How to Choose Healthy Beef
Do you eat meat but don’t want to eat animals that have been fed hormones? Or do you have concern about poor quality meat? Perhaps you don’t want to eat animals that haven’t been treated well or who have been raised on factory farms? These are concerns that many people have about buying healthy beef for themselves and their families.
It’s so common for my patients to not have beef as a part their diet because of all of these concerns. And sometimes people haven’t even given thought to where beef comes from and what all of the labels they see even mean. Organic. Certified Organic. Cage-Free. Natural. Grass-Fed. Humanely-Raised. Grass-Finished. Pasture-Raised. Sustainably-Caught. Free-Range.
Before we dive in, let me say that the point here is not to convince you to eat beef, or to make a statement about those who choose not to. However, for those of us who do eat beef, it’s important to be conscious about what it is we’re actually eating (I have a post here about vegetarian diets vs omnivorous diets.)
What cattle are fed
Conventionally raised cows are grain-fed (mainly soybeans and corn) because it is inexpensive and fattens them up quickly. 100% grass-fed cows forage from birth to harvest on the prairie/range/pasture and eat grass and other plants they come across (with exception of mother’s milk and hay, clover, alfalfa, etc. during inclement weather or low forage). Beef can be labeled “grass-finished” which can mean that they were grain-fed for the majority of their time and then they got to eat some grass toward the end. To add to the confusion, cattle can also be “grass-fed”, but then grain-fed for the last bit of time to fatten them up. For the sake of this post, all comparisons are grain-fed vs 100% grass-fed. More later on how to sort through the labeling craziness.
It’s basically a “you are what you eat” scenario. Let’s first look at fats since this is usually what people worry about with regard to beef. The fat proportion is about the same between grain-fed and grass-fed meaning that the percentage from saturated vs monounsaturated vs polyunsaturated fats is the same. The difference (and an important one at that) is in those polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), in particular the omega-3 and omega-6s.
The standard American diet typically has plenty of pro-inflammatory omega-6 but not enough anti-inflammatory omega-3s to create a healthy ratio. The current findings are that grass-fed and grain-fed have pretty much the same amount of omega-6 so if you are not able to buy grass-fed healthy beef you can rest assured that you are not adding any more omega-6s than you would with grass-fed. Grass-fed beef has 2-5 times more omega-3s depending on breed and particular diet of the cow.
Under the umbrella of saturated fats are stearic acid, palmitic acid and myristic acid. Grass-fed meat has more stearic acid which does not raise blood cholesterol levels. And a higher stearic acid means less of the cholesterol- elevating palmitic and myristic fatty acids. Another important PUFA is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA has strong antioxidant activity which may be protective against heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It is naturally found in meat products and milk from cows (and sheep and goats). Grass-fed beef has an average of 2-3 times more CLA than grain-fed.
Grasses have more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than do grains so the animals that eat more grass will have more of these nutrients in their tissues. Grass has a lot of carotenoids (the precursor to vitamin A) whereas grains have none. The carotenoids like beta-carotene, are taken into the tissues of the animal which gives the fat a yellowish color. So, if you are eating grass-fed beef for the first time and are thrown off by the color of the fat – it’s a good thing! The other antioxidants found in higher levels in grass-fed beef, vitamin E, glutathione and superoxide dismutase, protect the cells from oxidation (=damage), especially the fragile omega-3 and omega-6s. Additionally, vitamin E and beta-carotene work together to protect the meat during transportation from butcher to kitchen as well as from high heat cooking like grilling.
Hormones and pharmaceuticals in beef
Commercially raised beef is almost always fed bovine growth hormone as well as prophylactic (preventive) antibiotics. Many other countries have bannedthese practices and in fact, do not import beef from the US because of it. Additionally, I can’t help but believe that the high levels of stress hormone that these animals must produce from typical commercial farming practices (overcrowding, little light, fresh air, and lack of access to their natural diet) is unhealthy for those of us who eat meat.
So, how do you know what to buy when faced with so many options? Here’s the deal
“Organic” does not mean pasture-raised or grass-fed. “Grass-fed” and “pasture-raised” are allowed by law to be used even if the animal spent little time outdoors. This is also allowed if fed a combo of grass and grains, including grass-finishing. Look for “100% grass-fed” or the USDA or similar certification. One hang-up with USDA standards is that a “grass-fed” animal can still be confined and/or fed antibiotics or hormones. Ugh! The American Grassfed Association (AGA) is an alternative organization that offers certification for grass-fed animal products. They certify based on what the animal eats which is 100% forage, that the animal is never treated with growth hormone or antibiotics, is treated humanely and that the environment has been protected. Read more about them here http://www.americangrassfed.org/. They also have a section for AGA producers so you can find a local source for grass-fed healthy beef.
I wrote a post about ethics of commercial farming and meat eating here. I also wrote a piece for Well magazine on this topic as well. TL;DR I believe in the food chain and that humans are natural omnivores, but I don’t believe in torturing animals for our benefit. If people choose to not eat meat for ethical reasons, I support that 100%, but if the problem is commercial farming, there are many small farms across the country where animals are treated well. When I meet with patients and clients, I ask about how they feel about this issue. In the end people need to make decisions aligned with their own values…the only way to do this is to be aware of what you’re eating.
Where to buy?
Check out http://www.eatwild.com/ to find all sorts of information. They cite studies and other references for much of the above information (if you like to see studies, here is another. EatWild also lists stores, restaurants, farmers markets, cow share opportunities and ranches where you will find grass-fed beef. Because there are so many holes in labeling laws it is best to know your meat and, better yet, know your farmer. Many ranches will welcome you to visit and see their practices in action.
If you’re local to Porltand, here are some places around PDX to buy 100% grass-fed beef:
- Laurelhurst Market Butcher Shop: E. Burnside
- Chop Butchery: SE Portland
- Know Thy Food: SE Portland
- Flying Fish Company: SE Hawthorne
- Old Salt Marketplace: NE Portland (there is also a restaurant here…so good!)
- New Seasons Markets (only a few of their cuts are 100% grass fed so make sure to ask)
- Farmer’s Markets – Hillsdale, Interstate, Irvington, Hollywood, OHSU and PSU
- Buying Clubs (buy in bulk with others for the best value): Carman Ranch, Lents Food Buying Club
With all that said…
It is important to know that conventional beef is not going to give you and your family disease by eating it (perhaps if it were all you ate…) It’s just that 100% grass-fed is superior from health, environmental, and ethical perspectives.
And..I understand that the reality is that grass-fed healthy beef is often more expensive and may not fit into everyone’s budget. There are a few ways to approach this: Buy conventional and know you are still getting good intake of protein and many bioavailable nutrients; consider the superior nutritional benefits of grass-fed and see that for the price you are getting more nutrition for your dollar; or buy in bulk. Often buying in quantity is most cost efficient. So, if you have a stand-alone freezer or can get one cheap then buy in quantity from a cow share or straight from the rancher and fill ‘er up.
Oh! If you are a beef-eater, but have not had grass-fed before I recommend taking a look at tips for cooking healthy beef. The AGA has some and probably a quick on-line search will present all you need. The meat does have a different taste than you might be used to. The cooking time is also going to be different because of the lower fat content and texture that comes with animals that are free to roam day in and day out. Make your grass-fed beef experience a delicious one!