By William Lagakos, Ph.D.
Among meat-eaters, there is often a debate over which meat is the healthiest. And for those of us who eat beef, the debate continues over whether or not grass-fed is worth it. It often costs anywhere from 2-3 times more than conventional, grain-fed beef. The question is: Is grass-fed beef really that much healthier than conventional beef?
To know whether or not it truly is a healthier option, the first thing to ask is "what does grass-fed even mean?" The difference is in how the meat is treated and processed -- and how it ultimately affects your health.
What Does "Grass-Fed" Really Mean?
How the cattle are treated, starting all the way back at the farm, has a big impact on what you buy once you're choosing your beef in the grocery store.
Agriculturally speaking, the feeding period in cattle relevant to the grass-fed debate can be divided into three phases:
Phase 1: extends from birth, when the animal lives solely on milk, until 7-9 months of age, when some grass is consumed in the pasture.
Phase 2: comprises about half of the grass-fed debate and extends from phase 1 until shortly before harvest (when the cattle is slaughtered). The cattle spend most of their life in this period feeding on either grains or grass.
Phase 3: the notorious finishing period -- this is the other half of the grass-fed debate. It is a period of rapid growth immediately prior to harvest; some animals are grass-fed but finished on grains. Since a disproportionate amount of weight is gained during the finishing period, some in the pro-grass-fed crowd argue that this is the most important time to be grass-fed.
At the grocery store, your options break down into four categories according to the amount of time your cattle was exposed to grains. Here's the list, ordered from least to most grain exposure:
- 100 percent Grass-Fed
- Grass-Fed & Grain-Finished
- Conventional, Grain-Fed Beef
Accordingly, the price of beef from those four categories usually decreases in stepwise fashion; veal being the most expensive and conventional grain-fed beef being the least expensive.
How Does The Quality Of Beef You Choose Impact Your Health?
In 2008, a group of researchers compared 100 percent grass-fed to 100 percent grain-fed beef with samples obtained on three separate occasions from farms all over the continental United States.
The only quantitatively important difference was the significantly lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats (9.6 vs. 2.45), which suggest that grass-fed beef might be more "anti-inflammatory" than conventional grain-fed beef.
Another study attempted to quantify the effects of finishing grass-fed cattle on grains for 0, 1, or 2 months and showed that the more time spent on grains prior to harvest resulted in more saturated fats (inconsistent with above findings), more monounsaturated fats (consistent with above findings), and a significantly lower ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats (consistent with above findings).
So, we see that for the most part, grass-fed and grain-fed beef are relatively similar with the exception of a potentially more anti-inflammatory fatty acid profile for grass-fed beef.
So Does It Matter If I Buy Grass-Fed Beef?
In a more decisive result, one study fed participants either grass-finished or grain-finished beef for four weeks, then analyzed their blood. The data shows those assigned to grass-fed beef had significantly higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids in their blood, a lower omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, and most importantly, higher levels of "DHA." DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is one of the reasons why so many nutritionists recommend eating more fish. It is the quintessential fatty acid responsible for fish oil's "anti-inflammatory" effect. In other words, it's good for you.
In conclusion, there are many reasons why consumers with the means to do so should select grass-fed over conventional beef. If the decision is based on perceived health benefits, then the studies suggest they might be right. That said, conventional grain-fed beef might not be as healthy, but it's still better than junk foods' empty calories.
For a more in-depth analysis of the studies mentioned, see the original article on BuiltLean: Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth The Extra Money?
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