If You Eat Beef, Eat Grass-Fed Beef Only.

Via William Harryman
on Mar 13, 2010
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Relephant bonus: Grass-fed is far better than factory farming, which should be a common enemy of vegans and meat eaters and environmentalists alike.


I’m aware that a lot of readers here do not eat meat, either for religious reasons (Buddhist), ethical reasons (animals are more sentient than we are taught), or environmental reasons (traditional meat raising damages the environment in many ways). Still, I eat meat, and sometimes (about once a week or less), I eat beef – grass fed beef.

A new study reveals the health benefits of grass-fed beef that many of us already knew about, but which has not yet permeated mainstream culture. Nutrition Journal (an open source publisher) recently posted A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef, a study by Cynthia A Daley, Amber Abbott, Patrick S Doyle, Glenn A Nader. and Stephanie Larson. Here is the abstract:

Nutrition Journal 2010, 9:10doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10

Published: 10 March 2010

Abstract (provisional)

Growing consumer interest in grass-fed beef products has raised a number of questions with regard to the perceived differences in nutritional quality between grass-fed and grain-fed cattle. Research spanning three decades suggests that grass-based diets can significantly improve the fatty acid (FA) composition and antioxidant content of beef, albeit with variable impacts on overall palatability. Grass-based diets have been shown to enhance total conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) (C18:2) isomers, trans vaccenic acid (TVA) (C18:1 t11), a precursor to CLA, and omega-3 (n-3) FAs on a g/g fat basis. While the overall concentration of total SFAs is not different between feeding regimens, grass-finished beef tends toward a higher proportion of cholesterol neutral stearic FA (C18:0), and less cholesterol-elevating SFAs such as myristic (C14:0) and palmitic (C16:0) FAs. Several studies suggest that grass-based diets elevate precursors for Vitamin A and E, as well as cancer fighting antioxidants such as glutathione (GT) and superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity as compared to grain-fed contemporaries. Fat conscious consumers will also prefer the overall lower fat content of a grass-fed beef product. However, consumers should be aware that the differences in FA content will also give grass-fed beef a distinct grass flavor and unique cooking qualities that should be considered when making the transition from grain-fed beef. In addition, the fat from grass-finished beef may have a yellowish appearance from the elevated carotenoid content (precursor to Vitamin A). It is also noted that grain-fed beef consumers may achieve similar intakes of both n-3 and CLA through the consumption of higher fat grain-fed portions.

If you don’t speak science-geek, this may not mean much to you, so let me break it down a bit, into info you can use.

First, let’s look at saturated fat content. In traditional feedlot beef, the saturated fat levels are quite high, and there is considerable evidence that an imbalance of dietary cholesterol and fats are the primary cause of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease (CVD) [1]. Grass-fed beef is higher in tends to be healthier in this respect.

Here is a summary of the fat content of grain-fed beef (traditional beef):

animal fats contribute approximately 60% of the SFA in the American diet, most of which are palmitic acid (C16:0) and stearic acid (C18:0). Stearic acid has been shown to have no net impact on serum cholesterol concentrations in humans[17,19]. In addition, 30% of the FA content in conventionally produced beef is composed of oleic acid (C18:1) [20], a monounsaturated FA (MUFA) that elicits a cholesterol-lowering effect among other healthful attributes including a reduced risk of stroke and a significant decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure in susceptible populations [21].

Based on this summary, even traditional beef seems less the health scourge that so many claim it is. However, the real issue is in the saturated fatty acids (SFA):

For instance, lauric acid (C12:0) and myristic acid (C14:0), have a greater total cholesterol raising effect than palmitic acid (C16:0), whereas stearic acid (C18:0) has a neutral effect on the concentration of total serum cholesterol, including no apparent impact on either LDL or HDL. Lauric acid increases total serum cholesterol, although it also decreases the ratio of total cholesterol:HDL because of a preferential increase in HDL cholesterol [5,7,9].

Grass fed beef is higher in stearic acid, which has no real effect on serum cholesterol levels. Grain fed beef is higher in lauric acid, palmitic acid, and myristic acid, the more harmful fatty acids associated with heart disease and high cholesterol levels raising the risk for heart attack and stroke. Further, the study reports on research by Garcia et al (2008), showing that grass fed beef contains 40.3 of cholesterol/100 grams of tissue and grain fed beef  contains 45.8 grams of cholesterol/100 grams of tissue, not a huge difference, but statistically important.

