Navigating the Meat Counterby Amylee Amos PhD, RDN, IFMCPNutrition
Similar to the convoluted egg aisle of the grocery store, navigating the meat counter is battle of nomenclature and seemingly endless option. Not only do you have all of the different cuts to choose from, you’ve also got organic, all-natural, grass-fed, grain-fed, grass-fed and grain finished. In some stores there’s even color coded numbers, ranging from one to five. Where’s the health savvy shopper to start?
The beef industry is arguably the most corrupt industry of our modern world (I’ll pause for the emails of industry backlash to flood my inbox). When you shop for beef, you are coming head to head with the worst of capitalism and corporate greed. And your purchase is your vote. There are so many factors to consider as you meander past the meat cases: political, environmental, ethical, nutritional. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on what the different options of meat mean in terms of their nutritional composition and impact on health. I should point out though, that in some cases, it’s impossible to separate the nutritional quality of meat from the animal’s living conditions, so there may be some crossover there. Here’s the basics that you need to know when looking at beef options.
This is the meat you are buying if the label does not specify the cow’s feed. Grain fed cows are fed corn, wheat, soy, and other grains. The primary issue with this is that those grains are not part of a cow’s natural diet. Basically, we’re going against nature when we feed cows grain (just like we’re going against nature when we feed ourselves McDonald’s- that’s not what we as humans are meant to eat…). And yet grain fed beef is without a doubt the most common beef available at your local grocery store. So, why is grain feeding the norm? It all comes down to money. (Surprised? Probably not). Feeding cows grains is incredibly lucrative. A diet rich in corn, soy, and/or wheat allow the cows to grow fast, allowing them to be ready for slaughter much earlier. Also, grain based diets mean you don’t need acres of land for pasture. In fact many grain fed cows are kept in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) or feed lots, which often means the cow has little if any room to move around for the entirety of its life. The focus of CAFOs is to convert cows into beef as quickly as possible, with no regard for the life of the living animal.
But ethics aside, what’s the problem with grain fed beef? Well a lot. The level of polyunsaturated omega 6 fatty acids are higher in grain fed beef (1). While omega 6 fatty acids are not in themselves problematic, the issue lies in the ratio between these fats and omega 3 fatty acids. The ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats in grain fed beef is extremely undesirable. In general the average American has extremely high intake of omega 6 fats (from things like conventionally produced meats, processed vegetable cooking oils, and more) and seriously low levels of omega 3 fats (found in things like fatty fish and nuts). The imbalance in this ratio contributes to chronic widespread inflammation, and a diet high in grain fed beef exacerbates this issue.
Additionally, the major fatty acid in the polyunsaturated fats of beef is arachidonic acid. This is a naturally inflammatory compound, that in high quantities contributes to a low grade inflammation of the body, which is one of the primary contributors to all of the chronic diseases of aging, including Alzheimer’s disease. Grain fed beef has much higher levels of arachidonic acid, specifically grain fed beef contains twice as much arachidonic acid as grass fed beef (1). Arachidonic acid is what makes beef itself inflammatory. The higher amount of arachidonic acid in grain fed beef makes this a much greater problem.
Our primary focus for the problems with grain fed beef is the suboptimal nutrition profile; however, I often wonder about how the animals living conditions contribute to the nutritional composition of the meat. When we are stressed, certain hormones soar, others plummet, inflammatory cytokines are secreted, and a myriad of other cellular processes occur- and not in our favor. If this is happening with the cow, because I could imagine life and death in a CAFO is highly stressful, how is the physiology of stress impacting the meat we’re eating? While much research has been done on how stress impacts meat quality (2), research is needed on the impact of the animal’s stress on nutrition quality.
The major component of a cow’s natural diet is grass. This is what cows eat, if left to their own devices, so the cow is healthiest when fed this diet. Grass fed beef is sometimes labeled as pasture raised beef, which indicates that the cow spends its life, or the majority of it, grazing on pasture, eating grass, and moving around. Although just like with eggs, you’re looking for grass fed or pasture raised beef, not free-range. From an ethical standpoint, this is certainly a superior method of raising cows; however as mentioned, this also costs far more to produce, and those prices are reflected back to the consumer in the grocery store.
But fortunately, those extra dollars you’re spending are providing you with an improved nutritional profile. Grass fed beef has higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids compared with grain fed beef (3). This means that grass fed beef has less of an inflammatory effect on the body than does grain fed. Overall grass fed beef is has a lower fat content than grain fed beef, which makes perfect sense given their diet.
Even more impressive, grass fed beef has higher levels of certain vitamins and antioxidants. If you look really closely at the fat from a piece of grass fed beef, you’ll notice that it has a yellowish hue. Conversely, fat on a piece of grain fed meat is distinctly white. The yellow color on the grass fed fat comes from the much higher carotenoid levels, a precursor to vitamin A. Studies also show that grass fed beef has increased levels of vitamin E, glutathione, and superoxide dismutase, all of which have potent antioxidant capabilities (4).
