I was raised on a farm in the Midwest. We had a creek running through our 10 acres of pasture. The water brought hours of summer fun in addition to providing hydration for our animals as they grazed in the field. I showed horses for years as part of 4-H and enjoyed fresh beef thanks to the cow we would raise and butcher each year.
A recent conversation with Coach Nicole regarding grass-fed beef made me curious about how we raised our livestock. As I took a closer look at what those practices might have meant nutritionally for me and my family, I was surprised by what I found. Read on to learn what I discovered.
In the U.S., cattle start out eating grass. Many (about 75%) are grown to maturity with specially formulated grain-based feed, and cattle may be given antibiotics to prevent or treat disease. Likewise, both natural and/or synthetic hormones may be used to promote growth. Most cattle feed on pasture or hay in addition to grain. Some of those grass lands can be treated with pesticides that are ingested by the cattle as they eat.
Federal law requires all beef to be inspected by the USDA for wholesomeness which basically means it is safe and healthy. However not all beef must be graded. Grading is voluntary and based on various factors including the amount of marbling. Marbling is the white fat within the meat muscle. The greater the amount of marbling in beef, the higher grade assigned. Marbling makes beef more flavorful, tender and juicy but also adds saturated fat to the diet. About 2 percent of graded beef is USDA Prime. Consumers pay more for the prime grade compared to USDA Choice beef which is most prevalent in the supermarket. However, the lower priced and less marbled Choice beef is lower in saturated fat and slightly more nutritious.
For years, cattle farmers have found that corn-fed cows develop well-marbled flesh. Grass-fed cattle produce flesh that is lower in fat and marbling. Since the USDA grades beef in a way that rewards marbling, you can see why cattle farmers have continued with the grain feeding practice.
As we look beyond the voluntary USDA grade, we can easily see that the nutritional benefits (in addition to some environmental and animal welfare benefits) make grass-fed animals more attractive. Since grass-fed beef is lower in overall fat, it also provides few calories. A 6 ounce steak from a grass-fed steer can have 100 fewer calories than a 6-ounce steak from a grain-fed steer.
The meat of grass-fed animals has been found to have two to four times more omega-3 fatty acids than meat from grain-fed animals. Research has also found that meat and dairy from grass-fed animals is the richest known source of another type of good fat called “conjugated linoleic acid” or CLA (this will be a topic for another blog entry). These animals can provide three to five times more CLA than animals fed conventional diets. Grass-fed animals have also been found to provide four times as much vitamin E compared with conventionally fed animals.
Unfortunately it isn’t as simple as grain-fed or grass-fed cows. There are many combinations in between. Each of these various feeding practice combinations leads to different beef labels at the supermarket. So here is some basic information to help you select the most nutritious beef for your money. That might mean you pay more per pound, but it may result in more nutrition for your dollar as well.
Conventional Beef - typically raised using hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and feed lot/grain practices as part of raising the cattle. The beef may be certified as USDA Beef but could not be certified organic.
Natural Beef - could be raised using hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides and would typically use feed lots/grain feeding. The beef may be certified as USDA Beef but could not be certified organic.
Organic Beef - would not be raised using hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides but could include feed lots/grain feeding. This group would also include “grass finished” cattle and would be categorized as certified organic and could be certified as USDA Beef.
Grass-Fed Beef - would not be raised using hormones, antibiotics, pesticides or feed lots/grain feeding. This beef, however, would also not be certified as organic but could be certified as USDA. Beef.
Organic Grass-Fed Beef would be raised without hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, or feed lots/grain feeding. This beef would be certified as organic but perhaps not USDA Beef.
So what I discovered is that we raised our cows using a natural beef method. They were pasture and grain fed to produce the desired marbled meat. No hormones or pesticides were used, but occasionally an antibiotic was needed. So the beef I was raised on was U.S. certified but not certified organic and fairly nutritious but not optimal.
I will now pay a little more attention to beef labeling as I shop for my family. When given the opportunity, I may pay the slightly higher price for organically grass-fed beef knowing it will provide slightly more nutrition for my family.
Weigh in on what you think. Is it worth the additional money for less marbled but slightly more nutritious beef?
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