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The healthiest diets are those comprised of real, whole foods – foods that are as pure and direct from the source as possible and have not undergone extensive and unnecessary processing. The concept is straightforward: You can choose a fresh, organic apple – or you can choose bottled apple juice loaded with preservatives, added sugars, and other ingredients, made from conventional apples grown using pesticides. The whole food choice is clear.
When it comes to eating animal products, however, we have to think one step further than simply choosing a minimally processed product. The diet of the animals we eat matters, too.
Ultimately, the animals whose meat we consume should themselves be eating a diet of real foods that support optimal health. What exactly does that mean? It means that the next time you’re planning to cook a juicy steak, you’ll want to choose meat from a cow that ate the food it was naturally designed to: grass.
From pasture to feedlot
Traditionally, cattle grazed on pasture, consuming grasses (and their mothers’ milk before weaning) until they were large enough for slaughter. Unfortunately, feedlots have largely replaced free-range farming practices. In the United States and other industrialized nations, cows are increasingly confined to factory farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), for the last six to eight months of their lives.
Factory farms pack thousands of animals into cramped, restrictive spaces and feed them almost anything but fresh grass. Cows in feedlots are commonly fed grain (mostly genetically modified corn), along with whatever else the farmer might choose to throw into the mix to help them grow larger faster. This can include soy products, rendered parts of nonruminant animals, brewers’ spent grain, chicken feathers, candy, antibiotics, hormones, and even things like plastic pellets and newspaper debris. The goal is to keep farm operations as inexpensive as possible, which means that cattle meant for human consumption are feeding on some unnatural, unappetizing, and downright harmful ingredients.
These kinds of farming conditions obviously create a whole host of problems for the animals, consumers, and the planet. Inherent in CAFOs are stressful and abusive living conditions for the cows; overuse of antibiotics and other drugs; pollution of our air, water, and soil; and production of less nutritious, unsafe foods.
Thankfully, there are alternatives to unhealthy and unsustainable factory-farmed animal products: grassfed and pasture-raised meats. The term grassfed can be somewhat misleading, as it is sometimes used to refer to cows that were started on pasture and later transitioned to grain feeding. For the sake of this article, however, we will generally use the term to refer to 100% grassfed cows. These animals are raised entirely on pasture (after weaning), eating growing grass and other forage plants or, when these are not available, hay.
Pasture-raised cows roam freely on pasture but may also be fed supplemental grains. Thus, the animals are raised in much healthier conditions than factory-farmed animals, although their diet may diverge from their natural one.
Benefits of grassfed meat
The next time you are shopping at the grocery store, considering what kind of beef to buy, keep these eight grassfed beef benefits in mind:
1. Grassfed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids.
Even though grassfed beef has a significantly lower total fat content than CAFO beef, it contains more omega-3 fatty acids.[1-4] Omega-3s, which are found in insufficient quantities in the standard American diet, have anti-inflammatory properties and help protect against various chronic health conditions, including hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes.
According to a study in the British Journal of Nutrition, people who eat grassfed meats have higher blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids compared to those eating meat from animals fed a grain concentrate. Therefore, choosing grassfed instead of grainfed beef can actually help to reduce your risk of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, depression, and more.
2. Grassfed beef is rich in conjugated linoleic acid, an anticarcinogen.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a particular type of omega-6 fatty acid that has some impressive health benefits. Found in meat and dairy products, CLA may help to lower body fat, improve insulin sensitivity, keep arteries healthy, and even prevent cancer. Cows raised on grass produce two to three times more CLA than cows fed high-grain diets.
3. Grassfed beef has more antioxidants, including
In response to stressors such as pollutants, inflammatory foods, and even exercise, molecules called reactive oxygen species, or free radicals, form in the body. These highly unstable molecules can wreak havoc on our cells, damaging proteins, DNA, and cell membranes.
The body is designed to prevent or counteract this damage using protective compounds known as antioxidants. However, due to the many stressors in our modern world, the body’s antioxidants are often unable to keep up with free radical production. This results in a condition known as oxidative stress, which can increase the risk for diseases such as cancer, atherosclerosis, and dementia. Thus, it is important to ensure that you eat an adequate amount of dietary antioxidants.
Grassfed beef is a great source of some important antioxidants, including beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor) and alpha-tocopherol (the most active form of vitamin E). When compared to grainfed, grassfed beef is the clear antioxidant winner. One study found that beta-carotene levels were 54 percent higher and alpha-tocopherol levels were 288 percent higher in pasture-raised cows than in their grainfed counterparts.
4. Grassfed beef is more nutritious, with extra vitamins and minerals.
In addition to containing more omega-3 fatty acids, CLA, and antioxidants, meat from cattle raised on grass also has more vitamins and minerals than meat from feedlot cattle. For example, researchers found higher levels of the B vitamins thiamine and riboflavin and the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium in grassfed beef compared to grainfed beef.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) warns that many Americans are not getting enough vitamins and minerals in their diet, and a 2011 study found that 90 percent of Americans are deficient in a number of key nutrients. To give yourself an extra boost of important vitamins and minerals, be sure to choose grassfed beef.
