What does “grass-fed beef” really mean? And why should I care? (Part 1)

You’ve likely seen the terms “grass-fed”, “grass-finished”, “100% grass fed”, “natural”, “organic”, and “naturally-raised” when buying beef, and wondered what it all means.  And even more likely, you’ve probably wondered why it even matters.

Let’s start with why it matters.  Cattle that have eaten grass their entire lives have higher levels of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), and lower levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids.  Both fats are important in our diets, but the typical American diet can have ratios of omega-6s to omega-3s that range from 15:1 up to 50:1, and higher.  In an ideal diet, many integrative practitioners would like to see those ratios range from 2:1 to 5:1.  A diet that is high in omega-6s is considered highly inflammatory, and excess inflammatory processes have been implicated in a host of modern-day diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and more.  In addition, elevated omega-6 to omega-3 ratios are implicated in arthritis, muscle and joint pain, digestive disorders, allergies, and mental disorders, including depression, decreased brain development (especially important in children!), and cognitive decline.  One essential goal of many integrative and functional doctors and nutritionists is to bring the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio back into balance.  Foods that are high in omega-3s include wild-caught fatty fish, sea vegetables, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, egg yolks, and grass-fed beef.  There are many foods that are undesirably high in omega-6s, but the main culprits in our diet are conventional animal meats and dairy, some nuts and seeds, and vegetable oils.

Grass-fed beef contains much higher levels of omega-3s than grain-fed beef.  In fact, grass-fed beef has been found to contain anywhere from 2 to 5 times more omega-3s than conventional grain-fed beef.  For those of us working to increase our omega-3s, that is quite significant.  The average ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in grass-fed beef has been estimated as 2:1, whereas the average ratio in grain-fed beef has been estimated as 7:1.

Along with omega-3s, there are many other beneficial components in grass-fed beef.  It has better saturated fat profiles, increased levels of desirable conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and considerably higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.

Given what we know about the health benefits for people consuming grass-fed beef, why aren’t more ranchers and farmers raising 100% grass-fed beef?  Not only do grain-fed cattle have more marbling and are therefore given a higher USDA grade, but it is also estimated to be 17% cheaper to raise beef on grain than grass. Packing cattle into stalls and force-feeding them drugs and silage is simply cheaper.  But what is the cost to our nation’s health?  Follow us next week for Part 2 of this series, where we will have an in-depth discussion of conventional beef.  The final part of our series will demystify the labeling used to sell and market beef, and give you tips and tricks for purchasing the healthiest meats available.

Sarah is a Certified Nutrition Specialist (“CNS”), a national credential awarded by the Board for Certification of Nutrition Specialists (https://nutritionspecialists.org ) and a Licensed Dietician/Nutritionist in the state of Florida. She can be found at https://sarahgehawellness.com