To say one food is better than another, you have to prove it contains more nutrients and less toxins. The goal is to provide maximum nutrition with minimal damage.
Grass-fed meat fits this criterion perfectly. It contains more antioxidants, omega-3’s, CLA, TVA, trace minerals, and vitamins than any other food, including conventional meat.
The first study we’ll look at was published in 2006. It measured the fatty acid composition of grass-fed versus grain-fed meat. Before we dive into the research, here’s what you need to know.
1. Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential component of nerve tissue. They modify how the body responds to stress and control numerous other metabolic processes. Most people eat too many omega-6 fats and not enough omega-3.
2. CLA is a type of naturally occurring trans-fatty acid that improves brain function, causes weight loss, and reduces your risk of cancer.
What a steer eats dictates how much of these compounds are in the meat. This study compared how grain feeding effects this process.
Study #1: 2006
Researchers compared the fatty acid compositions of three kinds of feeding. Each group contained 18 head of cattle.
The first group was fed grains 80 days before slaughter, the second group was fed “by-product feedstuff” for 200 days, and the third group was grass-finished and grass-fed.
Group #1: Short Term Grain Feeding (80 days)
Group #2: Long Term Feedlot Rations (150-200 days)
Group #3: Grass Feeding (Life time)
The grass-fed cows had more omega-3’s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Just 80 days of grain feeding was enough to destroy the omega-3 content of the beef. CLA content plummeted in the same amount of time. The longer the animals were fed grains, the lower the quality of the meat.
“There was a significantly higher level of total omega-3 (n-3) and long chain n-3 FA in grass-fed beef than the grain-fed groups regardless of cut types.”
The omega-3 quantity in grain-fed meat was so low, it didn’t qualify as a meaningful dietary source. Grass-fed meat has enough omega-3 to be considered a good source of n-3 fats.
Grain feeding significantly reduces the omega-3 and CLA content of meat. The feedlot cattle had the lowest levels, the grain-fed cattle were in the middle, and the grass-fed cattle had the most. The longer an animal is fed grains, the lower the nutrient content of the meat.
Grain-fed beef is much lower in omega-3’s and CLA
The longer steers are fed grains, the lower the omega-3 and CLA content.
Feedlot cattle have the lowest amount of omega-3‘s. Regular grain-fed cattle are slightly better.
The last part of a cow’s life is the most critical in terms of fat quality
Fats can be the most nutrient rich part of your diet, or they can cause numerous diseases – depending on which fat we’re talking about. What an animal eats will change the kind of fat in its tissues. If an animal eats a suboptimal diet including grains and legumes, its fat loses much of its nutrient quality in surprisingly little time.
The second study we will look at examines fats present in grass-fed meat besides omega-3’s and CLA, along with various nutrients stored in the meat and the fat.
The next study compared a broad spectrum of nutrients in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. It measured carotenoids, the total amount of fat, and the types of fat including:
Cholesterol (this isn’t a fat, but its still important)
Total Saturated Fat
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
Trans-Vaccenic Acid (TVA)*
*Trans-vaccenic acid is metabolized into conjugated linoleic acid, and performs similar functions. It can speed fat loss, fight cancer, and improve brain function. It is technically a naturally occurring “trans-fat” but it does not cause the same the negative health problems that margarine or hydrogenated fats do.
Study #2: Conventional vs. Grass-fed
In 2008, meat samples were collected from around the country at three different times. Grass-fed meat was taken from 13 states, and grain-fed meat was collected from Ohio, Texas, and South Dakota. The nutrient content of the grass-fed meat was analyzed and compared to the grain-fed meat.
The grass-fed meat had higher levels of carotenoids, making the fat appear yellow. Generally, the more carotenoids in a substance, the more nutrients it contains. Yellow fat (like grass-fed butter) is a sign of high nutrient density. One of the things you’ll notice when cooking grass-fed meat is the yellowish color of the fat.
More carotenoids = more antioxidants+nutrients (and more flavor too).
Grass-fed meat had slightly less total fat, but both types of meat were considered lean. Neither one of them was more than 4.3 percent fat for the cuts studied.
The real difference was the type of fat in each meat. Grass-fed meat was higher in saturated fat (that’s a good thing, but for you fat-phobic people, there are other studies that show grass-fed meat has less saturated fat), omega-3’s, CLA, and trans-vaccenic acid (similar to CLA). Both grain-fed and grass-fed animals had about the same amount of omega-6, total polyunsaturated fat, and cholesterol.
Grass-fed meat had the same amount of omega-6 fatty acids, and far more omega-3‘s. This means grass-fed meat has a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. The higher levels of saturated fat are a bonus. You want to avoid an overabundance of polyunsaturated fat.
Grass-fed meat was higher in
Carotenoids and trace nutrients.
CLA and TVA (super healthy fats)
Grass-fed and grain-fed meat had the same amount of omega-6 fats, cholesterol, and total polyunsaturated fats.
One of the most important health markers is your omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio. A commonly cited healthy ratio is 2:1. Most Americans have a ratio of 20 or 30 to 1. Along with other dietary measures, consuming grass-fed meat will help improve this ratio. Just like in the first study grass-fed meat had more omega-3’s, CLA, and TVA. Grass-fed meat has more antioxidants, and a broader spectrum of healthy fats. The higher antioxidant content in grass-fed meat will also protect the omega-3’s and omega-6’s from oxidizing.
When it comes to meat, grass-fed and grain-fed don’t even compare. Go grass-fed, every time.