At Cove Creek Farm we believe that beef is the most complete single source of nutrition for maximum energy and overall well being (see the paper below). We are proud to raise our cattle completely on lush grass (with hay supplementation in the winter if necessary) in a natural environment.
We rotate our cattle daily using various methods of rotational grazing depending on the state of the pasture. One of our goals is in raising cattle is to constantly improve pasture quality and use natural methods for pasture regeneration. We believe that better pasture = better beef.
The Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
With Particular Reference to Whole, Grass-Fed Ground Beef
Grass-fed or pastured beef comes from cattle that have been allowed to roam on pasture land and forage for their own food, which is most often grass. In contrast, grain-fed beef, which represents most of beef sold in the U.S., comes from cattle raised in feedlots, most often concentrated operations (CAFO). Meat derived from CAFOs contributes to environmental problems, mainly water pollution. Grass-fed or pastured beef may have many health benefits compared to grain-fed beef, among them differences in fatty acid composition, conjugated linoleic acid, antioxidant vitamins, and others. In addition, meat from whole vs selected ground beef may also have greater health benefits.
- CAFO beef involves greater environmental hazards than pastured beef
- Grass- and grain-fed beef differ in fatty acid composition, which is very important for health
- Grass-fed beef contains two to three times the amount of conjugated linoleic acid, and important anti-cancer and cardioprotective molecule
- Other important differences between grass- vs grain fed beef include levels of antioxidants, vitamin K2, and phytoestrogens
Grain-fed Beef: Definitions and Environmental Effects
Most cattle in the United States are “grain-fed”, which means that after weaning, they are kept in feedlots and given feed selected by the facility in which they’re kept. This type of setup is sometimes known as a “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation”, or CAFO. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a CAFO that deals with beef cattle has, by definition, more than one thousand animals that are confined on site for more than 45 days a year. However, the USDA also designates any feeding operation that discharges manure into a natural or man-made ditch, stream, or other waterway as a CAFO, regardless of size, and as such they are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency to minimize air and water pollution.[i]
The amount of manure produced in a CAFO is the main reason for regulation, as this can be a concentrated source of water pollution. CAFO manure may contain several potential environmental pollutants or contaminants, including pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemical used as feed additives or for the cleaning of equipment, animal blood, and copper sulfate, which is used in footbaths for cows.[ii]
Disposal of manure represents the single largest challenge in CAFOs. The most common method of manure disposal is spreading it on fields for use as fertilizer, but the very large operations in use today often make this method impracticable. If manure is applied to fields too frequently or in too great a quantity, the capacity of the soil to absorb nutrients from manure is overwhelmed, which results in nutrients and potential pollutants leaching into groundwater and polluting local water supplies. Even when manure is applied at optimal frequencies and amounts, rainfall may wash nutrients/pollutants away and into groundwater.[iii]
At least 29 states have identified CAFOs as sources of groundwater pollution. In Idaho, water wells have been found to be contaminated with veterinary antibiotics and increased levels of nitrates from manure. Over half of the U.S. population relies on groundwater for drinking water, with the figure being higher in rural areas. CAFOs are also leading sources of pollutants in surface water such as lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Storms or floods can cause storage facilities to overflow and then pollute these bodies of water. Nitrates and other nutrients can then cause blooms of algae and bacteria, which have led to large fish kills when microorganisms deplete the water of oxygen.
In CAFOs, cattle are typically fed corn (maize) or soy feed. The type of feed used is the crucial difference between grain-fed and grass-fed animals in terms of the composition of the resulting meat, and this in turn affects the quantity and quality of the nutrients in the meat eaten by consumers.
Grass-fed or pastured beef comes from cattle that can forage for their own food on open land, without being confined. Typically, most of the forage they consume is grass.
Most of the environmental concerns seen in CAFOs are decreased with the use of pastured animals, simply because there are no concentrated sources of manure.
Grass-fed animals eat the type of food that is suited to their physiology. Grass consists largely of cellulose, a type of carbohydrate that humans cannot digest. Cellulose must be broken down by microorganisms in the cattle’s digestive system, so they can obtain energy from it. By contrast, grains contain large amounts of starches, which are chains of glucose molecules with a different chemical linkage than cellulose. Since grains in large quantities are a product of agriculture, it’s evident that evolution by natural selection has shaped cattle to be grass-eaters. As such, we can expect that the type of feed consumed by cattle has an impact on the quality of their meat, and that is indeed the case.
Perhaps the most important difference in the composition of grass-fed versus grain-fed beef is in the amounts and ratios of various fatty acids, which have important implications for human health.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are those in which the carbon chains contain double bonds, that is, they’re unsaturated with hydrogen. Omega-3 and omega-6 are the most important types of PUFA for human health and are required nutrients for humans.