However, in terms of oleac acid, an omega-9 fatty acid associated with reductions in heart disease risk, grain fed beef does better, sort of.

Interestingly, grain-fed beef consistently produces higher concentrations of MUFAs as compared to grass-fed beef, which include FAs such as oleic acid (C18:1 cis-9), the primary MUFA in beef. A number of epidemiological studies comparing disease rates in different countries have suggested an inverse association between MUFA intake and mortality rates to CVD [3,21]. Even so, grass-fed beef provides a higher concentration of TVA (C18:1 t11), an important MUFA for de novo synthesis of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA: C18:2 c-9, t-11), a potent anti-carcinogen that is synthesized within the body tissues [37].

This is where the differences in health outcomes may become most obvious. CLA is gaining more and more attention for its health benefits (from being anti-cancer to helping with weight loss). There are many isomers of CLA, and it remains unclear which ones are the most beneficial, although the “cis-9, trans-11 CLA isomer,” which accounts for up to 80-90% of the total CLA in grain fed beef, is one of the most studied and beneficial isomers.

The authors of this study point out that dietary intake of CLA should consider “native 9c11t-C18:2 (actual CLA) as well as the 11t-C18:1 (potential CLA) content of foods,” because the human body can convert this potential CLA, known as TVA, to CLA at a rate of 19 to 30% [64]. The highest levels of CLA c9t11 and TVA in meat is generated through a diet high in grasses and “lush green forages.”

Here is a section from the study on the health benefits of CLA:

Optimal dietary intake remains to be established for CLA. It has been hypothesized that 95 mg CLA/day is enough to show positive effects in the reduction of breast cancer in women utilizing epidemiological data linking increased milk consumption with reduced breast cancer[85]. Ha et al. (1989) published a much more conservative estimate stating that 3 g/day CLA is required to promote human health benefits[86]. Ritzenthaler et al(2001) estimated CLA intakes of 620 mg/day for men and 441 mg/day for women are necessary for cancer prevention[87]. Obviously, all these values represent rough estimates and are mainly based on extrapolated animal data. What is clear is that we as a population do not consume enough CLA in our diets to have a significant impact on cancer prevention or suppression. Reports indicate that Americans consume between 150 to 200 mg/day, Germans consumer slightly more between 300 to 400 mg/day[87], and the Australians seem to be closer to the optimum concentration at 500 to 1000 mg/day according to Parodi (1994) [88].

There is obviously no agreement on how much CLA we need, but the consensus is that we do get enough in the American diet.

Other Benefits

Grass fed beef tends to be higher in pro-Vitamin A/β-carotene, which is a powerful antioxidant. This may change the color of the fat, making it more yellowish, which is one way to differentiate grass fed from grain fed beef.

Grass fed beef is also higher in the antioxidant vitamin E. It turns out that this is a good thing for us, as one of the things that vitamin E can do is prevent omega-3 fats from becoming rancid. Grass fed beef is much higher is omega-s fats than grain fed beef.

In fact, the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids in grass fed beef is 1:2, which is the ideal ratio for the human diet (this is also true of eggs and meat from chicken raised on grass fed diets). The current American diet is generally 1:10 at best to 1:30 at worst in the omega-3:omega-6 ratio. This imbalance in the diet has been associated with a range of health issues, from high cholesterol, risk of stroke, cancer, ADHD, depression, and even autism. We need more omega-3 fats, and grass fed beef is a good source.

Finally, grass fed beef is high in Glutathione (GT), an antioxidant produced naturally in the liver, but also available from food sources. Research in this area is new, but we know that “dairy products, eggs, apples, beans, and rice contain very little GT (< 3.3 mg/100g).” However, “fresh vegetables (e.g., asparagus 28.3 mg/100g) and freshly cooked meats, such as ham and beef (23.3 mg/100g and 17.5 mg/100g, respectively), are high in GT [113]”.

Because GT compounds are elevated in lush green forages, grass-fed beef is particularly high in GT as compared to grain-fed contemporaries. Descalzo et al. (2007) reported a significant increase in GT molar concentrations in grass-fed beef [114].

So the take away knowledge here is this:

1. While grass fed and grain fed beefs have comparable levels of saturated fat, the SFA in grain fed beef are associated his health risks that are not present in grass fed beef.

2. Grass fed beef is much higher in CLA and TVA (a CLA precursor) than is grain fed beef, and CLA has been associated with body composition changes for the better and decreased risk of various cancers.

