For most of modern times, the beef we’ve eaten has reached our plates after passing through a streamlined assembly line production process. However, in the past decade, farmers have been reverting back to more traditional methods of raising their cattle.
These days, it’s common to find farmers markets and specialty grocery stores stocked with food you probably couldn’t find in your local mega-mart. You know the ones I’m talking about.
Perhaps it’s because of the prevalence of these stores, or maybe because consumers are becoming more educated and discerning, that a new trend has grown around beef: the grass-fed movement.
From 2002 to 2011, numbers of grass-fed traditional cattle farms increased from 50 to around 2000. And that number is still increasing.
The grass-fed advocates say that what we eat is important. But, they take it one step further and emphasize the importance of the foods the animals we eat, ate. They say they’re trying to offer meat eaters a better option. An option they claim is better for the animal, for us, and maybe even for the planet.
And best of all, it’s natural. But, does that mean it’s better for us?
What’s the difference?
When most people are confronted with the idea that the burger they’re about to eat was once a cow, they might grimace a little before they dig in and forget about it.
If you ask them what they thought that cow’s life might have been like before it was taken to the slaughterhouse, most would probably paint a pretty picture of a green field full of cattle, grazing comfortably while they live long, fulfilling lives full of chowing down on that delicious grass.
But for most beef cows, this is not the case.
The majority of today’s cows live short lives, and see very little grass in that life. At around six months of age, they’re taken from their herds and are placed into pens where their diet consists of soy and corn based grains.
This diet speeds up their growth, causing them to quickly gain loads of excess weight at a pace that could never be achieved in their natural environment. As Temple Grandin told the Washington Post, “grain is like cake and ice cream to cows”. Even if they like the taste, it’s not exactly good for them.
They are given a whole host of drugs and hormone treatments to help their bodies process this new diet and build muscle mass, along with antibiotics to keep their immune systems strong enough to survive their living conditions, which are often unsanitary.
At around 14 months, the cows are ready to be slaughtered.
There are many terms to refer to the various types of alternative farming techniques, which can get a little confusing. Aside from grass-fed, you’ll also hear ‘pasture-raised’, ‘free-range’, and ‘organic’.
Free-range and pasture-raised are terms that do not necessarily relate to the diet of the animals, but the areas in which they live. These animals are typically not restricted to the claustrophobic feedlot conditions of the most common livestock raising practices.
Organic and grass-fed refer more specifically to the animals’ diet. Farmers who have decided to opt only for these cattle often give their cows radically different lives from those placed in feedlots.
Their existence is similar to experiences these animals have had for millions of years, before the dawn of agriculture, before we had billions of humans on the planet who want to eat more meat than ever before.
They are allowed to wander around in large enclosures, eating grass and exercising their muscles. These cows live to be five or six years old, far longer than the 14 months of life the more unfortunate feedlot cattle live.
Cows and evolution
The biggest issue the industries who raise these beef cows have run into is the actual organism of the cow itself.
I’ve already used the word natural a few times, and it’s not because of some hippy inclination on my part. These animals literally have not evolved the digestive systems to properly handle these new diets.
Cows have within them the most highly evolved digestive organ on the planet, called the rumen. Unlike most other creatures, this built-in 45-gallon fermentation tank allows them to turn the cellulose in grass into highly nutritious protein.
But grain-fed cows have a high energy diet (high in calories from the starchiness of the maize and soy in the grain) that can’t be digested through the rumen in the normal way.
I’ll try and spare you all the details, but the main take away is this: when grains enter the rumen, so much slime and gas are formed that the rumen literally expands like a balloon.
Additionally, these grains give cattle horrible acidosis, what Michael Pollan, the former editor of Harper’s Magazine and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, refers to as a “really bad case of heartburn”, which causes them to stop eating and can lead to liver abscesses and eventual liver failure.
So why do we feed cows this grain instead of what they evolved to eat?
Because: “Corn”, says Pollan, “is the cheapest, most convenient thing we can give them”.
Basically, we’re ignoring nature for economic gain.
Health benefits of grass-fed beef
Lean red meat is incredibly high in protein, vitamin B12, iron, and lots of other important nutrients. Including it in your diet can help promote brain and muscle health.
But grass-fed beef goes a little bit further.
