Where does your beef come from?
This might seem like a trivial question, but really it isn’t.
Not all beef is equal, and if you are trying to lose weight or improve health, some types of beef are much better than others.
Much of this is related to grass fed beef benefits and how this type of beef is related to health.
After all, what you eat has the potential to dramatically influence health, so it’s important to know as much as possible about where your food comes from and what exactly that means.
History of Grass Fed and Corn Fed Beef
There are a large number of different terms used in the discussion of grass fed versus corn fed beef, and this can get confusing quickly.
For example, grass fed beef is often also referred to as grass finished beef or sometimes as being from grass fed beef farms.
Alternatively, corn fed beef is sometimes referred to as being part of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs for short). Other names include grain fed beef or grain finished beef.
Understanding these terms involves considering the history of beef farming.
In modern society, cattle are fed in large farms. These farms provide a uniform environment and the cattle are confined, unable to move around.
In this environment, the cattle are fed specific rations.
In reality, these rations do not simply consist of corn, but are often a range of different types of crops, supplemented with chemicals and hormones. This process is focused on reducing costs as much as possible and increasing the amount of beef produced.
This process has resulted in dramatic increases in the availability of beef, which has been important as the American population has grown.
This approach has driven down the price for beef and helped to ensure that the there is enough beef to meet the growing demand for the product.
However, in recent years many consumers are moving back towards the idea of grass fed beef, as well as other types of grass fed products, especially grass fed butter.
Many people believe, and with good reason, grass fed beef nutrition has significant advantages over the nutrition of corn fed varieties. In fact, the nutritional differences between the two types are significant, and grass fed health benefits are something that I will discuss in detail a little later in this article.
After all, significant differences between grass fed beef and corn fed beef are likely, as grass fed cattle receive their primary nutrients from pasture, rather than from corn or added chemicals.
Additionally, grass feed beef farms tend to provide animals with much greater space for animals to move around.
This is important, because this is a much more natural process, which has the potential to lead to a much healthier product overall.
The Grass Fed versus Corn Fed Debate
Corn fed beef has been a staple component of Western diets for many years.
In fact, the idea of any other way of feeding livestock simply didn’t make sense.
The biggest advantage of corn fed beef comes from economies of scale.
Simply put, it is cheaper to produce corn fed beef than grass fed.
Additionally, the process of corn feeding beef also uses supplements.
The combination of these two factors promotes fast weight gain in the animal, resulting in more meat.
The problem is, the health effects of grass fed and corn fed beef are not necessarily the same.
This isn’t really surprising, as the processes involved in the two types of meat are substantially different than one another.
Because of this, the chemical composition can easily differ between the types of beef.
Research is beginning to show that there may be significant grass fed beef benefits.
This is something that many people have believed for a long time.
So, what is the difference between these types?
The simplest definition of grass fed beef is inherent within the name – it is meat that comes from animals that are only fed grass.
The term specifically applies to beef, so it basically means that the cows that provide the meat eat grass only.
Some people find this definition surprising.
After all, don’t cows eat grass anyway?
The answer is yes, and no.
The majority of beef is made from animals that graze on grass for somewhere between six months and a year of their lives.
After that, cows are fed in a feedlot, where they eat a mixture which includes, corn, grains and soy, as well as supplements, antibiotics and hormones.
This formula is so prevalent because it is successful.
By feeding cows in this way, the industry is able to dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to raise a cow and get it ready for slaughter.
Estimates suggest that this process may take a year off the process (1).
This year is important, because it means that there is one less year where the company has to pay for animal feed.
This process is why beef is so inexpensive, because the industry has done everything possible to reduce the amount of time and cost involved in the process of producing beef.
Another significant issue of this process is that it promotes the marbling of fat.
Marbling is appealing because it produces a richer taste.
However, this process dramatically increases the fat content of the meat, which may not be desirable.
The beef rating process of the USDA also promotes high fat, with cuts getting higher grades if they have more fat.