In the period of evolutionary adaptation, humans may have eaten foods containing these two PUFA in a ratio of omega-6/omega-3 of perhaps 2 or even 1:1. In the modern era, the ratio has greatly increased, to a ratio of 15 to as high as 50:1, and this increased ratio may be wholly or partially responsible for many chronic diseases seen in the developed world, diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and obesity.[iv] As humans cannot synthesize PUFA, but must ingest them from their food, this situation is entirely the result of modern food production. Wild, grass-fed animals, which humans hunted and ate for hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, contain lower amounts of omega-6 PUFA, and higher amounts of omega-3 PUFA, than meat that derives from modern industrial methods of production. Grass-fed beef also has a lower omega-6/3 ratio than grain-fed beef.
Reducing the burden of chronic disease requires that people have a more balanced omega-6/3 ratio, and grass-fed beef can help provide a solution to this problem.
Grass-fed beef typically contains about 0.5% PUFA, which is similar to grain-fed beef. The difference between the two lies mainly in the ratio of omega-s to omega-3 PUFA. Grass-fed beef has a ratio of about 5:1, whereas grain-fed is close to 10:1.[v]
Grass-fed beef has higher absolute amounts of omega-3 as well, and this is the fatty acid that most people require more of for good health. A typical cut of grass-fed beef of 100 grams contains 88 mg of omega-3 PUFA; grain-fed contains 46, an almost 2-fold difference.
Therefore, consumption of grass-fed beef could help to increase omega-3 PUFA levels in human tissue and to rectify the large imbalance of PUFA typically found in people in the Western world.
- A lopsided ratio of dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids is typical of people in developed countries
- The typical ratio is responsible for much of the burden of chronic disease
- Grass-fed beef contains a lower ration of omega-6 to omega-3, as well as higher absolute amounts of omega-3.
Saturated fat and leanness
Saturated fat contains no unsaturated chemical bonds, that is, it is saturated with hydrogen. Saturated fat represents most of the calories in meat, and many people try to limit saturated fat intake.
Grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-fed, and contains about 20% less saturated fat than grain-fed. A typical cut of grass-fed beef contains less than 200 calories per 100 grams, compared to around 270 calories for grain-fed, and most of the difference is due to a lower saturated fat content.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
Conjugated linoleic acid is a polyunsaturated fatty acid found in meat that has important health benefits, including protection against cancer, atherosclerosis, and diabetes. CLA may represent one of the most important health benefits of eating meat. The type of food an animal consumes determines the amount of CLA in meat from that animal, and grass-fed beef contains more CLA than grain-fed, typically two to three times as much.[vi]
The optimal intake of CLA can be estimated, although results are based mainly on animal data extrapolated to humans. Americans, most of whose beef is grain-fed, consume on average about 150 to 200 mg a day, while Australians, whose beef is mainly grass-fed, consume a more optimal amount of 500 to 1000 mg a day.[vii]
Thus, consumption of grass-fed beef, high in CLA, may protect against cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
Carotenoids are plant compounds synthesized to protect against environmental stressors. Beta-carotene, one of the carotenoids, is a precursor of vitamin A, which is important for vision, bone, skin integrity, and normal cell growth. Grass-fed animals incorporate a significantly greater amount of beta-carotene into their tissues, since grass contains much more of this substance than does grain. Some studies have found a 7-fold greater level of beta-carotene in grass- vs grain-fed beef.[viii]
Consumption of grass-fed beef can significantly increase consumption of the important nutrient beta-carotene.
Vitamin E is an antioxidant vitamin that has critical functions in protection against cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Grass-fed beef contains two to three times the amount of vitamin E as grain-fed, and therefore may provide better protection against chronic disease. The higher levels of vitamin E in grass-fed beef are important to ranchers and marketers as well, since the antioxidant vitamin E makes meat stay and look fresher on the shelf for a longer time. This process also results in lower lipid oxidation, another important health benefit.[ix]
Vitamin K2 is important for bone and artery integrity, and is found mainly in animal foods. Vitamin K1 is found only in plants. Generally, people in the Western world do not get enough K2.
When animals eat grass, they incorporate vitamin K1 into their tissues, where it is converted to K2. Thus, grass-fed beef contains higher amounts of this critical vitamin than grain-fed.[x]
Grass-fed beef could therefore provide protection against atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, as well as osteoporosis.
Phytoestrogens are compounds made in plants that have estrogenic properties when ingested by humans. One of the most important sources of phytoestrogens for both humans and animals is soy, which is used as both human and animal food.
Phytoestrogens in high doses may cause hormonal abnormalities in both men and women as well as children.[xi] While the adverse effects versus potential benefits of soy phytoestrogens are still under debate, it remains the case that these compounds have hormonal effects, sometimes potent, and they probably should be avoided in large amounts.
