You may find it of interest that up until the 1940’s, most cattle was “grass-finished” or grassfed. The 1950’s brought a revolution in the way beef was being produced. Because of an emphasis on production efficiency, cattle started to be fed a diet of grains. Why? Was it an effort to improve health or nutrition quality? Not at all. The purpose was production efficiency. Grain feeding introduced MORE fat in LESS time.

Numerous studies have compared the nutritional quality of beef from grass-fed versus grain-fed cattle. What does the research have to say? The Journal of Animal Science found that beef from grass-fed cattle has higher concentrations of antioxidants. For example,

• concentrations of alpha-tocopherol, one of the eight forms of vitamin E, nearly triples. This high natural vitamin E content not only extends the shelf life of grassfed beef, but it also imparts numerous health benefits. Vitamin E is strengthens the immune system and can help prevent heart disease.

• concentrations of beta-carotene, a potent form of vitamin A, increases 10 times. (Beta-carotene is a strong red-orange pigment, which explains why the visible fat in grassfed beef tends to be more yellow than grainfed beef.) This form of vitamin A is crucial for protecting the surface of eyes and the lining of the respiratory, urinary, and intestinal tract. Beta-carotene also boosts the immune system by helping produce white blood cells.

• The journal Meat Science also reported a high glutathione content in grassfed beef. This DNA-protecting and cancer-fighting antioxidant is abundant in lush green grass. Thus, grassfed beef is significantly higher in glutathione.

What other goodies can we find in grassfed beef? Conjugated linolenic acid, a form of linoleic acid that accumulates in the fat and muscle tissue of animals. CLA can be produced by the activity of bacteria normally found in the digestive system of cattle. Grains, however, decrease the pH of the digestive system and this lowers bacterial activity.

On the other hand, grass maintains a favorable environment that encourages the activity of the bacteria (a process known as microbial biohydrogenation). As a result, grassfed beef produces 2-3 times more CLA than cattle confined to a grain-filled diet.

What does this mean for your health? CLA reduces atherosclerosis risk and several published studies show that it can inhibit tumor growth, thus playing a powerful role in preventing cancer. A growing body of research in both animal and human studies shows that CLA reduces body fat accumulation.

Let’s Talk About Fat

It’s a fact that grass feeding cattle generates a leaner product than grain feeding. The difference is usually a 2-4 gram difference in total fat per 100 grams of meat. Why the difference? When cattle are fed high-energy grains, they have a higher fat content because they build less muscle (due to restricted movement in confined feedlots), are fed more glucose, and thus synthesize more fat. This makes grainfed beef higher in calorie content per gram of meat.

How does this translate in terms of saturated fat? Since grassfed beef has less total fat, it also contains up to 1.4 grams less total saturated fat per 100 grams of meat. Of this fat, most of it is “neutral”. Most of the saturated fat in grassfed beef is stearic acid, a type of saturated fat considered “neutral” because it has a “neutral” effect on blood cholesterol levels, neither raising nor lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol.

Can the same be said of grainfed cattle? Unfortunately, a review published in the Nutrition Journal found that most of the saturated fats found in grainfed beef are myristic and palmitic acid. These saturated fatty acids are considered to be more detrimental to cholesterol levels.

The bottom line? Grassfed beef has a healthier saturated fatty acid profile.

The Essentials

We all know how important getting our omega-3’s are. Omega 6 fatty acids are essential, too. What slips through the cracks, however, is how important it is that we get the right ratio of omega-6 to omega-3’s. An excess from one family interferes with the metabolism of the other. Without the proper metabolism of both families, we can’t absorb and benefit from either.

Several studies, including one published in the International Journal of Neuroscience and another published in the Journal of Animal Science, found that both the omega-3 content and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in grassfed beef is favorable.

What happens in grainfed cattle? Researchers found an interesting pattern: as grain is introduced and increased in grassfed cattle, the concentration of omega-3 fatty acids decreases.

From Farm to Table

If the nutritional characteristics are so different, it’s no surprise that the aroma, flavor, and look of the meat will, too. Does taste get compromised? Hardly! Most studies testing sensory qualities of the two sources found the juiciness to be same (just less greasy!). As a plus, grassfed beef has lower cooking times because of its lower fat content.

Meat is meat? Not quite!

Research is in! Not all meat is created (or fed) equal. Cattle diet can make a drastic difference. Grassfed beef is loaded with more nutrients and antioxidants. So, ask: Where does my food come from?

Nutrition Journal 2010, 9:10