Grass Fed Beef: Does it Matter? One Nutritionist’s Perspective
We are excited to share a blog from Amber Hanson! She is a licensed nutritionist, recipe developer and chef with a passion for food and cooking. She likes teaching clients the power of eating real food as a path to wellness, health, and happiness. She enjoys digging into the details of each client’s unique health history and day-to-day reality to help them determine what brings balance in their body. Amber knows a person is not just a number on the scale, a medical diagnosis, a job title, or a relationship status. She meets each client where they are, without judgement, to empower them to live their best life. You can find out more about Amber’s nutrition services, group classes, and whole food recipes at wholeyounutritionmn.com.
The world of food and nutrition is a hot bed of debate. People often hold their beliefs of what one should eat as tightly as their political or religious views – it is a topic best left out of polite conversation. I don’t think there is any one diet or way of eating that works for all humans all the time, but I do strongly believe that the quality of our food counts. I encourage people to eat whole, minimally processed foods most of the time. And when it comes to beef, I suggest seeking out local grass fed and grass finished sources.
This suggestion is sometimes met with a question – does it really matter? I think it does. In general beef is a great source of nutrients and it is not just protein. Beef is also a good source of highly absorbable forms of B vitamins including niacin, B6 and B12 and minerals like heme iron, zinc, selenium and phosphorus. Where grass fed beef really shines is in its fatty acid composition. Grass fed and finished beef has a higher amount of omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventionally raised.1 Broadly speaking omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. For good health it is recommend that we keep our intake of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in a ratio of 4:1 to 1:1. However those consuming a typical western or standard American diet show ratios in the range of 15:1 and worse. Consuming foods with a better omega-6 to omega-3 ratio can translate to us having a better omega-6 to omega-3 ratio too. Grass fed beef tends to have a 1:1 ratio whereas conventionally raised beef has a ratio of 7:1.2
Another standout difference between grass fed and finished beef and conventionally raised beef is a higher level of conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA.1 This is technically a trans-fat, but not the health damaging kind that used to be found in processed foods and grocery store baked goods. This trans-fat is naturally occurring and acts as an antioxidant in the body that has been associated with reduced body fat, cardiovascular disease and cancer.3 Finally grass fed and finished beef is higher in powerful antioxidants including glutathione, superoxide dismutase and precursors to vitamin A and E.1 Beta- carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, and the same compound that is found in foods like sweet potatoes, is part of the reason that the fat on grass fed beef sometimes has a bit of a yellowish hue.4 This is comparable to butter made from grass fed cow milk having a deeper yellow color than that from conventionally raised cows.
Labeling on meat can get a bit confusing. Currently approval to use grass fed is granted by the Food Safety and Inspection Service branch of the USDA, however there is not standard definition for grass fed and each producer must supplier their own definition when applying for the label claim. This means as consumers, we don’t necessarily know the whole story – perhaps the cattle were fed some grass, but the diet was supplement with grain later in life. The label also doesn’t tell anything about the living conditions, and, in terms of marketing, grass fed doesn’t always mean pasture raised. The best way to know exactly how your beef is feed and raised is to get to know the producer personally and ask questions.
Daley CA, Abbott A, Doyle PS, Nader GA, Larson S. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutr J. 2010;9:10. Published 2010 Mar 10. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10qa
Hyman, M. (2018). Food What the Heck Should I Eat?. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Dilzer, A., & Park, Y. (2012). Implication of Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) in Human Health. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 52(6), 488-513. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2010.501409
Dunne, P., Monahan, F., O’Mara, F., & Moloney, A. (2009). Colour of bovine subcutaneous adipose tissue: A review of contributory factors, associations with carcass and meat quality and its potential utility in authentication of dietary history. Meat Science, 81(1), 28-45. doi: 10.1016/j.meatsci.2008.06.013