Grass-Fed Beef: A Superfood worth the Premium Price

March 20, 2012 in Categories: , , by

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There are many excellent reasons to choose grass-fed meat over conventional, or grain-fed, meat (and don’t get me started on why the word “conventional” is used to describe meat from animals fed diets that are not native to that species).  From an animal welfare standpoint, grass-fed animals are treated better, happier and healthier.  The E. coli contamination of grass-fed meat is extremely low compared to conventional meat (in large part because pastured cows have healthy intestines!) in spite of the fact that, while antibiotic use is routine in CAFOs, antibiotics and hormones are not used at all in grass-fed animals (yay!).  From an environmental impact standpoint, eating grass-fed means supporting smaller (often local, family-owned) farms and thereby reducing fuel costs to get the meat to you.  And by avoiding grains in any part of your personal food chain, you avoid supporting large factory farms which degrade topsoil and leach fertilizers and pesticides into our rivers, lakes and oceans.

But it is the superfood status of grass-fed beef (or lamb or bison or goat… any ruminid) that makes the higher cost worth paying.

Red meat is typically recommended due to its high (complete) protein content, as well as being a good source of iron, zinc and many of the B Vitamins (including being a particularly valuable source of Vitamin B12).  This is, of course, still true for grass-fed meat.  Grass-fed meat tends to have a much lower water content than conventional meat and is much leaner overall than conventional meat (which means higher in protein!).  Plus, the fats that it does contain are much healthier.  Grass-fed meat contains approximately four times more omega-3 fatty acids (in the very useful DHA and EPA forms) than grain-fed meat.  It also contain far fewer omega-6 fatty acids so that the ratio of ometa-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in grass-fed meat is approximately 1:3 (but it’s closer to 1:20 in grain-fed meat).  Meat (and dairy) from grass-fed cows are the richest known source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), another very important, anti-inflammatory fatty acid.  Grass-fed beef is an excellent source of Vitamin A (10 times more than grain fed), Vitamin E (3 times more than grain fed) and is also higher in B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and potassium.  In fact, all of the health arguments against eating red meat do not apply to grass-fed meat.

I know grass-fed meat is more expensive.  Ground grass-fed beef typically runs about $6 per pound, which is about 50% more than conventional beef at the grocery store (although if you factor in the lower water content, it might be only about 30% more).  The tips for incorporating grass-fed meat into your diet are the same for any buying anything on a tight budget:  shop around, keep an eye out for coupons and sales, and when possible, buy in bulk.  Many farmers will sell you ¼-½ butchered cow, and while the initial investment (and freezer space requirement) is fairly steep, the price per pound can be as low as $2!  It’s also much more important to buy grass-fed meat for your cheaper, fattier cuts of meat.  So, if you are on a tight budget, buy your 75-85% ground beef from grass-fed sources, but buy leaner cuts from conventional sources.  I buy my grass-fed meat from several different producers: a wonderful local farmer, Grass-Fed Traditions (grassfedtraditions.com), US Wellness Meats (grasslandbeef.com), and Tendergrass Farms (tendergrassfarms.com). What I buy from which depends on price, promotions, and what I’m looking for.  US Wellness Meats has very good prices, outstanding variety, and is one of the few sources of grass-fed hotdogs, sausages and deli meats (like bologna!), but requires a minimum $75 and 7 pound order (but free shipping with a $7.50 handling fee).  Grass-Fed Traditions (a division of Tropical Traditions, which is my source for all things coconut) has higher prices in general but has amazing sales.  It also has no minimum order and flat-rate shipping (I often wait until meat is on sale at the same time as they have a free shipping promotion).  I keep a close eye on their homepage for sales and then stock up with a bigger order. Tendergrass Farms, which is actually a collection of small scale family-owned farms, is another great choice for pasture-raised pork, chicken and turkey and grass-fed beef.

One quick word of warning while you are shopping for grass-fed meat:  grass-fed means that the animals only eat grass for their entire lives (you may also see it described as “grass-fed and grass-finished”).  Some producers will “grain-finish” their meat in order to increase the size of the cattle and be somewhat cagey about this fact.  Also note that organic beef or lamb is not the same as grass-fed (although grass-fed is organic, it’s not necessarily true the other way around).  Some producers supplement with grain so the animals are “mostly grass-fed”, which is an improvement over conventional meat but hard to quantify just how much of an improvement. So, whether buying from a local farmer or your butcher, if you aren’t familiar with the producer, ask whether or not the meat is grass-finished.

Because ground meat is the cheapest way to incorporate grass-fed meat in your diet, I have been working on a bunch of new recipes using ground meat.  Look for the new section on the blog just for recipes using ground meat!

Comments

Sarah,
Great information on grass fed beef! You’ve stated very well the many health and nutritional benefits of this wonderful food.
As a grass fed and grass finished cattle rancher, it is nice to see someone who really does “get” the whole picture. And your assessment that some producers are indeed finishing their beef on grain and calling it “grass fed” is unfortunately correct. When finding a grass fed beef source it is always a good idea for the buyer to ask a lot of questions, especially about finishing. I would even suggest a visit if possible. We always enjoy showing visitors around our ranch and that’s the best way to see what is truly going on with your meat.

