The sound and smell of a fresh steak hitting the grill is nearly irresistible — after all, the sizzle, flash and mouth-watering aromas have tempted our species for millennia. Red meat, in all its manifestations, makes for a sure-shot meal almost every time.
That hamburger patty, strip steak or savory meatball is a nearly complete nutritional package, too. Lean-cut beef contains most of the nutrients our bodies need, from essential amino acids to minerals and a plethora of vitamins, in one convenient package. (One shortfall: essential fatty acids DHA and EPA, which are far more plentiful in fish – a good reason to eat both!)
But if you were to peer at the history of the meat cuts sizzling atop the grill, your enthusiasm might wane. Conventional beef suffers from a number of shortcomings, nearly all of them stemming from the conditions feedlot cattle are raised in.
Commercial cattle are typically stuffed with hormones to force them to grow artificially fast, antibiotics to counteract the disease-prone environments they’re raised in, and grain to fatten them up for sale.
It wasn’t always that way. American beef once came from cows raised entirely on pastures, eating grasses and native plants as ruminants have for millions of years. But in the 1950s, expanding industrialization and a growing appetite for meat led beef producers to turn to more artificial methods for raising cattle. The result was more meat, but at lower quality.
Today, “grain-fed” refers to cattle that spend much of their lives in a miserably crowded feedlot, gorging on grain until it’s time for slaughter. The result is a less healthy, more morally ambiguous meal.
Luckily, it’s not hard to find naturally raised cattle today, if you know where to look. Organic grass-fed/grass-finished beef from cattle that spend calm, quiet lives in open fields offer all the nutrients and quality of authentic beef without the downsides of industrial meat.
Grass-Fed Beef Nutrition
Red meat, even more than many other animal proteins, offers a complete package of nutrients. Meat is a complete protein, which means it contains every one of the nine essential amino acids our bodies need. Red meats like beef include a range of crucial minerals like iron, zinc and selenium, as well as vitamins A, B6, B12, D, E, some healthy fats like omega-3s and important antioxidants (Williamson et al., 2005).
Cattle that spend much of their lives in feedlots miss out on a number of crucial but often overlooked nutrients, the result of a diet that’s heavy in corn and wheat and lacking the diverse natural plants they normally eat. Studies comparing grain-fed beef to grass-fed/grass-finished beef show that feedlot cattle have:
than do their grass-fed counterparts (Daley et al., 2010).
Beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A, best known for its role in eye health, but also involved with the immune system and cell reproduction. In the eye, vitamin A is used to make rhodopsin, a light-absorbing protein that allows our eyes to send signals to the brain to allow us to see. Because of their grain-heavy diet, feedlot cattle miss out on much of the vitamin A grass-fed cattle receive (Daley et al., 2010).
If you’re eating grass-fed/grass-finished, you can actually see the presence of beta-carotene and other carotenes in your meat: The orange-colored compounds tint the fat marbling orange or yellow — an easy visual cue your food is full of these nutrients!
Getting Your Healthy Fats
Those marbled veins point to another key distinction between grain- and grass-fed beef. Fat is a key component of any good cut of beef; but savvy eaters know there’s an important nuance to these nutrients. Fats are a key component of any diet, and a strong surge of recent evidence is showing they’re far from the danger outdated nutritional advice often portrayed them to be. Many fats perform key roles within our bodies, and it’s important we get enough of them to be healthy.
Grass-fed beef contains a higher proportion of these healthy fats than feedlot beef, including critical omega-3s and other fatty acids (Daley et al., 2010). Grass-fed cattle also beat grain-fed when it comes to the balance of omega-3s to omega-6s — an important ratio that studies link to positive health outcomes.
Omega-3 fatty acids are critical components of our bodies, carrying out basic cellular functions in the eyes, brain, joints and more. Studies link higher levels of omega-3s to improved cardiovascular health, better brain function, healthier aging and more (NIH, 2017). Our bodies don’t make enough omega-3s on their own, so we need to get them from our diets. Fish and other seafood are the best sources for these nutrients, but grass-fed beef and other healthy meats contain omega-3s as well.
Omega-6s, a molecular cousin to omega-3s, are another fatty acid that are important for health. But while we need omega-6s, research shows that too many of them, and not enough omega-3s, can actually be a bad thing. A healthy ratio is somewhere around one to four times as many omega-6s as omega-3s. But the typical American diet today sits at about 11 to 30 times as many (Daley et al., 2010). A higher omega-6/3 ratio is linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and inflammatory diseases (Simopoulos, 2008).
