Growing up on a farm in Kansas with Hereford and Angus cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep, I learned a thing or two about the meat industry. One thing I’ve learned in recent years is the dramatic popularity and public interest in grass-fed meats. For instance, the demand for grass-fed beef has grown at an impressive annual rate of 25% to 30% per year since 2005. In 1998, retail sales of grass-fed beef were less than $5 million compared to $400 million in 2013. The main driver of this phenomenal growth primarily lies in the health benefits of grass-fed meat when compared to conventional meat.
Grass-fed meats versus conventional fed meats
It’s important to understand the difference between grass-fed vs conventional fed with respect to all types of animal protein – beef, pork, lamb, and poultry. Much of our “conventionally raised” meat, eggs and dairy products bought in grocery stores come from animals raised in confinement facilities. Generally, the animals are well-taken care of but there will be a point in their lives where they’re not allowed access to grass at all times and are instead fed a diet meant to boost their productivity and keep costs low. These animals are fed a grain mixture with the main ingredients usually being corn and soy.
All beef cattle, whether raised conventional or grass-fed, spend the first few months of their lives on pasture or rangeland.
Conventionally raised calves will spend the first part of their lives drinking milk from their mothers and roaming on pasture eating grass and other edible plants. Sometime between 6 to 12 months of age, they are moved to feedlots to be “finished,” meaning to reach a certain weight before harvested and are fed a conventional grain-based feed usually based on corn or soy. The last 4 to 6 months of their lives are spent in pens at the feedlot without being allowed to graze on grass.
With grass-fed beef, the cows and calves live on and have continuous access to pasture grass for their lifetime. Instead of being moved to a feedlot, the calves remain grazing on grass and are rotated to different pastures to stimulate plant diversity and to prevent overgrazing. The only supplemental food they receive is hay during the winter months when the grass is dormant. Because the calves are not fed a grain based diet, it takes longer to “finish” or fatten them up but generally they are harvested before they reach 30 months of age.
Grass-fed poultry – chickens, turkeys, ducks – are referred to as pastured poultry meaning they are allowed to roam outdoors eating grass and insects but their diet will also be supplemented with an organic grain mix.
Health benefits of grass-fed meats
“When we make a conscious effort to choose grass-fed meat over grain-fed meat, we are reverting back to the diet that our ancestors once ate,” said Dr. David Samadi, chairman of urology and chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “This type of diet is good because it is most in line with our physiology. Eating a diet based on foods from animals that are grass-fed will be beneficial for our entire bodies and ultimately allow us to function better.”
The nutrient composition of grass-fed or pastured animals compared to conventionally raised animals does appear to have several health advantages:
• Increase in omega-3 fatty acids – The muscle composition of grass-fed animals is different than grain-fed animals. Grass-fed meats have less fat and saturated fat overall which means gram for gram fewer calories.
Grass-fed beef has two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids, a good fat that is heart-healthy.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial for normal growth and may even help prevent and treat some very serious health conditions such as hypertension, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, and other inflammatory and autoimmune disorders,” stated Dr. Samadi.
Cattle fed grain in feedlots may grow faster than grass-fed beef but the grain feed increases the omega-6 fatty acids composition of the meat and lowers the omega-3 fatty acids. It’s estimated only 40% of Americans consume an adequate supply of omega-3 fatty acids. The grain mixture conventionally raised animals are fed can have up to 10 times more omega-6 fatty acids than animals that are grass-fed, which is opposite of what you want.
Most Americans tend to consume diets high in omega-6 fatty acids. Even though omega-6’s are essential for health, it is believed the higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids in the diet may be contributing to inflammation that promotes obesity, diabetes, heart disease and dementia. Omega-6’s are primarily found in vegetable oils such as corn, safflower and cottonseed oils. There needs to be more of a healthy balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation possibly contributing to chronic health problems.
Grass-fed hens eggs also contain as much as 10 times more omega-3 fatty acids than eggs from hens raised in factories.
• Higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) – This good type of fat may help fight cancer as animal studies have shown it to block the initiation, promotion and metastasis stages of cancer. It’s also been shown to slow the growth of cancers of the skin, breast, prostate and colon. Meat and dairy products of grass-fed animals are the most abundant source of CLAs having 3-5 times more CLA than animals fed a grain diet in a feedlot.
Other studies have shown CLAs to help reduce body fat, clogged arteries and delay the onset of diabetes.
Dr. Samadi reiterated the benefits of CLA by stating, “Grass-fed beef has tons of natural vitamins and minerals. It is also an excellent source of CLA which is a fat that reduces the risk of diabetes, obesity, cancer, and a number of immune disorders.”
• Higher levels of vitamin E – Vitamin E is best known for its antioxidant abilities but it is also linked with a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. Grass-fed beef has four times higher amounts of vitamin E than conventionally raised beef.
• Higher levels of beta-carotene and C – Both beta-carotene and vitamin C are antioxidants doing their job of defending and protecting cells against oxidative damage. Grass-fed meats have higher amounts of these antioxidants – animals allowed to graze on grass instead of grain boost these nutrients.
Other attractive qualities of grass-fed meats
For many consumers, their decision to choose grass-fed meats over conventional meats is not only about the increased nutritional benefits. Here are other attributes attracting consumers to animals being raised grass-fed:
• Animals raised on grass and living in a more normal environment experience less stress. They have more room to roam and tend to live longer than conventionally raised animals.
• Grass-fed meats tend to be sold more locally to consumers and restaurants using local foods. This supports the local economy keeping farmers in the region and reduces the miles the food travels.
• This way of raising animals tends to promote more environmental diversity and land sustainability while protecting natural resources.
• Many consumers prefer the taste of grass-fed meats over conventional meats.
Disadvantages of grass-fed meats
• Grass-fed products are not available in all retail outlets. Depending on where you live, you may have to find and purchase directly from a local producer.
• Grass-fed products are often more costly due to the longer production time and overhead costs involved with the finished product.
Learn more about and where to buy grass-fed products
If you have an interest in trying grass-fed meats and products but don’t know where to find them, visit the following websites:
www.americangrassfed.org – Has a listing of grass-fed producers throughout the country.
www.localharvest.org – Lists CSA farms (community supported agriculture) where consumers can buy local, seasonal foods directly from a farmer. Type in your zip code to locate a CSA farm near you.
www.eatwild.com – Provides a directory of farms listing more than 1,400 pasture-based farms across the nation for grass-fed meat, eggs, and dairy products.