Not so long ago finding grass fed beef was challenging and there weren’t a lot of places that sold it.
However, there has been increased demand for grass fed beef, and it is becoming more prevalent in grocery stores.
Grass Fed Beef and Fat
Fat, particularly saturated fat, has a bad reputation in modern society.
Many diets emphasis the need to cut out as much fat as possible for weight loss and for health.
Because of this, people have been convinced that many traditional foods shouldn’t be consumed as part of a healthy diet.
This includes, red meat, cheese, butter or other foods that are relatively high in saturated fat.
After all, one of the first pieces of diet advice that people are given is to cut out these foods.
The problem is that the evidence for the negative impacts of saturated fats are not as significant as it seems.
Culturally, we have been taught that saturated fat significantly increases the risk of heart disease.
Recent research suggests that this may not be the case at all.
One recent study considered the outcomes of a range of different studies into the relationship between saturated fat and heart disease.
Overall, the study found no evidence that higher levels of saturated fat in the diet had any influence on the risk of heart disease whatsoever (2).
So, why the overall perception that saturated fat is linked to heart disease?
One possible explanation is the number of studies that have looked at correlations.
If you looked at the eating behaviors and presence of heart disease for people in the United States, you would probably find that the risk of heart disease increases with the amount of saturated fat consumed.
That could be the result of the saturated fat itself, but there is another possible explanation.
High levels of saturated fat consumption are often associated with a range of unhealthy behaviors, including an emphasis on processed food and a lack of exercise.
It’s likely that people who live in this manner would have a higher risk of heart disease and many studies would interpret this risk as being the result of saturated fat in the diet.
These factors indicate that saturated fat is nowhere near as bad as society believes, and there is no need to completely exclude it from a healthy diet.
Instead, red meat, particularly grass fed beef can strongly contribute to a healthy diet.
The reason that grass fed beef is better health wise is because it does have a lower level of fat, and there are also different ratios of fat present (7).
On a side note, it is important to understand that saturated fat is thought of as being a single type of fat.
That isn’t actually true though.
Instead there are a number of different types of saturated fats out there and much of the differences between them are based on their chain length. The different types of saturated fats also play different roles in human health (8).
That’s similar to the situation with fat in general because there are many different types of fat and some of them are very good for health.
In fact, evidence shows that the healthy fats in beef are significant and a much more relevant topic than the saturated fat content (9).
Omega-3 and Omega-6
Another important thing to consider in relation to the fat content of beef is that there are some types of fat that are highly important to human health.
The two omega fatty acids are considered to be the most critical. Particularly as the human body is unable to synthesize these fats.
The two types of omega fats are omega-3 and omega-6.
One of the significant things about these fats is that they are needed in different proportions.
On average a healthy diet needs to contain around 1-4 times as much omega-6 as omega-3, but this isn’t the case for most western diets.
In the United States, the normal diet has anywhere from 11 times to 30 times as much omega-6 than omega-3 (10).
This is an incredibly unhealthy ratio of these fatty acids and means that most people need to be eating more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
One of the benefits of grass fed beef comes from the fact that grass fed beef have higher levels omega-3 than corn fed beef (11).
This means that the regular consumption of red meat is able to improve this ratio.
Research has consistently shown that omega-3 and omega-6 are important for human health, particularly heart health.
After all, this is a large part of the reason that fish is so heavily promoted as helpful for the human diet.
For example, one study found that the presence of omega-3 within the diet can decrease the prevalence of some of the key risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease (12).
The difference in consumption of omega-3 and omega-6 is important, because they have impacts on one another.
Research has indicated that higher levels of omeage-6 fats actually decreases how available the omega-3 is to cells (13).
This means that consuming too much omega-6 can actually decrease how effective omega-3 is in the body.
Additionally, omega-6 is an inflammatory compound, meaning that a diet rich in omega-6 can act to increase the level of inflammation.
Because of this, high levels of omega-6 consumption can increase the risk of inflammatory diseases, which is actually most types of disease (14).