Grass Fed, Grain Finished:
Just to ensure that you’re fully confused when trying to make a decision at the beef counter, you’ll also find grass fed, but grain finished beef. This is exactly as it sounds- the cow spends most of its life on pasture eating grass, but before its slaughter, the cow is fed a grain-based diet. Why would this even be an option? Well people tend to prefer the flavor of grain fed meats. Consumers have ranked grain fed meats as having a better flavor profile, claiming it to be more tender, juicy, and fatty (5). Grass fed beef kind of tastes a bit, well, grassy. Not exactly the buzz word that you’d normally find on a high end menu. So, producers have tried to appease consumers by allowing the cow to graze on grass and then literally ‘finish’ with grain. The issue is that there are no finite regulations regarding exactly how long the cow was fed grass versus grain, making it very difficult to predict the nutritional quality. While this beef may taste better (at least to the American palette), the beef will likely not have the same nutritional advantages as grass fed beef.
As with everything, organic is also an option for beef and other meats. Both grass fed beef and brain fed beef can be organic. A common misconception is assuming that all grass fed beef is organic, and this is not the case. The organic certification in terms of livestock, means that the producers adhered to certain regulations. For one, it indicates that only organic feed was used to feed the animal. That can mean organic grains for a grain fed cow, or organic grass- so grass that’s growth without the use of synthetic pesticides. This makes a huge difference for those wanting to avoid pesticides such a glyphosate- the signature ingredient in Monsanto’s notorious Round Up, which has the ability to wreak havoc on the body. For cows not on pasture, organic beef also means that the cow had reasonable access to the outdoors during certain weather conditions (although I should note that these are relatively new regulations, and producers still have several years before they have to fully comply with them) (6).
Additionally, organic beef means that the cows were not given antibiotics. Living conditions such as those in CAFOs breed infection and disease, which can decimate feedlots. To avoid such catastrophe, producers feed cows antibiotics prophylactically. In other words, all of the cows, even the healthy ones, are given antibiotics just to avoid any potential infection. This massive antibiotic exposure is passed on to us, and as a result much of our own antibiotic exposure is secondary. If the beef is labeled organic, you can be sure that the cow was not given antibiotics or any growth hormones.
So, what’s the takeaway?
The best choice for beef is organic, grass fed beef. Because it’s organic, you know that you’re not consuming secondary antibiotics, which have an extremely detrimental effect on the microbiome. With the organic beef you’re also steering clear of growth hormones. By also making sure your beef is grass fed, you’re getting the best possible ratio of fatty acids, as well as higher amounts of vitamins and antioxidants.
But the key takeaway here is that beef should be consumed as a condiment, rather than as a main course. Our standard American diet of a 12oz steak with a baked potato and pathetic side Caesar is incredibly disease promoting. If you choose to eat beef, do so in very small quantities. Use it to flavor your food, such as in a braise or stew. That way you can enjoy the flavor without taking a hit on your health. We know from the basic science that diets high in meat promote growth pathways, which leads to accelerated cellular aging (7). Additionally, the healthiest, longest living communities of the world eat very little meat. They save it for special occasions, and when they do eat it, it’s the absolute best possible quality (8). The epidemiologic studies support the idea that meat should be consumed in small amounts (9). So there you have it- the evidence shows us that for disease prevention and wellness, we should consume very little meat, but if and when you choose to do so, be a health savvy shopper and get the best possible quality for your health (which in most cases is also the most ethical).
1. Wood, J.D., Enser, M., Fisher, A.V., Nute, G.R., Sheard, P.R., Richardson, R.I., Hughes, S.I., & Whittington, F.M. (2008). Fat deposition, fatty acid composition, and meat quality: a review. Meat Science, 78(4): 343-358.
2.) Ferguson, D.M. & Warner, R.D. (2008). Have we underestimated the impact of pre-slaughter stress on meat quality in ruminants? Meat Science, 80(1): 12-19.
3.) Ponnampalam, E.N., Mann, N.J., & Sinclair, A.J. (2006). Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in australian beef cuts: Potential impact on human health. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 15(1):21.
4.) Daley, C.A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P.S., Nader, G.A., & Larson, S. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal, 9(1):10.
5.) Priolo, A., Micol, D., Agabriel, J., Prache, S., & Dransfield, E. (2002). Effect of grass or concentrate feeding systems on lamb carcass and meat quality. Meat Science, 62: 179-185.
6.) Starmer, E. (2017). Supporting Organic Integrity with Clear Livestock and Poultry Standards. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retreived from: https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2017/01/18/supporting-organic-integrity-clear-livestock-and-poultry-standards
7.) Fontana, L., Partridge, L., & Longo, V. (2010). Extending Healthy Life Span: from Yeast to Humans. Science, 328: 321-326.
8.) Buettner, D. (2012). The blue zones: 9 lessons for living longer from the people who've lived the longest (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: National Geographic.
9.) McEvoy, C., Temple, N., & Woodside, J. (2012). Vegetarian diets, low-meat diets and health: A review. Public Health Nutrition, 15(12), 2287-2294.