5. Grassfed beef reduces your exposure to antibiotics and hormones.
Feedlot operators often give antibiotics to their animals regularly, not only to prevent illness but to cause weight gain. This widespread antibiotic use in agricultural settings contributes extensively to antibiotic resistance among humans. People can be exposed to the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as the drugs themselves, when they eat CAFO beef or come in contact with groundwater polluted by large-scale feedlot operations.
Cows crammed into feedlots with many other animals (and their waste) get sick more often, due to the unhealthy environment and unnatural diet, than cows living in open pastures. Pastured cows don’t need regular antibiotics, which means that these drugs are appropriately used – that is, only when sickness occurs.
In addition to antibiotics, CAFO farmers give cattle growth hormones to make them grow larger in a shorter period of time. Growth hormones found in CAFO-polluted water are known to impair the reproductive functions of aquatic organisms and may have significant negative health effects on the endocrine systems of humans.
Standards for grassfed beef can differ between various certifying organizations, but they generally preclude the use of hormones and preventive antibiotics. If you want to be absolutely certain to avoid these ingredients, get to know your farmer or research the certifier – or choose meat that is certified organic as well as 100% grassfed. Keep in mind, though, that the term organic by itself simply means the animals were given an organic feed – most likely based on corn or soy.
The USDA revoked its grassfed standard in 2016 and now permits cattle farmers to define their own protocols, as long as they file them with the agency. There are some well-respected standards, however. One with an exemplary reputation is that of the American Grassfed Association (AGA). Certification by the AGA ensures that animals are born and raised on American family farms, fed only grass and forage from weaning until slaughter, raised on pasture without confinement, and never treated with antibiotics or growth hormones.
6. Grassfed beef is generally safer to eat.
Even with the use of antibiotics, the large-scale production of feedlot cattle in extremely cramped quarters means that pathogens often spread rapidly and can be very hard to control. This kind of living environment increases the risk of contamination with pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were at least 75 foodborne illness outbreaks associated with beef between 2009 and 2013.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that beef is often undercooked, allowing harmful microorganisms to survive the heating process. Thus, choosing grassfed beef may help to reduce your risk of contracting foodborne illnesses, especially if you prefer your burgers and steaks on the rare side.
7. Grassfed beef is more environmentally friendly.
Large feedlots create more waste than some US cities. For example, a feedlot with 140,000 cattle could produce more than 1.6 million tons of manure each year – more than the amount of sanitary waste (urine and feces) produced by the residents of Houston, Texas. The need to dispose of such large quantities of manure has major environmental impacts.
Researchers have found that feedlots produce air and water pollutants that have potentially significant impacts on the environment as well as human health. For example, hormones often pollute the water surrounding CAFOs. Bacteria from feedlot waste can contaminate our water supplies and cause potentially deadly gastrointestinal illnesses in humans. Dust released into the air at large factory farms can cause respiratory illnesses and increase risk of allergies. Ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases, along with other volatile compounds, pollute the air nearby. CAFOs also produce large amounts of greenhouse gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, that contribute to climate change.
In contrast, the waste from grassfed animals falls directly onto the soil in a natural ecosystem, where helpful microorganisms are able to recycle and dispose of it naturally. When it comes to the environment, grassfed beef is definitely the more responsible choice.
8. Grassfed beef is more humane.
When we think in terms of animal rights, the benefits of grassfed beef over CAFO beef are obvious. Consider the quality of life of a cow grazing freely in pasture compared to that of an animal packed tightly into a feedlot or pen (and possibly chained), standing and sleeping in its own feces and eating food that it cannot digest properly.
It is clear that the conditions in CAFOs are far from humane. If you are concerned about the welfare of the animals you eat, choosing grassfed meat is a must.
Where to buy grassfed beef
The benefits listed above make the choice between grassfed and CAFO beef clear. If you’re looking to make the healthy shift and want to know where to buy grassfed beef, you have several options.
Many grocery stores now carry grassfed meat, although shopping in natural food stores may provide you with a larger selection. Another great option is to buy locally. When you go to your local farmers market, you can ask the meat vendors and farmers about the animals’ living conditions and what they have been fed. If you have a large freezer capacity, you can buy grassfed beef in bulk (such as half or a quarter of a cow at a time), which can help to save money.
If you need assistance finding grassfed beef farmers in your area, you can refer to Eatwild’s Directory of Farms (eatwild.com/products/index.html). The directory also includes farmers markets, stores, restaurants, and buying clubs that feature grassfed products.
About the Author
Chelsea Clark is a writer and certified health and wellness coach who is passionate about supporting others along their own health journeys. She loves all things related to health and wellness, natural healing, and personal development. Chelsea’s mission is to help people better understand how their daily choices impact their lives, and to help them make positive, lasting changes so that they can live the happiest, healthiest life possible. She has a Master’s degree in Health and Wellness Coaching from the Maryland University of Integrative Health and a certificate in Holistic Health Coaching from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Find out more about Chelsea and her coaching work at www.cultivatebalancecoaching.com.
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Published in the Price-Pottenger Journal of Health and Healing
Spring / Summer 2019| Volume 43, Number 1
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