Research has also indicated that the consumption of higher levels of omega-3 can result in protection against degenerative disease (15).
This makes it important to take approaches to change this ratio.
This involves decreasing the amount of omega-6 consumed and/or increasing the level of omega-3 in the diet.
Realistically, just increasing the level of omega-3 consumption to the desired levels is challenging, and the best approach is a combination of the two methods.
This is one more reason why grass fed beef is a good health choice because of its omega-3 fatty acid content.
A specific form of fat that is often considered to be unhealthy is trans fat.
Generally speaking, trans fats are associated with increased risk of heart disease.
However, like some other compounds, there are differences in trans fats depending on their sources.
The fat and meat that comes from beef do contain significant levels of trans fat and these levels are actually higher in grass fed beef than in corn fed (16).
Research suggests that trans fats may actually offer some health benefits to humans, including reducing the risk of diabetes.
However, this only applies to trans fats that naturally come from meat and from milk, and not to the trans fats that are commonly found in processed foods (17).
In fact, trans fats from cows have been linked to positive health outcomes although the research is still in its early phases (18).
Conjugated Linoleic Acid
One of the significant elements of the fats that are present in red meat is that it contains significant amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).
This acid is present in greater amounts in grass fed beef than in corn fed beef, although both forms have some level of the acid (19).
This process is thought to occur because linoleic acid can improve control of the cell cycle and decrease the growth of tumors (22).
Additionally, there is concern that many people are not consuming enough conjugated linoleic acid to get the benefits of the nutrient (25).
Now it’s true that it is possible to supplement the level of conjugated linoleic acid in the diet, but the effectiveness of this approach is difficult to determine.
In particular, research has yet to determine whether the health effects of linoleic acid through supplements are as effective as getting linoleic acid from meat.
Grass Fed Beef Benefits for Health
One of the interesting things about grass fed beef is that the nutritional profiles are significantly different.
Because grass fed beef tends to be lower in fat, this type of meet has a better composition of fatty acids as well as a higher amount of antioxidants (29).
Most people don’t realize it, but beef contains significant levels of both omega-3 and omega-6.
Both grass fed and corn fed beef can be important for getting the omega-3 and omega-6 fats into the diet although grass fed does contain better ratios of the fat (30).
When people discuss red meat, one thing that they often don’t take into account is the fact that red meat is actually very nutritious.
In fact, the number of different vitamins and minerals present in red meat is substantial.
For example, a portion of 100 grams of red meat that is around 10% fat has the following nutrients.
- Vitamin B3 (25% of RDA)
- Vitamin B6 (18% of RDA)
- Vitamin B12 (37% of RDA)
- Zinc (32% of RDA)
- Selenium (24% of RDA)
Research has shown that the nutrient composition of beef differs considerable across grass fed and corn fed beef, with grass fed beef having significantly higher levels of some vitamins, including vitamin B12 and zinc (33).
Because vitamin B12 is common only in animal products, vegetarians are particularly at risk (38).
Another interesting nutrient in grass fed beef is vitamin K2.
Vitamin K2 is specifically found in animal products, such as cheese, eggs, milk and grass fed beef.
It’s likely that the levels of vitamin K2 would be higher in the organs of grass fed beef than in the meat itself, but that data is not readily available.
However, along with dairy, beef (particularly grass fed beef) can help you to get enough vitamin K2 in your diet.
As you can see, there are a number of nutrients that are present in red meat and in some other animal products that you don’t find in other foods.
Additionally, red meat contains antioxidants, which are able to improve health in a number of ways, particularly by decreasing the amount that lipids are oxidized. This has important health implications (46).
Research has shown that grass fed beef has an increased ability to act as an antioxidant, suggesting that it may have greater positive impacts on the body (4).
This reinforces the benefits of grass fed beef and provides a clear indication of how this type of meat is able to improve health.
The assumption that red meat is unhealthy and contributes to heart disease is misleading and it is also wrong.
