By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
“Organic” has become a household word for food shoppers. Now we’re seeing a new kid on the block in supermarkets across the country: grass-fed beef and dairy.
“Grass-fed” on a beef or milk label generally means that the cows (after weaning) ate grass, hay, and other non-grain vegetation – that is, their natural food. It also means that they weren’t fed GMO-feed, which has been engineered to withstand heavy doses of toxic herbicides like glyphosate (and if you think these herbicides don’t end up in our meat and dairy, consider these recent findings of glyphosate in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream).
“Grass-fed” also usually means that the cows were allowed to freely roam on pasture land, and not penned up in disgusting confined spaces, and that the cows weren’t routinely administered antibiotics to prevent sickness, or injected with artificial hormones to increase milk production or fatten them up quicker.
Although grass-fed products are higher in cost (it costs more to raise livestock on pasture land, and they mature slower), I strongly recommend considering them as a healthier option than regular commercially-grown animal products.
Grass-Fed Beef Benefits:
- Grass-fed generally means a “cleaner,” more natural product that has not been manipulated with hormones and preventative antibiotics. You are eating the meat or dairy without these conventional additives.
- Grass-fed beef and dairy products contain more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Not as much as in fish, but more than conventionally grown meat and dairy.
- The meat is a bit leaner, and many say it tastes better.
- Obviously, there is an environmental dividend. A greater demand for grass-fed could create a reduction in high-density, inhumane, and polluting feedlot practices.
Grass-fed Beef Only in My House
When I am at home and choose to eat meat, it is only grass-fed, just as all the chickens and eggs are free-range or organic. I look for dairy from animals that have not been administered rBGH, a synthetic bovine growth hormone used to increase milk production. The scientific evidence indicates that rBGH can cause adverse health effects in cows, but the evidence for potential harm among humans is inconclusive. Nevertheless, it is not anything I want to have in my body.
I’m not a huge meat eater, but do believe it plays an important role in our diets. As a cardiologist, I’ve seen how vegetarian and vegan diets can lead to nutritional deficiencies that impact heart health. So, I eat grass-fed meat once or twice every week or two. I like grass-fed beef, as well as grass-fed buffalo meat, either in the ground form or as a choice tenderloin.
Here’s my favorite tenderloin recipe:
- Cut the grass-fed beef or bison into 1-inch pieces.
- Garnish with extra virgin olive oil and pepper.
- Place a garlic clove and rosemary sprig in a pan.
- Broil for a few minutes, and turn over for a minute or few.
- Douse with Celtic salt, olive oil, and chopped cilantro.
- Serve sliced rare over salad greens or a modest portion of short grain brown rice.
And if you love ground beef, try this recipe. Chili is one of my favorite ways of eating meat because you also get lots of fiber-rich beans and nutrient-rich veggies, like peppers and onions.
What Is the Difference between Grass-Fed and Pasture-Raised?
You may have also seen meat, dairy, and eggs that were “pasture-raised” and might be wondering – what’s the difference between grass-fed and pasture-raised? Here are some distinctions to be aware of when making your purchasing decisions:
- The diet of grass-fed animals is almost entirely grass; however, sometimes animals that have been grass-fed their whole lives can be fed grains in the last months of their lives. If you want meat from an animal that ate grass exclusively and no grains at all, then you will want to look for the 100% grass-fed label.
- Pasture raised animals spend much of their lives outdoors in the pasture. However, their diet may not consist entirely of grass as they can be fed grains as well.
- Grass-fed animals can be fed grass indoors, but most grass-fed animals maintain their grass diets by having plenty of time outdoors in the pasture.
Is Grass Fed Beef Better than Organic?
Most farmers that feed their cows grass and hay have allowed their livestock to graze in open pastures. They likely haven’t confined the animals to feedlots with conditions which necessitate the use of preventative antibiotics. In general, farmers that produce grass-fed beef and dairy products are much less likely to take questionable shortcuts, like injecting the cows with artificial hormones to boost growth or milk production.
With organic, you can be certain that the undesirable shortcut situations aren’t happening. This is because, to be labeled USDA organic, beef, dairy and other products have to be produced under stringent, well defined standards. The one issue with grass-fed beef and dairy labeling is that the labeling standards are no longer well defined.
In January 2016, the Agricultural Marketing Service, an agency within the USDA, revoked its approval process for grass fed claims on labels by dropping its official definition of grass-fed. The USDA still regulates labeling of grass-fed beef and dairy, but manufacturers have a little more wiggle room than with organic labeling. And because it’s expensive for farms to become certified organic by the government, organic products often cost more money.
All this being said, if you see “grass fed” or “grass finished” on a label, you’re most likely getting the clean, humanely raised product you’re looking for.
The Grass-Fed Beef I Recommend
If you have a local farm near you that offers a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, talk with them about their beef and dairy practices. Chances are, they will be offering grass fed beef or dairy products, and healthy, free range poultry and pork products too (whether they have organic certification or not). You may even actually get to see the animals actually munching on grass in picturesque fields.
When at the supermarket choosing beef or dairy, it’s always a healthier bet to go with grass-fed over conventionally produced. You can also look for products that have been independently certified by, for example, American Grassfed, the Food Alliance, or Animal Welfare Approved, or visit these web sites to find other sellers of the high-quality meat you’re looking for.
Yes, grass-fed, grass-finished, and organic foods are costlier. But I am a strong believer in doing what I can to follow a purer standard for myself and my family.
- Linnekin B. The USDA’s Abdication of Defining Grass Fed Is Good for Consumers. Reason.com, Jan 16, 2016.
- Union of Concerned Scientists. Greener Pastures: How Grass-fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating (2006).
- American Cancer Society. Recombinant bovine growth hormone.
- Humaneitarian. Pasture-Raised Vs. Grass-Fed: What’s the Difference?
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