3. Grass fed beef is much higher in antioxidants, including vitamin A precursors, vitamin E, and glutathione.

4. Grass fed beef has the optimal 2:1 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats that we need in the human diet.

So if you eat meat, and if you like beef, make sure you are eating grass fed beef. It’s healthier, it’s more organic, and it’s more sustainable. But try to limit your consumption to once a week (or less) – even if it’s more sustainable, it’s a land intensive way to produce our food.

References (in order presented here):

[1] Griel AE, Kris-Etherton PM. Beyond saturated fat: The importance of the dietary fatty acid profile on cardiovascular disease. Nutrition Reviews 2006;64(5):257-62.

[20] Whetsell MS, Rayburn EB, and Lozier JD. Human Health Effects of Fatty Acids in Beef. Fact Sheet: West Virgina University & U.S.D.A.Agriculture Research Service. 2003. Extension Service West Virginia University. Ref Type: Electronic Citation

[21] Kris-Etherton PM. Monounsaturated fatty acids and risk of cardiovascular disease. Circulation 1999;100:-1253.

[5] Mensink RP, Katan MB. Effect of dietary fatty acids on serum lipids and lipoproteins. Arteriosclerosis Thrombosis Vascular Biology 1992;12:911-9.

[7] Mensink RP, Zock PL, Kester AD, Katan MB. Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: A meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2003;77:1146-55.

[9] Kris-Etherton PM YS. Individual fatty acid effects on plasma lipids and lipoproteins. Human studies. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1997;65(suppl.5):1628S-44S.

[3] Hu FB, Stampfer MJ, Manson JE, Rimm E, Colditz GA, Rosner BA, Hennekins CH, Willett WC. Dietary fat intake and the risk of coronary heart disease in women. New England Journal of Medicine 1997;337:1491-9.

[37] Bauman DE and Lock AL. Conjugated linoleic acid: biosynthesis and nutritional significance. Fox and McSweeney. Advanced Dairy Chemistry 3rd[2], 93-136. 2006. Springer, New York, 2006. Ref Type: Serial (Book,Monograph)

[64] Turpeinen AM, Mautanen M, Aro A, Salminen I, Basu S, Palmquist DL. Bioconversion of vaccenic acid to conjugated linoleic acid in humans. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2002;76:504-10.

[85] Knekt P, Jarvinen R, Seppanen R, Pukkala E, Aromaa A. Intake of dairy products and the risk of breast cancer. British Journal of Cancer 1996;73:687-91.

[86] Ha YL, Grimm NK, Pariza MW. Newly recognized anticarcinogenic fatty acids: identification and quantification in natural and processed cheese. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 1989;37:75-81.

[87] Ritzenthaler KL, McGuire MK, Falen R, Shultz TD, Dasgupta N, McGuire MA. Estimation of conjugated linoleic acid intake by written dietary assessment methodologies underestimates actual intake evaluated by food duplicate methodology. Journal of Nutrition 2001;131:1548-54.

[88] Parodi PW. Conjugated linoleic acid: an anticarcinogenic fatty acid present in milk fat (review). Australian Journal of Dairy Technology 1994;49(2):93-7.

[113] Valencia E, Marin A, Hardy G. Glutathione – Nutritional and Pharmacologic Viewpoints: Part IV. Nutraceuticals 2001;17:783-4.

[114] Descalzo AM, Rossetti L, Grigioni G, Irurueta M, Sancho AM, Carrete J, Pensel NA. Antioxidant status and odor profile in fresh beef from pasture or grain-fed cattle. Meat Science 2007;75:299-307.


About William Harryman

I am a writer/editor, fitness trainer, integral coach, and a graduate counseling psychology student. I blog at Integral Options Cafe and The Masculine Heart. I am an occasional contributor to Elephant Journal.


18 Responses to “If You Eat Beef, Eat Grass-Fed Beef Only.”

  1. Jim Tolstrup says:

    I eat buffalo. I do feel bad about the death of the animal but I also feel that it Iis like voting for what you want to see on the landscape. Buffalo roamed the prairie before the whiteman came and they provided a larger meat source than all of the feedlots today combined, without damaging the eco-system. In fact buffalo are a keystone species of prairie ecology. Anyone who says that eating vegetarian does less damage to the eco-system than eating meat is not taking into consideration the fact the plow almost completely obliterated the native prairie plant community, whereas grazing does not.

