Thursday, October 23, 2014

Grass-fed Beef: Does it Matter?

The concept of grass-fed beef has become a huge trend the last decade.  In the early 2000's, it became the norm for television stations and articles to show thousands of cows placed, essentially, on conveyor belts waiting for slaughter in meat processing plants.  This led to a public outcry for safety and healthier options for getting better quality meat (the whole e coli outbreaks and mad cow disease during the past decade-and-a-half definitely played a role as well).  The answer to the outcry, grass-fed beef. 

America became abuzz from talk show hosts to our favorite cooking show personalities on the health benefits of eating grass-fed beef over the boring old grain-fed cattle.  These animals were, supposedly, treated more humanely, and the health benefits were to outweigh the larger price tags that went on the labels. 

Both grain-fed and grass-fed cows start out the same - on milk and grass when young.  Then the grain-fed are taken and fed out of feedlots whereas their grass-fed brethren continue to eat grass (as many pundits and Web sites I read state clearly, "as was intended").  The commercial consensus on grass-fed cows were that they contained more omega-3s, CLAs (Conjugated Linoleic Acid), were higher in Vitamin E, and contained higher concentrations of minerals like iron, zinc, and potassium.  It was all of these health benefits that manufacturers claimed was worth the hefty jump in price. 

That being said, Dr. Stephen B. Smith from Texas A&M published two studies on the subject.  His findings didn't match the claims of the manufacturers and TV personalities.  To summarize his findings, he found no scientific evidence to support grass-fed beef being any healthier than grain-fed beef.  To expand, his research found no difference in cholesterol from grass-fed to grain-fed.  He did find that grass-fed were higher in omega-3s (linolenic acid) as claimed where as grain-fed were higher in omega-9s (oleic acid) (the two are good for you, linolenic acid is more prevalent in canola oil whereas oleic acid is common in olive oils).  Furthermore, his findings found that the grain-fed were in fact lower in saturated/trans fat.   

Overall, red meat is good for us (in moderation of course, don't go grabbing a triple cheeseburger every day and wonder why your cholesterol levels are through the roof) but science seems to have stumped the marketers where there is no reason to pay extra for grass-fed beef.  Oh, to editorialize a moment, the USDA does in fact recognize grass-fed beef but there is very little oversight on it.  Pretty much anyone can slap a "grass-fed" sticker on their product with little worry of any form of prosecution.  If you don't believe me, check out the American Grass Fed Web site and look at how many producers of grass-fed beef there are for your state.  I'm willing to bet it is not nearly as many as you would think compared to the number of "grass-fed" beef you see advertised at supermarkets and farmer's markets. 

"Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences." Animal Science. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2014. 

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