Guest Blog by Vicky Ware
Which is Better for You, Grass Fed or Grain Fed Meat?
You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘you are what you eat’ but might not have considered the fact that it also applies to the animals you eat – a better way of putting it might be ‘you are what the food you eat eats’.
I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that the nutrients in vegetables are different depending on the quality of soil they were grown in and in the same way the nutritional value of meat is different depending on what the animal ate when it was alive.
How healthy animals destined for the human food chain are, impacts human health later down the line. If the meat you’re eating came from the equivalent of a stressed out doughnut eating human, it’s not going to contain the nutrients of an animal that spent its life eating the foods nature intended. You might think that ‘organic’ meat means the animal had a healthy diet but this isn’t always the case. Let’s take a look at the difference between organic and grass fed meat and which is better for human health and the environment.
What is Organic Meat? What is Grass Fed Meat?
Each country has their own set of standards which foods have to meet if they are to be certified as ‘organic’. In the European Union organic meat cannot have been fed antibiotics or hormones during its production. However, it has not necessarily been grass fed 1.
Grass fed meat is from animals which were largely fed, you guessed it… grass. Animals destined for the meat market are usually fed on grain, which alters nutrients found in their meat possibly meaning they are a less healthy option in our diets. However, if the animal isn’t raised organically, it could have been fed antibiotics and hormones to improve meat production 2. There are worries that antibiotic use in farm animals could lead to the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria, making it difficult to treat human diseases 2. Organic grass fed meat gives the best of both worlds.
Does Grass Fed Meat Have Better Nutrient Values Than Grain Fed?
Grass fed beef contains fewer of the types of fats thought to raise cholesterol when eaten by humans 3. Grass fed also has a lower fat content than grain fed, meaning a leaner cut, giving you more protein per 100 grams of meat 3.
Research has also shown that grass fed beef contains more omega-3 fatty acids than grain fed beef 4. In general, our diets contain too few omega-3 fatty acids 5. While beef isn’t widely thought of as containing omega-3 fats, if raised on grass it contains the same proportion as some white fish. In fact, only grass-fed (not grain fed) beef contains enough omega-3 to be considered a source of these essential fats 6.
It’s not just the content of omega-3 which is important but the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in our diet – and grass fed beef has a good ratio, where grain fed does not 7.
Although both types of fat are important, we tend to eat too many omega-6 which results in our immune systems being tipped towards an inflammatory rather than anti-inflammatory response 8. Omega-6 fatty acids are the ‘building blocks’ the body needs to make inflammatory molecules, whereas omega-3 fats are the building blocks for anti-inflammatory molecules. Without the proper building blocks to produce anti-inflammatory molecules, your body can’t stop inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is a leading cause of disease in the Western world – asthma, allergies, autoimmune diseases, heart disease and cancer all stem from this imbalance of the immune system 9;10.
Animals such as cattle (and humans) cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, we have to eat them. Omega-3 fats are only produced by plants such as grass, which is why animals not fed on grass have less omega-3 in their muscles. Grain is not a good source of omega-3 fats, therefore animals which only eat grain are not a good source of omega-3 when we eat them.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid
Grass fed meat also has higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) 6. Eating more CLA has been shown to increase metabolism in humans – which may lead to less storage of body fat 11;12.
Dietary CLA has also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer – possibly because it is anti-inflammatory 13;14.
Vitamins and Minerals
Grass fed beef has been shown to have more zinc, sodium, vitamin B12 and iron than grain fed beef 4;15.
Grass fed beef is also much richer in the building blocks your body needs to build vitamin E and vitamin A 3. It also contains higher levels of cancer fighting antioxidants such as superoxide dismutase and glutathione than grain fed meat 3;16.
Which is Better for the Environment?
Unfortunately for those steak lovers out there, eating meat is very bad for the environment – especially red meat 17. In fact, if we all gave up eating beef it would be better for the environment than if we stopped driving cars 18.
Eating your daily calories in plant calories rather than animals is more ecologically friendly and eating chicken or pork rather than beef is also better for the environment 19;20.
Whether grass fed or grain fed, meat is a really complicated topic. Some research claims large feed-lots where thousands of cattle live in close quarters and are fed on grain are more efficient at producing beef, partly because corn fed cows produce less methane. Other research that takes factors such as the impact on the environment of long-term grassland farming compared to growing corn claims grass fed meat production is better for the environment 21.
Although grain fed meat still contains protein and nutrients that are great for health (after all, we do need to eat…), grass fed is better if you have the choice. Good quality grass fed and organic meat is more expensive than grain fed but is better quality. A diet high in red meat has been associated with a range of diseases, so although grass fed meat is more expensive than grain fed you could try keeping your meat budget the same but buying less meat, improving both your health and impact on the environment 22. Have you tried grass fed meat? Did you notice a difference in flavour? Let us know in the comments below!
Vicky has a degree in Biological Sciences with a focus on biochemistry and immunology and is currently studying for a MSc in Drug Discovery and Protein Biotechnology. She is also an endurance athlete.
- European Union, 2015. Agricultural and Rural Development: Organic Farming.
- Harvey, 2013. Is the rise in antibiotic use on farms a threat to humans?
- Daley, 2010. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
- Leheska, 2008. Effects of conventional and grass-feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef.
- Connor, 2000. Importance of n-3 fatty acids in health and disease.
- Ponnampalam, 2006. Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health.
- Simopoulos, 2002. The importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acids.
- Kiecolt-Glaser, 2007. Depressive symptoms, omega-6: omega-3 fatty acids, and inflammation in older adults.
- Thorburn, 2014. Diet, metabolites, and ‘western-lifestyle’ inflammatory diseases.
- Manzel, 2014. Role of ‘Western Diet’ in inflammatory autoimmune diseases.
- Whigham, 2007. Efficacy of conjugated linoleic acid for reducing fat mass: a meta-analysis in humans.
- Vaughan, 2012. Conjugated linoleic acid or omega 3 fatty acids increase mitochondrial biosynthesis and metabolism in skeletal muscle cells.
- Belury, 2002. Dietary conjugated linoleic acid in health: physiological effects and mechanisms of action.
- Dilzer, 2012. Implication of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in human health.
- Purchas, 2005. The effect of production system and age on levels of iron, taurine, carnosine, coenzyme Q(10), and creatine in beef muscles and liver.
- Descalzo, 2007. Antioxidant status and odour profile in fresh beef from pasture or grain-fed cattle.
- Hererro, 2013. Biomass use, production, feed efficiencies and greenhouse gas emissions from global livestock systems.
- Carrington, 2014. Giving up beef will reduce carbon footprint more than cars, says expert.
- Eshel, 2014. Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States.
- Scarborough, 2014. Dietary greenhouse gas emissions of meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans in the UK.
- The National Trust, 2013. Grass fed beef is best.
- Pan, 2013. Changes in red meat consumption and subsequent risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus: three cohorts of US men and women.
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