  2. don says:

    I eat squirrel meat. much better for you than cow. Try it, you might just like it.

  3. Thanks for the education, Bill.

  4. Jim,

    I eat buffalo, too – I'm not sure how much of it is grass fed anymore, now that it is a commodity. I do know it cannot be treated with steroids or antibiotics, which is good.

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  7. Pat says:

    In #1, you have a typo: 1. While grass fed and grain fed beefs have comparable levels of saturated fat, the SFA in grain fed beef are associated his health risks that are not present in "grain fed beef."

    I think you meant "grass" fed beef on the last one. Makes a dif.

  8. d'oh!

    THANKS Pat! Yes, that typo does make a difference.

  9. cccleaned says:

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  10. Blake says:

    If it's bison, it's grass fed.

  11. Great information. I never knew there was such a difference in grain vs. grass fed beef. How does one know, or how can one tell if the beef is grass or grain fed? I am very interested in being able to tell the difference.

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  14. A Buddhist says:

    Only Buddhist Mahayana for people who revere Guanyin will not eat beef. (not that other Buddhist not revere Guanyin) and of course those who choose to not eat meat. Just want to clarify that the Buddha never prohibited eating meat as he said it's neither a necessary or sufficient condition to nirvana. It can help enhance compassion but is NEITHER a necessary NOR sufficient condition.

  15. Lauren says:

    The Dalai Lama eats beef, so it's not a religious issue. As a matter of fact, few 'native' Buddhists from Tibet, India, or elsewhere, practice vegetarianism/veganism. This is a western cultural phenomenon.

  16. oz_ says:

    The key to understanding how meat eating affects heart health lies in understanding inflammation (i.e. the cholesterol theory has been shown to be flat out false in the absence of chronic inflammation) – which is astonishingly not mentioned once in this article. Read:

    Heart surgeon speaks out on what really causes heart disease

    "Forget the "science" that has been drummed into your head for decades. The science that saturated fat alone causes heart disease is non-existent. The science that saturated fat raises blood cholesterol is also very weak. Since we now know that cholesterol is not the cause of heart disease, the concern about saturated fat is even more absurd today.

    The cholesterol theory led to the no-fat, low-fat recommendations that in turn created the very foods now causing an epidemic of inflammation. Mainstream medicine made a terrible mistake when it advised people to avoid saturated fat in favor of foods high in omega-6 fats. We now have an epidemic of arterial inflammation leading to heart disease and other silent killers."

  17. oz_ says:

    Absolutely untrue. I spoke with the president of Rocky Mountain Natural Meats – which provides all the bison to local Whole Foods, King Soopers, etc in the Denver area, and here is what he said (quoting from personal correspondence):

    "All Bison in North America are born on pasture without man’s assistance and spend their first 15-20 months on pasture in a free range situation. The breeding herds (cows and bulls) spend their entire lives on pasture. The young animals are fed some grain prior to harvest for approximately 100 to 150 days. Their diet in the last few months is typically 60% grain and 40% grass hay. This is the finishing process. All Bison are raised without the use of animal by-products, antibiotics or added hormones. Bison do not handle the high levels of grain that are fed to beef cattle. Typically cattle eat an 85 % grain diet during the feeding period in confinement."

    That said, from an ethical and ecological perspective, AND from a health perspective, bison is far superior to beef. Because bison are a keystone species, there mere presence in the Great Plains serves the function of ecosystem restoration – whereas cattle destroy those same ecosystems. To understand this better, read:

    Buffalo for the Broken Hearted, by Dan O'Brien

    From a health perspective, if we take a snapshot of omega 6:omega 3 ratio (again, quoting from personal correspondence):

    The first ratio is whole muscle and the second ratio is for ground product at 90% lean (85% lean for the grain fed beef):
    Grain fed Bison 3.25:1 / 4.4:1
    Grain fed Beef 6:1 / 7.9:1
    Grass fed Beef 3.8:1 / 4.8:1

    Note there is no number for grass-fed bison, as these ranchers do not produce grass-fed bison and so cannot test for it. It's quite likely that the ratio for grass fed animals would be as far superior as it is for cattle. This is why I order my bison from the Wild Idea Buffalo Company in South Dakota, which not only features 100% grass fed bison, but also practices 100% pasturing/free range plus humane harvesting. I highly recommend it for health, ethical and ecological reasons.