I’m hearing, “field trip” potential!!!

Where I live, I get to see the animals in the fields every day on my way to work, or when I go out to walk the dog. At night they bed down in a huge truckload of hay (that always seems to be gone by morning). They look so content in their little community.

Years ago, I was at a farm where the farmer pushed hay through a hole in the floor down into tightly packed animals covered in muck from having never gone outside. When I phoned the SPCA, they told me that was how beef were raised.

My beef is happy during their life time. That counts to me.

I just wanted to leave a quick comment about grass-fed versus grass-finished. If you buy your meat from a local farmer or one of the places you mentioned, then it is definitely grass-finished, but if you get it from a store (which many people have to do), then the meat can technically be grain-finished and still carry the grass-fed label. The only requirement is that the cows were not grain-fed for more than three months. Three months is more than enough time to reverse all the benefits of grass-fed meat. Several big producers get around the requirements this way.

So, have you ever heard of anyone who got migraines from eating meat? A niece of mine posted to her Facebook page, “I have not gone overboard with eating some meat and cheese the last week, but I can tell you that since I have, I have had more trouble sleeping, more allergies, and this headache. Screw moderation, plant based it is for me. I tried this meat/dairy thing for a bit this past summer and had the same result.”

A) She has celiac disease B) her grandmother was finally diagnosed as lactose intolerant. So, I can see giving up the grains and dairy. That seems like a no brainer, but I’ve never heard or read anything that supports the idea of meat being a cause of migraines. She said that when she ate meat that it was only grass fed and hormone free. I also noticed that she said she was eating both meat AND dairy and then gave them both up.

Which made me think that possibly she was only reacting to the dairy but as she was eating both when she had migraines and neither when she didn’t that she was associating a causative reaction to meat when there was none. I suggested she try doing an elimination diet that only introduces one potential food at a time and 1-2 weeks between additions to verify which foods were problematic. She says she did (though from how she talked about it, it sounded like she lumped meat and dairy into one group to be eliminated/reintroduced). She said saw the documentary Forks over Knives and said it made her decide to go vegan.

I’ve just never heard of animal protein being a cause of migraines before (though I know some people have allergic reactions to fish and shellfish) and that some celiacs report to feeling cross contaminated with gluten after eating conventional beef or chicken. Just curious what about grass fed meat that might cause migraines in someone.

My assumption would be the same as yours, that it’s the dairy causing the problem, not the grass-fed meat. It is possible that she has a food sensitivity to a type of meat though, which could cause migraines. In that case, she should reintroduce one type/species of meat at time or get food sensitivity testing done. My SIL is allergic to beef for example, but is okay with all other proteins. The movie Forks over Knives is so well done, in spite of all the flaws in the research it presents, that it misinformed many people. We need more paleo documentaries! :)

I’d like to know where to go to find $2/lb or even $3/lb grass-fed ground beef. The sites you linked to show much more expensive beef.

Hi Sarah,
A neighbor buys yearlings in the spring at auction and puts them on his grass until November (and we had two of his cows on our grass this year too). There’s no way to know if the yearlings were grassed or grained, though I would assume the latter. Have you seen andthing about the relative healthiness of this sort of grass finishing? Thanks!

I haven’t seen any comparisons going from grains to grass, but from grass to grains changes the fat composition in about a month. I would assume it’s a little slower for grains to grass (analogous to how much faster you can put on weight binging on sugar compared to losing weight by eating a clean diet), but I would think over 6 months there would be a vast improvement. I also think it’s standard for yearlings to get a mix of grass and grains and spend some time on pasture, so that should help too.

Thanks so much for your site Sarah — it is an absolute treasure trove of helpful information! I just ordered your book, and it may well be that it will answer my question, but what about research that links red meat consumption to cancer? Sorry, I don’t have the links handy, but I’m sure you’ve come across those studies. Thanks in advance!

Paul

Sarah is familiar with this topic, which comes from studies of diets that were high in red meat (including processed meats) and low in green vegetables. You can look at the show notes from an episode of The Paleo View, the topic is discussed in more detail: http://www.thepaleomom.com/2013/08/tpv-podcast-episode-50-paleo-philosophy-part-3.html You may also want to join our new The Paleo Approach Community group on Facebook, there are lots of great discussions on various Paleo/AIP topics. The group has over 4,000 members, you can request to join here:
https://www.facebook.com/groups/TPACommunity/
— Tamar, Sarah’s assistant

FYI. Probably the price $2 a pound doesn’t include shrinkage. You can ask the farmer or butcher what percentage the meat will shrink. That means you end up taking home less meat than what you start with. Generally comes out to $5-$6 a pound.

Hi Sarah! What questions should we ask our local farmer specifically? For instance, the type of hay, if I do purchase a local, grain finished beef – what questions can I ask about that? I think perhaps an article here would be great :) Thank you!

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