Of the two different types, grass fed beef has much more substantial health benefits and can be a valuable part of a healthy diet.
Grass Fed Beef and Diets
The Paleo Diet
The Paleo diet has been significantly increasing in popularity in recent years.
This is a diet that is focused on the dietary approaches of our ancestors, specifically the eating habits of the hunter-gatherer society.
Much of the popularity of this approach comes from the fact that it is designed to work with the genetic strengths and weaknesses of the human body, rather than against them.
I’m not going to talk much about the Paleo diet here, as that isn’t the purpose of this post, and there is a lot to say about the diet.
People following the Paleo diet are often surprised to find that the diet recommends foods that contain trans fats as well as saturated fats.
As I have discussed so far, these fats aren’t actually as bad as popular culture would have us think.
Because of this beef can be an important component of following the Paleo diet, particularly if people choose grass fed beef over the more common corn fed variety.
In fact, research has indicated that the regular consumption of lean beef by children and adolescents in the United States was able to provide a source of many important nutrients and minerals, without having a significant impact on the amount of saturated fat, sodium or total fat consumed (48).
Low Carb Diets
Another diet type that is increasing is a low carb diet.
This approach does have some similarities to a Paleo diet, although a low carb diet tends to be less restrictive and there are a wide range of approaches that people take.
With a low carb diet, people aim to decrease the amount of carbohydrates they consume as much as possible.
This involves getting energy from other places, particularly fat.
Because of this, grass fed beef is a natural addition to a low carb diet and it is something that you might choose to eat a few times a week.
In fact, eating more meat, in general, is a natural choice for a low carb diet.
This diet type is interesting.
Despite what people often assume, low carb diets can actually promote weight loss. After all, you are essentially swapping where you get your energy from. So, if your energy intake is right, a low carb diet can be as effective for weight loss as a low fat diet (49,50).
Low carb diets may even be easier follow, because they tend to be higher in protein, which can make you feel fuller.
Low carb diets also have the advantage of improving biomarkers for heart disease (51).
Hormones and Methods of Feeding
One of the important things to consider about the different ways that animals are fed is that the differences are not limited to the food that the animals eat.
Corn fed animals are fed using an approach known as CAFO. This stands for confined animal feeding operations.
The abbreviation CAFO is common in many discussions on the health benefits of grass fed beef, which isn’t surprising, as the way that animals are kept and treated has a lot of implications for the health impacts of the meat.
Some people argue that CAFO is a desirable option because the level of hormones in CAFO is lower than in grass fed beef.
This difference comes from the fact that CAFO beef uses steer instead of bulls.
Steer is a nice word for neutered bulls, and they are desirable for CAFO because they are easier to handle.
This comes from the fact that normal bulls have much higher levels of testosterone, which isn’t really surprising.
However, the increase level of hormones in grass fed beef isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly as humans used to eat these on a regular basis.
In fact, the prevalence of female sex hormones in processed foods (52) suggests that the higher level of hormones in grass fed beef may be beneficial for health.
In fact, the hormones to be concerned about in meat aren’t the hormones that come naturally from meat, but the hormones that are artificially added to improve growth.
Needless to say, the health impacts of these types of hormones can be substantially negative (53).
Price, Taste and Nutrition
When it comes to looking at the differences between corn fed and grass fed beef, people normally take three factors into consideration.
These are the price, the taste and the nutritional value.
As I have discussed, grass fed beef offers health benefits over corn fed beef.
But, what about the other two factors?
In terms of price, grass fed beef tends to be more expensive to produce.
Part of this is that the feedlot approach to feeding animals is very cost effective.
However, much of this cost difference comes from the fact that corn fed beef is more prevalent.
This means that most of the farms that produce grass fed beef tend to be small scale.
Because of this, they have higher costs and have to sell their products higher.
One way of considering this price difference is like the difference between standard food and gourmet food.
This cost can be prohibitive for many people, but even just having grass fed beef every so often can be a significant advantage.
