Going Grass-Fed: The Nutrition and Environmental Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef

Thursday, September 20, 2007 - 4:48pm

By Katie Clark, MPH, RD

Beef is back. Red meat , which has for so long been scorned by the health-conscious, is reinventing itself with a grass-fed vengeance. Traditional grain-fed cattle produces certain cuts of beef that are high in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories. But an increase in the availability of grass-fed beef options yields a better nutrient profile and less environmental impact, proving that beef can be an environmentally and health-conscious component of your diet.

Grass-fed beef: is it healthier for you?

The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans warn us to limit intake of fats and oils high in saturated and/or trans fatty acids.1 After cheese, beef is the second-largest source of saturated fat in the American diet and diets high in saturated fat are correlated with increased risk of heart disease.2 Historically, this well-established relationship has been the cornerstone of dietitians' and cardiologists' recommendations to reduce red meat intake.

While grain-fed beef is indeed high in some nutrients you want to avoid (excessive fat and calories, cholesterol, and saturated fat), it is actually a good source of other more favorable parts of the diet. Extra-lean ground beef is a low-fat source of protein and contains considerable amounts of heme iron, the type of iron that is most readily absorbed by the body.

But most Americans don't eat (and most restaurants don't serve) extra-lean beef products. Instead, American beef intake has been synonymous with large portions of the fattier, marbled cuts that contribute the fat and flavor so identifiable to burgers and steaks. Unfortunately, these also contribute to our increasing waistlines and staggering national heart disease statistics.

Grass-fed cattle produce lower calorie meat and are better for the environment

Enter grass-fed beef. Cattle raised on a grass-fed diet produce a leaner animal than the conventional grain-fed and antibiotic-laden fat cow. The meat of the grass-fed cow is thus lower in fat, which produces a product lower in calories. Pasture-fed beef is also lower in saturated fat, a benefit for those concerned about heart health.3

In addition to its nutritional benefits, livestock grazed on grassland has an environmental advantage. The American Grassfed Association counts reduced reliance on commercial fertilizers, antibiotics, diesel, and gasoline among the environmental benefits when compared to conventional cattle farming.4 The American Dietetic Association commends the sustainable agriculture model of grassland-grazed livestock and acknowledges that in addition to nutritional benefits, grass-fed meats have a lower environmental impact than traditional products.5

What are the disadvantages of grass-fed beef?

While grass-fed beef may be a healthier and more environmentally-friendly alternative than grain-fed, it still has a number of drawbacks:

  • Higher prices: The high costs associated with running a grass-fed farm trickle down to the consumer, and grass-fed beef costs more than its conventional counterpart.6
  • Taste differences: Grass-fed beef tends to be gamier and because it is leaner, certain cooking methods may result in more tough, less-tender final products.
  • Additional nutrients: While grass-fed beef is often touted for its higher levels of vitamin E,  vitamin A, and omega-3 fatty acids , other food sources such as fruits, vegetables, fish, and whole grains remain superior sources of these nutrients.
  • Organic is not always grass-fed: Not all grass-fed beef is organic. Consumers must wade through confusing and unregulated labeling claims to determine which product is best for both the environment and their health.
  • Food-borne illness: Any ground beef product is more likely to harbor E. coli than solid beef cuts. Thorough cooking of ground beef, grass-fed or otherwise, is essential for avoiding food-borne disease.

Despite these limitations, the popularity of grass-fed beef is on the rise, and for good reason. The improved nutrient profile and environmental benefits make grass-fed beef a viable component of a well-balanced diet. As with all meats, it is important to keep portion sizes small, cook meats thoroughly, and augment your diet with other plant-based foods. But if you're a beef-lover, the increase in grass-fed varieties available on today's market offers a healthful and long overdue addition to your diet.

  1. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005. United States Department of Agriculture.
  2. When 90% lean = 50% fat. University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter. 2007 June;23(9):8.
  3. Noci, et al. The fatty acid composition of muscle fat and subcutaneous adipose tissue of pasture-fed beef heifers: influence of the duration of grazing. J Anim Sci. 2005 May;83(5):1167-7.
  4. The American Grassfed Association, 2003. Accessed via: http://www.americangrassfed.org/AGA%20FAQs.htm.
  5. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Food and Nutrition Professionals Can Implement Practices to Conserve Natural Resources and Support Ecological Sustainability. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 June;107(6):1033-1043.
  6. Palmer, S. Organic Meat - Natural Meat Steaks its Claim. Today's Dietitian 2006 September;7(9):36.