As we all know I am a big proponent of the quality of food. Quality is king in my book. It trumps fat content, sugar content, and calorie content. Unfortunately, food quality, especially in the United States, seems to be making a steady decline. People are spending more money on cell phones, TV’s, and the latest tech gadgets, thus leaving less money for the things that are really important — like the quality of their food. Forty years ago, before the industrialization of food, the average household used to spend 17% of their income on food. Now, we spend less than 6% of our income on food. Yes, the government has made food more affordable by introducing conventionally farmed food, concentrated animal feeding operations (cafos), more herbicides, pesticides, chemicals, more processing, and introduced genetically modified foods. But at what cost?
Well, how about a staggering healthcare bill at 2.7 trillion dollars a year!
Yes, these food cost savings have not come without major health concern with increases in obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a slew of other diseases.
The truth is, the U.S. spends more money on healthcare than any other industrialized nation. At a steady increase of over 2% every year, the U.S. now spends an average $8,000 a year on every American. Yikes! So we are saving money on food, yet throwing it away on healthcare costs. Is there a correlation? I think so…
I want to discuss the quality of our food — more specifically, the quality of our beef. Is grass-fed, pastured beef really that much better than today’s norm for “conventionally farmed” beef? The government and conventional beef ranchers might tell you it is just as good. But you know me…I like to dig deeper into the story. And I believe there’s a big difference.
Well, I’ll let you decide…
Here are the main differences between grass-fed beef and conventional grain-fed beef that has become the norm.
Almost all conventionally farmed cattle are fed GMO (genetically modified) grains (primarily corn and soy). Not only are corn and soy cheap, but also they are great for fattening the animals faster. 75 years ago, cows were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. Today, cows are 14 to 16 months. You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass alone. This fast-fattening venture takes enormous quantities of corn, soy, protein supplements, antibiotics, and other drugs, including growth hormones.
Even worse yet, some large dairy and cattle farmers, in addition to feeding their animals corn and soy, are feeding them a certain amount of “ byproduct feed-stuff”— and it’s totally legal. In general, this means waste products from the manufacturing of human and animal food. This can include same species animals, diseased animals, hooves, skin, hair, manure, other wastes, plastic, bubble gum, candy, and garbage. Yum!
On the other hand pastured, grass-fed cattle are fed — are you ready? — grass. Well, to be honest they are fed grass, weeds, shrubs, clovers, and anything that is green and is within reach. More importantly, cows can digest and absorb these plant foods and nutrients they contain. Which brings us to the next topic…
2. Health of the animal.
Cows are meant to eat grass. Unlike humans, all ruminant animals including cows, bison, and sheep can digest grass and cellulose (grass fiber) due to a four-compartment stomach. This unique stomach allows for a re-chewing process (referred to as ruminating) that allows these animals to fully digest highly fibrous foods like grass. This is why grass is an ideal energy source for them.
During the normal digestive process, bacteria in the rumen of cattle produce a variety of acids. When animals are kept on grass pastures, they produce copious amounts of saliva that neutralize the acidity. This salvia allows the rumen to remain at a neutral ph, which is ideal for cows. A feedlot diet of corn, soy, and byproducts is low in roughage, so the animals do not ruminate as long, nor do they produce as much saliva. The net result is an increase in acid or acidosis. Over time, acidosis can lead to a condition called “rumenitis,” which is an inflammation of the wall of the rumen. Eventually, the wall of the rumen becomes ulcerated and no longer absorbs nutrients as efficiently. This can lead to ulcers, liver abscesses, asphyxiation due to bloating, feedlot polio due to a vitamin B deficiencies, and finally death.
The end result is very sick cattle. Typically, these feedlot cattle farmers try to manage the grain-caused ailments with a medicine chest of drugs, including ionophores (to buffer acidity) and antibiotics (to reduce liver abscesses). An estimated 70% of the nation’s antibiotics are fed to cattle and poultry to prevent illness and increase growth. (Just another sign that the drug industry has an unhealthy relationship with the food industry.) This means a meat product that is far less superior not only in quality but in nutritional value.
At the end of the day, a grass-fed cow produces a better product. In a 2009 study in the Journal of Animal Science, the USDA and researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina showed that grass-fed beef is better for human health in a number of ways.