Grass-fed beef contains lower amounts of phytoestrogens than grain-fed.[xii] Animals fed soy in feedlots can be expected to incorporate these compounds into their tissues. While the absolute amounts of phytoestrogens in meat are much smaller than in soy food products, those who wish to minimize intake of phytoestrogens may want to consume grass-fed rather than grain-fed beef.
Antibiotics are given to beef cattle both to treat and prevent disease and to promote growth. Nearly 10 million kilograms of antibiotics are used every year in animal agriculture every year in the U.S., and that’s only the official figure, which is likely underestimated due to lack of reporting requirements.[xiii] Antibiotics that are used for growth promotion are not readily absorbed by the animals, and much of it is then excreted, forming an additional source of pollution from feedlot cattle operations.
Grass-fed cows may be treated with antibiotics to prevent or treat disease, but since they are not given feed that has been mixed with antibiotics, residue of antibiotics in meat is much less of a concern with grass-fed beef. Further, grass-fed cattle operations don’t contribute to this source of pollution, and therefore grass-fed beef is more environmentally friendly than beef from CAFOs.
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)
BSE, also known as mad-cow disease, is a fatal disease of cattle that can infect consumers of beef. Cattle contract BSE via being given feed that contained meat-and-bone meal derived from diseased cattle. Grass-fed animals are thus free of BSE.[xiv]
While the mad-cow disease scare appears all but over, the fact remains that grass-fed beef cannot transmit this disease to humans, imparting another advantage of grass-fed animals versus those from feedlot operations.
Whole Ground Beef versus Conventional Ground Beef
Ground beef may be made from less desirable and/or tougher cuts of meat, and as such may not be as nutritious as ground beef made from a wider range of cuts of beef.
For example, rump and shoulder meat contains higher amounts of omega-3 PUFA than does loin.[xv] Different cuts of beef clearly have varying levels of omega-3.[xvi]
Since omega-3 PUFA represent perhaps the most important health aspect of grass-fed beef, and different cuts of beef vary in the amount of omega-3 PUFA, then ground beef made from all cuts has greater health benefits than grain-fed ground beef that only contains selected cuts.
In this paper, we have reviewed the most important differences in meat derived from grass-fed vs grain-fed cattle, and these differences have important health ramifications. The most important difference is in the level of polyunsaturated fatty acids and their ratio; a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 lies behind many of the chronic diseases of civilization, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. Consumption of grass-fed beef can help bring the ratio into better balance, more in accord with our evolutionary adaptation.
Grass-fed beef also has higher levels of nutrients like beta-carotene, vitamin E, and vitamin K2, and lower levels of the endocrine disrupting phytoestrogens. Grass-fed beef cannot infect consumers with BSE.
Ground beef made from all cuts of beef may be an especially
good source of health benefits.
[i] “Animal Feeding Operations”. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/plantsanimals/livestock/afo/ Accessed 24 May, 2018
[ii] “Understanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and Their Impact on Communities”. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf
[iv] Simopoulos, Artemis P. “The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.” Biomedicine & pharmacotherapy 56.8 (2002): 365-379.
[v] All data from Self Nutrition Data, http://nutritiondata.self.com/
[vi] Daley, Cynthia A., et al. “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef.” Nutrition journal 9.1 (2010): 10.
[x] “What are the Richest Food Sources of Vitamin K2?”. Dr. Steven Lin, https://www.drstevenlin.com/what-are-the-richest-food-sources-of-vitamin-k2/
[xi] Patisaul, Heather B., and Wendy Jefferson. “The pros and cons of phytoestrogens.” Frontiers in neuroendocrinology 31.4 (2010): 400-419.
[xii] Kuhnle, Gunter GC, et al. “Phytoestrogen content of foods of animal origin: dairy products, eggs, meat, fish, and seafood.” Journal of agricultural and food chemistry 56.21 (2008): 10099-10104.
[xiii] McEachran, Andrew D., et al. “Antibiotics, bacteria, and antibiotic resistance genes: aerial transport from cattle feed yards via particulate matter.” Environmental Health Perspectives 123.4 (2015): 337.
[xiv] McCluskey, Jill J., et al. “US grass-fed beef: marketing health benefits.” Journal of Food Distribution Research 36.3 (2005): 1.
[xv] Kronberg, Scott L., et al. “Rump and shoulder muscles from grass and linseed fed cattle as important sources of n‐3 fatty acids for beef consumers.” European Journal of Lipid Science and Technology 119.7 (2017).
[xvi] Bermingham, Emma N., et al. “Distribution of fatty acids and phospholipids in different table cuts and co-products from New Zealand pasture-fed Wagyu-dairy cross beef cattle.” Meat science 140 (2018): 26-37.