. Even the hamburger from grass-finished beef tastes more like steak. Interestingly the NCBI article characterizes grass-finished as “green” in flavor and aroma, while the grain-finished beef is described as “soapy.” So if you grew up with soapy, you’ll probably prefer that. But if you consider the health benefits of leaner beef, you may very well find “going green” to be worth the effort. Besides, the cultural preference for soapy meat flavor is a recent phenomenon. By recent we mean the last 60-70 years or so. For something like 24 million years* green was the preferred choice of carnivores everywhere.

And speaking of grass-fed hamburger, it is time for lunch.

Read more:

Willett, Gina. Scientific Advances Regarding: Sugar, Salt, & Fat, 2nd Edition, 2015, Biomed General, Concord, CA. 

Free-range: https://www.thebalancesmb.com/what-does-free-range-really-mean-2538247

Feedlots: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/12/feedlots-vs-pastures-two-very-different-ways-to-fatten-beef-cattle/250543/. 

Omega-3s and Omega 6s for non-science types: https://www.brainmdhealth.com/blog/know-fatty-acids-omega-3-omega-6/ 

For the geeks: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/

*Ruechel, Julius. Grass-Fed Cattle: How to Produce and Market Natural Beef. 2006. Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA.