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Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed


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grass fed vs grain fed, why grass fed meat is better
There are great benefits to eating grass-fed meat. istock.com/Photitos2016

This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.

In my recent post on red meat, I showed you why red meat of any kind is a healthy choice, and doesn’t deserve the bad reputation that it’s given by the media and mainstream medical establishment. But although conventional beef won’t give you cancer and is an important source of highly bioavailable nutrients, we can’t ignore the fact that grass-fed meat is still superior to grain-fed.

The classic idiom “you are what you eat” applies just as well to cows as it does to humans, and there are some pretty significant differences in the quality of red meat based on how the animal was fed. I’ve talked about this in the past here, here, and here, but this post will give you a more detailed summary on why grass-fed meat is a better choice than grain-fed.

Grass-fed vs. grain-fed: it goes way beyond omega-3s! Tweet This

Fatty Acid Composition

I mentioned in my previous post that the ratio of saturated to monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fat in beef stays about the same regardless of what the animal is fed. (1)Those ratios might shift slightly depending on the animal’s diet, but the shifts are still relatively small. On average, grass-fed beef tends to have slightly lower levels of MUFA and slightly higher levels of PUFA than grain-fed, but these differences are at most five percentage points, depending on the breed of cattle and the study in question. So regardless of whether your beef is grain-fed or grass-fed, you’ll be getting about 40-50% saturated fat, about 40-50% monounsaturated fat, and somewhere near 10% polyunsaturated fat.

However, the diet of the cow does significantly influence the types of each fat present. Within the broad categories of SFA, MUFA, and PUFA, there are several individual fatty acids with different chemical compositions, and each has unique effects on the body.

Omega-3 and Omega-6

The two fatty acids you’re probably most familiar with are our old friends omega-3 and omega-6, both of which are PUFAs. This might come as a surprise, but the most current research indicates that beef contains consistent levels of omega-6 regardless of diet. (2) This is good news if you can’t afford grass-fed beef, because at least grain-fed beef won’t slam you with more omega-6 than you can compensate for. What you’ll be missing out on are the significantly higher levels of omega-3s found in grass-fed beef. (3) Depending on the breed of cow, grass-fed beef contains between 2 and 5 times more omega-3s than grain-fed beef, and the average ratio of n-6:n-3 in grass fed beef is 1.53:1. In grain fed beef, this ratio jumps all the way up to 7.65:1.

Saturated Fat

While I’m not particularly concerned about saturated fat of any kind, it’s worth noting the differences in SFA composition of grain-fed vs. grass-fed meat. There are three main types of saturated fat found in red meat: stearic acid, palmitic acid, and myristic acid. (4) Grass-fed beef consistently contains a higher proportion of stearic acid, which even the mainstream scientific community acknowledges does not raise blood cholesterol levels. (5) This higher proportion of stearic acid means that grass-fed beef also contains lower proportions of palmitic and myristic acid, which are more likely to raise cholesterol.

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Conjugated Linoleic Acid

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a type of PUFA that is found naturally in milk and meat products, primarily from ruminants such as cows or sheep. As I’ve explained before, CLA exhibits potent antioxidant activity, and research indicates that CLA might be protective against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Beef is one of the best dietary sources of CLA, and grass-fed beef contains an average of 2 to 3 times more CLA than grain-fed beef. (6)This is because grain-based diets reduce the pH of the digestive system in ruminant animals, which inhibits the growth of the bacterium that produces CLA. It’s interesting to note that as a whole, Americans consume far less CLA than people from countries such as Australia, where grass-fed beef tends to be the rule rather than the exception.

Antioxidants, Vitamins and Minerals

Another reason grass-fed meat surpasses grain-fed is that it contains considerably more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, are precursors to vitamin A that are found as pigments in plants. Grain-fed beef does not contain appreciable levels of carotenoids, for the simple reason that grains don’t contain them. However, cows that eat carotenoid-rich grass and forage incorporate significant amounts of these compounds into their tissues. These carotenoids make the fat from grass-fed beef more yellow than the fat from grain-fed beef, so fat color can be a good indicator of how nutrient-rich your meat is. (7)

Grass-fed beef also contains significantly more of the antioxidants vitamin E, glutathione, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and catalase than grain-fed beef. (8) These antioxidants play an important role in protecting our cells from oxidation, especially delicate fats in the cell membrane such as omega-3 and omega-6. (9)

Antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta-carotene also work together synergistically to protect the meat itself from damage during the journey from butcher to plate. (10) These antioxidants are especially important if you choose to fry or grill your meat, because those high-heat cooking methods can be more damaging to meat than wet or low-heat methods such as stewing or braising.

Grass-fed beef also contains higher levels of the beneficial nutrients I discussed in my last red meat post, including zinc, iron, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium. (11) It’s safe to say that grass-fed meat gives you more bang for your buck on all fronts, with its significantly higher levels of omega-3s, antioxidants, minerals, and other important nutrients.

Other Types of Red Meat

Although I’ve primarily referenced research on beef in this post, the benefits of pasture-raised meat extend to red meat from other animals as well. For example, several studies show that the meat and milk of grass-fed lambs is significantly higher in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid than the meat and milk of grain-fed lambs. (12, 13, 14) Another study shows that the fatty acid composition of grass-fed bison is similar to that of grass-fed beef, and both contain higher levels of omega-3s and CLA than that of grain-fed bison. (15)

I hope it’s clear by now that when it comes to red meat, quality makes a big difference. However, I realize that price is a common concern, and not everyone can afford grass-fed meat. That’s why I made it a point in the last post to focus on why even conventional red meat is a healthy choice. Just remember that grass-fed red meat is more nutrient dense than grain-fed, so even though grass-fed is more expensive, you’re getting more nutritional bang for your buck. And although it wasn’t the topic of this post, it’s always worth considering the ethical and environmental implications of grain-fed vs. grass-fed meat. If you’re looking for an easy, convenient way to purchase great quality meat, I recommend ButcherBox.

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Join the conversation

  1. We recently converted our cow/calf operation to a grass-finished operation from a grass feed operation. One of our sons had been telling us about the heath benefits of grass-finished beef for several years. We researched this and started converting our operation over. We are hopeful the grass finished beef market will continue to grow as more folks discover the health advantages of grass-finished over grass-fed/grain finished beef.

    • The big question is about the Monsanto engineered corn and grain that are fed to cows. Cows were never meant to eat corn and certainly not the GMO grains . A grass fed beef isbetter for you and the environment. GMO altering changes our body chemistry and DNA

  2. Is grass fed beef really more expensive? I buy ground grass fed beef from a local farmer at $5.00 a pound. According to the Department of Labor Statistics, a pound of uncooked conventional beef doesn’t cost much less than that, if not the same. When I cook my grass fed beef, there is no leftover fat to drain off. Not even a smidgen. All of that pound is eaten by my family. I recall that when I used to buy conventional beef, I always had to drain at least a quarter of the total weight of that beef and discard it. Most people don’t eat this fat, it isn’t very attractive unless you’re going to add it to some baked good and I rarely bake. I’ve concluded that I actually pay less for my ground beef when I buy it from the source. I’ve been to his farm several times, I know his cattle are well cared for, healthy and never fed corn.
    I’d like to know the content of that fat that generally ends up as refuse from corn fed beef.

    • Conventional ground beef, for example, can often be found for 2 to 3 bucks a pound. The cheapest grass fed ground beef I’ve ever seen is $6/pound (a lot of it is around $10/pound, sometimes even $15/pound, yes – for ground beef, not steak). So yes, grass fed beef is considerably more expensive. 2 to 3 times more expensive, or in the case of some people 5 times more expensive. The real price of meat comes out when it comes from people who have to do everything themselves and who don’t get big subsidies from the government for corn feed and for simply being a corporation that has the rights of a “person” but virtually none of the responsibility. Oh, and don’t forget money is also now officially “speech” as applies to the constitution, according to our infinitely wise (and infinitely un-ashamed of open corruption) Supreme Court.

      • Those prices will vary regionally. In the northern midwest we have grass-fed beef store prices of $6-$7 a pound and a little cheaper purchased farm direct.

    • Your comment about how much fat is in the hamburger is irrelevant to the beef it was taken from (grain fed or grass fed). The amount of fat in ground beef has to do with how much fat the butcher adds to the ground beef. Store bought usually has more added so they can increase the weight of the beef to add to profits. If bought from local farmer they will usually ask the butcher to add only what is necessary. (Hence lean ground beef)

  3. I had a TBI (traumatic brain injury) and was told to have grass fed beef every day to help. I did so for a year and developed a fibroid and with the help medical professionals concluded that the estrogens in the meat was the cause as that was the only change I’d made in the last year to cause a new fibroid to develop when I had no fibroid before. I stopped eating meat but I am again feeling called to add it back. Also, being a child of the 70s, I still have it in my mind that saturated fat is bad. And so, are you aware of estrogens in grass-fed beef, how much and how often is wise from from brain standpoint, and should I eat the fat or drain it? Thank you.

    • Sorry, I meant to say lamb, not beef. I am only considering grass-fed lamb. Also, my question was about how much grass-fed lamb and how often is it recommended to assist the brain with the good nutrients. Thank you!

      • Are you certain that it was really the grass fed beef that led to your fibroid? There are numerous environmental and dietary xenoestrogens that could be to blame. It’s nearly impossible to avoid them. They’re in skin creams, medications, processed foods, plastics…heck! They’re even in the water that you drink! I doubt it was the grass fed beef that was to blame.
        I try to eat at least one good source of beneficial fats and omega 3s every day for my health. I’m careful about the sources of my meat and my red meat is always grass fed. I was researching TBI recently for a friend who was in a terrible motorcycle accident. There is new evidence that fish oil can be of tremendous benefit in TBI recovery. Not all fish oil is created the same. Fermented cod liver oil is thought to be the best. High quality krill oil is better than most fish oils. Most of the fish oil you buy at large chain stores is so purified and altered that it offers little benefit.

    • Estrogens are growth hormones administerred to beef to make them fat faster. If grassfed beef is finshed with GMO monsanto corn to fatten them up they will contain unnatural chemicals that will alter your DNA

    • There is a huge difference between grass fed and *grass* finished versus grass fed and *grain* finished, Grain finished beef is most certainly with Monsato GM corn/grains, which greatly diminishes all the good the grass feeding had accomplished before introducing corn/grains to the finishing process).
      One needs to research even contact the farm to see what the finishing process is.

      • I am curious as to whether or not the research on grain fed beef includes all grain or primarily corn. In the USA, most beef is fed corn. In western Canada, most beef is grass fed BUT is supplemented with small amounts of chopped mixed grains such as oats, wheat, etc. Does any of the research look at these grains?

    • Hi there !
      I think you can get far too much proteins that way! Too much proteins are insulin promoting and insulin promotes tumour growth! You must add salads and (best) raw greens, maybe lightly steamed with very little water and then quickly soaked in real butter before served. Many vitamins in greens are fat soluble. Otherwise find out what a ketoginic diet is. It has helped against bith epilepsy and brain injury as it provides an alternative fuel, ketones. Gooogle epilepsy with ketoginic diet! Also google LCHF !

  4. I will accept your explanation that Beef Tallow measured in the W A Price data is not representative of the overall concentration of PUFAs in beef, even though the explanation is far from “obvious” to me. But you did not address the USDA data. This USDA data, http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/7418?fg=&man=&lfacet=&count=&max=25&sort=&qlookup=23568&offset=&format=Full&new=1&measureby= indicates that PUFAs are only 3.4% of total Fat. Again I ask, Why do you accept the numbers for PUFAs (7.95% and 9.31%) in your study vs. the USDA data (3.4%) for PUFAs. At a PUFA level of 3.4%, Beef is not a significant source of PUFAs. And, I never disputed the much more favorable Omega 6/Omega 3 ratio of grass fed vs. grain fed beef, I find your long lecture on that topic distracting.

  5. There seems to be an enormous variation in %PUFAs in the study you cite (7.95% for grass fed, 9.31% for grain fed), The USDA data (approx. 3%), and this analysis (1.9% for grass fed, 3.45% for grain fed) http://www.westonaprice.org/know-your-fats/fatty-acid-analysis-of-grass-fed-and-grain-fed-beef-tallow. Your Omega 3 argument for eating Grass Fed Beef is not supported by the lower PUFAs. That is not to say that there are not other reasons to eat grass fed beef, just that Beef is not, according to the other data, a significant source of PUFAs, and thus the Ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 in beef is not so critical. Why do you accept the numbers for PUFAs in your study vs. the other data available?

    • John D;Just found reference to this W A Price study in comment made on Chris Kresser’s post re why grassfed trumps grain fed beef.
      I would like to point out that the study and analysis only relates to beef fat rendered as tallow which obviously is a concentration of the saturated fats that solidify at room temperature. It is comparing parts to the whole and distorts the whole. Even in this the Omega 3 value is 4 times higher in the grass fed. The following cut & pasted from the text of the article spells this out; “Grass-fed tallow had 45 percent less total PUFA, 66 percent less omega-6 linoleic acid, and four times more omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was over sixteen for the grain-fed tallow but only 1.4 for the grass-fed tallow. Whatever the ratios, beef tallow is not a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, with only 3.45 percent in grain-fed and 1.9 percent of the total in grass-fed”. (therefore the inflammatory Omega 6 is 16 time out of balance in the grain fed and the real problem)
      We are only comparing TALLOW here and not the whole. For example Hyman and Cordain et.al. have grass fed and grain fed Omega 3’s set at an average of 61mg/g and 45mg/g respectively with wild big game, seasonally fat ruminants, elk etc at over 200mg/g.
      Many grass fat beef test in this +200 mg range in the ground beef trim with the 6;3 ratio a little over 1 to 1. Independent tests on our beef corroborate this at 217mg/g in the ground and with some cuts much higher. e.g. shank meat with the marrow bone in tests almost 900mg/g in Omega 3 and 1200mg/g of CLA. As a rule of thumb the more work the muscle cut does, the higher the Omega 3’s in balance with Omega 6’s. All in all the properly fed/finished grass fat beef tests around the world at 3 to 5 times greater value than grain fed in Omega 3’s and vitamins in the fat profile. This includes vitamins A,D,E,and K. Vitamin D is in fact packaged sunshine to see the animal through long winters and in turn very beneficial to humans.
      Properly fattened pastured beef is equal to or better than most fish, with the best cuts as good as the best cold water oily fish As always all of the facts must be considered, not just partial truths which distort the whole and lead to false conclusions.

  6. I purchase grass fed beef only due to medical circumstances. I had given up red meat for years and recently started purchasing it again. The difference in taste between conventionally raised and grass-fed organically raised beef is unbelievable! The grass-fed tastes more like what I’d had as a child. I cannot go back to conventionally raised meats at this point, but to be honest, if I could, I wouldn’t want to! There’s that much of a difference!

    • Christa, You are not alone in your comment. I have been retailing our grass fattened beef now for ten years to many health challenged customers. Many express their experience in virtually the same words you use. In fact two fairly recent customers today did, one with an autistic child and the other alleviating arthritis pains. Such comments give great satisfaction after years of ridicule in the industry which continues in the mainstream. The truth is starting to be revisited through the work of Chris Kresser and increasing numbers. Food is medicine, is becoming Food is poison due to modern industrial methods and chemical farming. We must return to working with nature and the beneficial synergies of grassland/ruminant animal husbandry as has happened a number of times during the history of civilization. We either work holistically in nature or it will be forced upon us through disease and pestilence. I trust and hope that modern communications will lead to collective wisdom and change before it is forced upon the many by the foolishness of few in pursuit of the riches of trade.

  7. Apologies if this has been covered in the string of comments (not had time to read through everything), but I wondered if anyone has any thoughts or experience on eating chicken or duck who is also on a gluten / dairy free diet?

    I’m just starting out on a Paleo diet and have completely quit all grains and dairy. Beef I should be able to source grass fed, but I havent a clue what else farm reared ducks or chickens would eat if it wasnt corn or grain!

    I’d be very interested if there are any people out there on grain free diets who still eat corn fed chicken or duck, do you have any side effects…..


  8. The focus of my interest is on the relative amount of Omeg 3s and Omeg 6s in diferent types of milk, since milk and dairy produst are my main source of fats. I woul dlik to eat airy products from animals fed on grass but I have found that it is very difficult to find out from producers of organic milk, yogurt and utter if in fact their animal are grass fed. I am trying to find out also if goats are fed only with grass. I would appreciare a response from anyone who has information on these questions.

  9. Your absolutely right 100% grass-fed and finished beef is the healthiest choice of meat to consume! If you are looking for organic grass finished beef Check out Jordan Rubin’s (author of The Makers Diet) new company Beyond Organic. They have Many grass finished beef products as well as raw cheese, whey, kefir and much more!! Go to trylivingorganic.com

  10. Mike, great to know that you have a local farm that offers that at affordable prices. where is that by the way, what state?… and do you know if they are interested in shipping or anything. i’m not so lucky here.

  11. I choose to eat grass-fed meat for the nutritional benefits and ethical reasons. Also, it just makes sense. Why would one eat an animal that was raised in a warehouse. I sure wouldn’t eat a forklift or a pallet.

    I’m lucky enough to have a few good farms in my area. One offers ground grass-fed beef for $4.15/lb, compared to $4.99/lb for conventional beef at the local grocery store. This farm also offers pastured pork, poultry, eggs, and raw dairy (including milk, kefir, yogurt, cheese, butter, and heavy cream).

  12. I choose grass-fed whenever I can because I know how much healthier it is for us and because I eat mostly paleo/primal so I don’t want to be consuming grains in my meat when I’m consuming them elsewhere.

    I also find grass-fed meat is browner in colour (beef, lamb etc) and not bright red, which I think means it’s more natural. And it has a sweeter taste.

    I buy local grass-fed meat and help support small-time farmers.

    Thanks for the awesome info!

  13. It is amazing how clear the benefits of red meat are including the additional benefits from eating grass-fed meats. Yet, we moved away from it for many years. Thank you for helping bring us around.

  14. I remember seeing an advertisement when I was a kid, and I think it basically said something like, “Grain-fed beef. Softer. Sweeter. Better.” Or something like that.
    But even as a kid, I thought it didn’t make sense. Because weren’t cows supposed to eat grass?
    A fat cow produces fat meat. I’d definitely prefer beef from a healthy, pastured cow any day.

  15. From one Chris to another,
    As always, this is an excellent and informative post! I included this link to my followers of my bog ‘ChristianJax.ca’. I hope that this information will dispel any myths that they have hear.

    As always – good job!


  16. I would love to eat grass-fed beef but i do not know where to find it yet.. in my country it was implied.