A lot of the benefits of grass-fed beef seem to revolve around heart health. Rekha Mankad, M.D., in an article on the Mayo Clinic site said that grass-fed beef is more likely to have:
- Less total fat
- Higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids
- More conjugated linoleic acid, a variety of fat that studies show may reduce risk of heart disease and certain cancers
A study published in Pub Med on the different feeding systems for cattle, found a significantly higher level of omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed beef, and far lower levels of trans fat than were found in grain-fed beef.
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered to be the best kind of fats. Your body needs them to function and most of us don’t get enough of them. Cultures with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their diets have lower rates of depression, asthma, ADHD, and dementia.
Trans fats are definitely the worst kind of fats. They’re uncommon in nature, and when eaten can raise your levels of bad cholesterol while lowering levels of good cholesterol.
Grass-fed beef is lower in overall fats and saturated fat, but once cows are moved to feedlots and put on grain, they begin to lose the stored omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies and begin to store fats that are considerably less healthy.
Despite all of this, grass-fed beef may not really be that much better for you. Yes, omega-3 levels are much higher, but because the levels were already so low in beef to begin with, the advantage might be negligible compared to foods like fish.
As to the other nutrients, Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy told the Washington Post: “The other nutrients are less relevant. Either their amounts are too small to be significant or evidence of their value is equivocal”.
Difference in taste?
When it comes to food, a lot of people just don’t care about the ethics involved in the production. What really opens their wallets is taste. So, what type of beef actually tastes better?
Just as soil quality will affect the way fruits and vegetables taste, what a cow eats will affect the beef.
A Huffington Post taste test comparing hamburgers made from grain and grass-fed beef found an “almost 100 percent unanimous” leaning toward grass-fed burgers.
A thorough steak taste testing performed by Slate found grass-fed steak to be the most enjoyed overall, by similarly near-unanimous results, from cows that had “never ingested anything other than mother’s milk and pasture”.
The only issue reported in the latter study was consistency, which does seem to be a point of concern in grass-fed beef. As you can imagine, each animal is ‘an individual’ and not closely watched for quality control the same way as they are in factory farms, therefore fat may distribute differently. So when it comes to grass-fed beef, this may leave one week’s meat tasting different to the next.
The beef you and I grew up eating had more fat, which has gotten us used to a certain flavor and texture. Because grass-fed cows are leaner, it might take a little getting used to. But it’s not going to be that tough to do so.
Difference in price?
Grass-fed beef is going to cost you more, there’s no use in denying it.
Searching for price comparisons online, I found a pound of grass-fed sirloin beef selling for $9.99, while a pound of grain-fed beef sold for $7.99. You might find higher or lower prices depending on what store, what part of the country, and what time of year. But on average, grass-fed will be higher.
Strangely though, this might be one of the best things about grass-fed beef.
While in most cases, the overall difference is only marginal, the fact remains that you will pay more for your meat.
But, if as a society we continue to ask for the cheapest possible food, production processes will continue to become more streamlined, which on a mass scale always leads to an overall loss of quality.
Just like our clothes and smart phones are often made in other countries because of low cost labor, the food industry will continue to find ways of cutting corners while ramping up the efficiency of their production.
If we’re asked to pay a little more for every piece of meat we buy, we’ll be contributing to higher standards of production, which could lead to a better product.
Instead of these companies squeezing everything they can out of every cow, instead they might put a little more care into the way each animal is raised. Breeding might become more of a focus, which can lead to a serious variation in flavor. That’s would be more for us to enjoy and experiment with as consumers.
While eating red meat does offer certain health benefits, like anything, it does depend on what type you choose.
So please, eat real food. Eat the real beef not all that fake processed stuff, okay.
The Bottom Line
A move toward grass-fed cattle just seems to be a good idea.
The cows themselves will get to live longer lives, able to roam around more freely without being packed side-by-side, standing in their own filth. They won’t be injected full of questionable hormones and antibiotics – the effects of which are still up for debate when it comes to human consumption. And if they were allowed to roam free and eat grass, it would stop causing them severe pain and suffering.
Their species would get to resume their ancient occupation as natural lawnmowers.
If the movement drives the prices up on beef, people will be more inclined to eat fish or chicken instead of red meat every day.
And most important of all: grass-fed beef is better for you. The difference might not be staggering, but it’s real.
So, if you can find some grass-fed beef in your local area, think about it. It wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.
Have you tried grass-fed beef? What did you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.