In 2010, researchers compared fatty acids in both grain-fed and grass-fed cattle and found big differences in their omega-6/omega-3 ratios (Daley et al., 2010). Feedlot cattle had around 7.5 times as many omega-6s as omega-3s, the authors report.
That’s compared to just 1.5 times as many in grass-fed cattle.
Grass-fed beef beats out commercial beef in another important fatty acid as well: conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This healthy fat is linked to a reduction in arterial plaque build-up, as well as a lower risk of diabetes (Toomey et al., 2006; Castro-Webb et al., 2012). And a large body of evidence suggests it might help with weight loss, too. Studies show CLA reduces body fat and increases lean body mass (Blankson et al., 2000; Steck et al., 2007).
These differences aren’t just in the meat. Milk from grass-fed cows beats milk from grain-fed, and even organic, cows, hands-down. (Read more: Grass-Fed Milk Beat Conventional — and Organic — Counterparts).
Grass-fed cows produced milk with an omega-6/omega-3 ratio of about 1:1, versus nearly 6:1 from grain-fed cows. CLA levels in grass-fed cows’ milk were about double those of grain-fed cattle as well (Benbrook et al., 2018).
And as for the narrative that fats, and saturated fats in particular, pose an existential threat to our health, more recent evidence offers a compelling rebuttal. Many saturated fats, like stearic acid, found in abundance in grass-fed beef, have no impact on markers of health like cholesterol, and in fact play important roles within our bodies (Daley et al., 2010). A 2010 meta-review analyzing more than 20 individual studies concluded there was no significant evidence to support the notion that dietary saturated fat is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease or coronary heart disease.
The plethora of health benefits aside, grass-fed beef has another unimpeachable advantage over standard feedlot-raised beef. While the conditions on a feedlot are subpar, to say the least (and frequently much worse than that), grass-fed cattle are typically raised in open pasture, ranging free for much of their lives. It makes choosing grass-fed an easy ethical decision.
For example, Vital Choice’s all-organic grass-fed beef comes from Skagit River Ranch, right in Washington’s Skagit Valley north of Seattle. Ranchers George and Eiko Vojkovich raise a unique crossbreed of Angus and American Wagyu, on a ranch that’s certified humane by the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care.
The cattle dine on a pastureland “salad bar” of alfalfa, chicory, clover and more, supplemented by Atlantic seaweed for micronutrients. The bounty of nutrients makes for beef that passes on important nutrients, including healthy fats, to us.
Their heirloom cattle are raised with zero pesticides, hormones or antibiotics, and dry-aged for a minimum of two weeks after processing before being flash frozen and shipped. It makes for beef that’s both tender and filled with natural flavor. And, best of all, it’s beef you can feel good about.
Benbrook, C.M., Davis, D. R., Heins, B. J., et al. (2018) Enhancing the fatty acid profile of milk through forage-based rations, with nutrition modeling of diet outcomes. Food Science & Nutrition, 6(3), 681–700. https://doi.org/10.1002/fsn3.610
Blankson, H., Stakkestad, J. A., Fagertun, H., et al. (2000). Conjugated Linoleic Acid Reduces Body Fat Mass in Overweight and Obese Humans. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(12), 2943–2948. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/130.12.2943
Castro-Webb, N., Ruiz-Narváez, E. A., & Campos, H. (2012). Cross-sectional study of conjugated linoleic acid in adipose tissue and risk of diabetes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 96(1), 175–181. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.111.011858
Daley, C. A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P. S., et al. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-9-10
Office of Dietary Supplements - Omega-3 Fatty Acids. (2017). Retrieved August 9, 2021, from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-Consumer/
Simopoulos, A. P. (2008). The Importance of the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio in Cardiovascular Disease and Other Chronic Diseases. Experimental Biology and Medicine, 233(6), 674–688. https://doi.org/10.3181/0711-mr-311
Steck, S. E., Chalecki, A. M., Miller, P., et al. (2007). Conjugated Linoleic Acid Supplementation for Twelve Weeks Increases Lean Body Mass in Obese Humans. The Journal of Nutrition, 137(5), 1188–1193. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/137.5.1188
Toomey, S., Harhen, B., Roche, H. M., et al. (2006). Profound resolution of early atherosclerosis with conjugated linoleic acid. Atherosclerosis, 187(1), 40–49. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2005.08.024
Williamson, C. S., Foster, R. K., Stanner, S. A., & Buttriss, J. L. (2005). Red meat in the diet. Nutrition Bulletin, 30(4), 323–355. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-3010.2005.00525.x