While the price difference between corn fed and grass fed beef from the supermarket is substantial, there are ways of decreasing this cost.
In particular, choosing to buy directly from sellers or choosing to buy in bulk can significantly cut down in costs.
What about taste?
It’s not surprising that the difference between corn fed and grass fed beef extends to taste.
In fact, the different types of beef even look different to one another.
Grass fed beef tends to be lower in fat, and because of this, it lacks some of the rich taste that is present in corn fed beef.
Some people get around this difference by using butter to fry the beef, which still results in a lower level of fat than using corn fed beef (54).
Advocates of grass fed beef argue that the benefits of grass fed beef far outweigh any taste issues.
Additionally, the meat is often promoted as having a meatier, mineral and pure taste compared to corn fed beef.
While this taste can take a little bit of time to get used to, it is certainly worth it.
Because each type of meat has so many different variations, the differences between corn fed and grass fed often aren’t that substantial.
This also means that some people think they don’t like grass fed beef simply because the first time they tried it wasn’t particularly good. You do get used to the difference in taste though, and realistically you should try anything new more than once.
Honestly, it can take a little bit of time to learn how to cook grass fed beef and to find companies that produce good quality grass fed beef, but it is well worth the effort.
Cooking Grass Fed Beef
There are a lot of similarities between corn fed and grass fed beef, which means that they can essentially be cooked in the same way.
In fact, both corn fed and grass fed beef are highly versatile and can be cooked in a large range of different ways.
However, it is much easier to get very lean grass fed beef than it is to get the same level of leanness in corn fed beef.
Meat that is lean can be a little more tricky to cook, and requires more precision.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as lean meat can often be healthier.
Furthermore, there are a large number of different recipes available that specifically focus on the specific qualities of lean meat.
One thing to bear in mind when cooking beef, regardless of whether it is grass fed or corn fed, is the temperature that it is cooked at.
Many people assume that there is nothing wrong with cooking meat at a very high temperature, or even burning it slightly, but research indicated that this might not be true.
The problem with cooking meat at a very high temperature is that it can produce compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).
These compounds have the potential to alter the DNA within the human body, acting in a mutagenic manner.
This means that these compounds are able to increase the risk of a person getting cancer, which is a serious concern (55).
Now, this doesn’t mean that you should avoid eating meat, far from it.
It just means that it is important to be a little careful when cooking it.
The benefits of grass fed beef aren’t limited to the human body.
Instead, grass fed beef is often associated with better outcomes for the environment.
This is because significantly less energy goes into growing grass than in growing grain.
Additionally, grass feeding is thought to be much better for the cow.
The process of corn feeding involves the use of feedlots and many people feel that this is very inhumane.
Grass Feed Beef and Local Food
Modern society relies on large food producers and grocery stores.
This reliance has made it easy for people to fill their diet up with processed food, where it is not even evident where the food came from.
In recent years, the local food movement has been increasing in popularity and prevalence.
This movement has an emphasis on getting fresh food from local providers.
There are a lot of reasons why the local food movement does this, but one of the reasons is that foods at grocery stores come from throughout the country.
Often this involves large transportation costs and substantial negative impacts on the environment.
Additionally, these processes result in large amounts of competition for local farmers and other producers.
This makes it difficult for them to compete in the market.
Buying food locally allows consumers to support local producers and also provides a much better indication of where the food came from in the first place.
A good place to find local providers is at fresh food markets, which are common in many cities.
These markets are often a good place to pick up grass fed beef at a lower cost than supermarkets, giving people the chance to try it.
Once you have found a reliable supplier through these markets, it is often possible to buy from them directly, which substantially reduces the cost all around.
This process is beneficial for the buyer and for the seller, and it helps to support the role of small producers in a marketplace that is often highly competitive.
At the end of the day, the health benefits of grass fed meats are substantial, for human health and for local producers.
The decision to try grass fed meat can be particularly important for people who are following the Paleo diet, but realistically, it is a good health decision for just about anyone.