What does “grass-fed beef” really mean? And why should I care? (Part 3)

In last week’s post, we discussed how grass-fed beef has significantly higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fats, as well as containing considerably more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.  This week, let’s discuss all of the labels out there, and what they really mean when applied to beef.


Unfortunately, the word natural on packaging doesn’t really mean much.  This is a favorite term for marketers to use to make their food appear healthier.  Natural refers to the processing of the animal, and not to what it was fed.  “Natural” cattle can have antibiotics, steroids, and hormones.  The USDA defines natural by saying: “All raw single meat and poultry qualify as natural”.  They go on to say: “certain products labeled as natural may also contain a flavoring solution” and “the amount of solution added to products bearing the natural claims is not limited”.

“USDA Organic”

Beef that is certified USDA organic is not necessarily raised on grass.  While USDA Organic cattle must be fed certified organic feed (this means it would be non-GMO feed as well), that feed can be made up of corn and other grains.  However, organic cattle must legally be given access to pasture, so it is likely they eat at least a small amount of grass as well.  In addition, organic cattle cannot be given hormones or antibiotics, and may not be fed any animal by-products.

“Naturally raised”

Thankfully, the USDA has given “naturally raised” a legal definition as well.  “Naturally raised” in the US is akin to what “natural” means in many other countries.  When beef is naturally raised, it follows the standards called “never ever three”, or NE3.  This means an animal was given no by-products of other animals, no hormones or steroids, and no antibiotics.

This is a tough one to interpret, since it can mean varying amounts of grass were given to the cattle.  Basically, all cattle eat grass at some point in their lives, since grass is easiest for calves to digest, and even the most industrial feedlots give their calves grass.  Prior to 2016, when the USDA removed regulations around the term, “grass-fed” meant a lot more than it does now.  It is currently an unregulated term, and it can legally apply to a penned-in animal who eats hay and is given hormones, antibiotics, animal by-products, and steroids.

Many grass-fed cattle are grain-finished.  This means the animal is fed grass for most of its life, until a few weeks before slaughter when it’s switched to a grain diet.  Feeding cattle corn and grains increases the marbling, which also increases the USDA grading.  While the needed studies aren’t available yet, many believe that finishing cattle on grain negates most of the good that was done by feeding it grass its whole life up to that point.  So when a manufacturer labels their beef as grass-finished, they are letting you know that they did not switch their cattle to grain at the end of their lives, which is a good thing.

“100% grass-fed”

This label is the real deal.  The USDA offers an optional verification process for companies that want to use this label, and only companies that go through this verification are allowed to use the “100% grass fed” label.  While this is wonderful, and these cattle will have the desirable higher levels of omega-3s and other nutrients in their meat, it is also important to note that this does not mean the cattle weren’t given hormones and antibiotics (although antibiotic use is much far less common in cattle fed an all-grass diet, since the health of the animal is significantly improved when it’s eating what it is naturally adapted to eat).

Buying “naturally-raised”, “grass-finished” beef will likely get you closest to what you want to ideally eat.  “Organic” and “100% grass-fed”, if you can find it, will get you an excellent quality meat as well.  In addition, The American Grassfed Association is an industry group that requires cattle to be fed only grass and doesn’t allow hormones, antibiotics, or confinement of cattle.  If you find beef with this seal, you can feel confident about purchasing it.

Overwhelmed with all of these label terms?  One safe bet is to purchase bison.  Unlike cattle, we have yet to exploit our bison population, and basically all bison roam free, eat grass, and are not given hormones or antibiotics.  Bison meat has an excellent nutritional profile (including good levels of omega-3 fats) and is highly recommended for those looking for healthy red meat options.  New Zealand lamb is another healthy choice for red meat, as it is all grass-fed and hormone and antibiotic free.  Domestic lamb, however, has the same concerns as conventionally-raised domestic beef and should be avoided.

While we here at Origins generally recommend a plant-heavy moderate Paleo diet for most people, we strongly suggest limiting your meat intake to only meat of the highest quality while on any dietary program.  When you can’t find 100% grass-fed beef, pastured poultry, naturally-raised heritage pork, New Zealand lamb, or bison, we recommend avoiding conventionally-raised meat completely.

Here are some online sellers that carry 100% grass-fed beef:


Here is a wonderful online resource for finding local farms and community-supported agriculture (CSAs):


And here are some options for purchasing 100% grass-fed beef in Central Florida:


Credit: Much of this information comes from “Real Food Fake Food” by Larry Olmsted, a book I highly recommend.



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