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 three different producers: a wonderful local farmer, Grass-Fed Traditions (grassfedtraditions.com) and US Wellness Meats (grasslandbeef.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.
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!