Grass-fed beef has:
1. Less overall fat content*
2. More beta-carotene
3. More vitamin E
4. More B vitamins: Thiamin and Riboflavin
5. More minerals: Calcium, Potassium, and Magnesium
6. A more even ratio between Omega-3 and 6 (less Omega-6 is found in grass-fed beef)
7. More CLA, a potential cancer fighter
8. More Selenium and Iron
*While total fat content decreased. The percentage of saturated fat is higher or the same, while the percentages of Omega-6 and monounsaturated is lower.
4. Animal care.
All cows for the first 4 to 6 months of their lives are pasture-fed. The difference comes in the latter part of their lives when conventionally farmed cattle are sent to feedlots, which is a factory feeding system for livestock. Large feedlots are called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and can house up to a whopping 150,000 or more steer at one time. Most pastured grass-fed cattle are on a ranch of about 150. Cattle are delivered to feedlots to be fattened up on a very calorie-dense diet consisting of about 95% grains. Remember, corn and soy are fattening agents. This government feeding system allows for very little roaming, an unnatural diet, and in many inhumane living conditions, like standing in their own manure for weeks or even months.
Once the cattle are fattened up and reach their finishing weight, they are sent to slaughterhouses. Sounds like an amazing life, huh? Both feedlots and slaughterhouses are under constant scrutiny for affecting the stress level of livestock. You can only imagine the level a stress an animal must have after being confined for months, force-fed an unnatural diet, and then led down a ramp to its death. High stress leads to chronic levels of cortisol running through the animal’s blood and muscles — muscle that will be soon delivered to you and me in the form of a steak or burger.
All grass-fed pastured animals live on the pasture their entire lives. They are allowed to graze freely until they reach full growth, which is usually 1-3 years after a grain-fed cow. This is one reason why grass-fed meat is far more expensive than grain-fed.
In addition, grass-fed farmers try and take extreme care in the slaughtering of their animals. Most ranchers either slaughter the animals on the farm or take them to small independent slaughterhouses. The ranchers go to great lengths to try and keep their cattle calm. Some will even stay with their animals through the entire slaughtering process to ensure they are being treated with the upmost care.
Personally, I try to only eat grass-fed meats. To me, conventionally farmed beef and grass-fed beef are two completely different products. It is like the difference between a Ford Fiesta and a Ferrari — no comparison. I believe one reason beef has received such a bad name in the past, is not because of the actual beef, but from how the beef was “brought to table”. To be honest, most studies on the dangers of eating red meat come from people eating conventionally farmed beef — not grass-fed beef. The current studies on grass-fed beef prove it is a far superior product — and far healthier.
Now, I am not saying to go out and eat tons of grass-fed beef every day. I only eat red meat 1-2 times a week. Grass-fed meat can be very healthy for you, but like anything, it should be eaten in moderation. All meat (including grass-fed beef, chicken, pork, and lamb), because of their high levels of tryptophan and cysteine, can be somewhat inflammatory, and harder to digest than other proteins like eggs, dairy, broth, fish, and gelatin. Like I have always said, there are good things and bad things in all foods. So listen to your body and do not over do it. Basically, don’t be afraid to enjoy a grass-fed burger or steak once or twice a week. Know it is good for you, and know you do need it!
Your Optimal Health Coach,
“Disclaimer: I am an exercise physiologist, personal trainer, nutritional and lifestyle coach, not a medical doctor. I do not diagnose, prescribe for, treat or claim to prevent, mitigate or cure any human disease or physical problem. I do not provide diagnosis, care treatment or rehabilitation of individuals, nor apply medical, mental health or human development principles. I do not prescribe prescription drugs nor do I tell you to discontinue them. I provide physical and dietary suggestions to improve health and wellness and to nourish and support normal function and structure of the body. If you suspect any disease please consult your physician.”Reference:
Eziekel J Emanuel. Spending more money doesn’t make us healthier., New York Times, Oct 27, 2011
Household Expenditure on Food, 2010, USDA: http://www.bls.gov/cex/
Cynthia A Daley, Amber Abbott1, Patrick S Doyle, Glenn A Nader and Stephanie Larson: A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal 2010, 9:10 doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10
H. K. Biesalski: Meat as a Component of a healthy diet – are their any risks or benefits if meat is avoided in the diet? Meat Science Volume 7, Issue 3 July 2005, pages 509-524.
P.T. Garcia, N. A. Pensel, A. M. Sancho, N.J. Latimori, A.M. Kloster, M.A. Amigone, J.J. Castol: Beef lipids in relation to animal breed and nutrition in Argentina. Meat Science, Volume 79, Issue 3, Pages 500-508
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Journal Animal Science 2008, 86:3575-85