BEEF, as we've been told "Its whats for dinner!" But what about the beef. It seems to come with so many labels now, more than I remember as a child.
I grew up in Texas where cattle ranchers make up over 250k of the farms and ranches and cover more than 130.2 million acres. (source: www.thc.texas.gov)
These beef cattle would be scattered all over the landscape seemingly thriving on the open pasture land eating nothing but grass.
As people and their diets evolved, so did their taste for labels and their interest piqued into knowing more about where their food was coming from. Terms like "Organic", a relatively new word, wasn't even widely used prior to the 1940's. It wasn't even until the 1980's that the government caught on and began to regulate it. Many farmers can farm using all of the same methods of "organic" farming but using the term is a big no-no, unless you have subscribed to and registered with the IFOAM and USDA.
Now we have "Pasture Raised", "Conventional", "Traditional", "Grass-Fed", "Cage-Free", and so on. I could list so many more but lets keep this relevant to Beef. It didn't take long for the USDA to require "privilege" to use these labels on the actual product.
We are starting to hear more about "Grass Fed" beef but even within this newer realm of name calling it gets even more complicated. You can have grass-fed, grain finished, grain started and grass finished, and purely grass fed. But what does this even mean? For some it evokes a certain level of confidence into their food system. They think of healthier and more ethical farming methods and wholesome family farmers and ranchers. But what if I told you that these terms mean nothing in terms of their upbringing? What if I told you that this beef could have been injected with hormones and antibiotic and raised in the dirty little feedlots on corn and soy? It seems an entire nation may have been indoctrinated in believing something is healthier simply by title.
I'm not here to change your mind but rather to subscribe to something wholesome and basic: Want what a beef farmer wants, and its this: A healthy cow.
What does “grass fed” or “grain fed” really mean?
(sourced from www.feastandfarm.com)
First, know that the majority of a cow’s diet is grass and hay. For cows who are grain fed, it’s only 10% of a cow’s total diet during their lifetime–the rest is still grass. In warm weather cows eat pasture and in cold weather months cows are fed hay (which is dried grass if you didn’t know). In the Northeast, supplemental grains are offered to ensure cows are getting the necessary vitamins and minerals not generally found in our grasses or depleted in dry grasses.
Cows that are grass fed only eat hay or pasture throughout their life and are termed “grass fed”.
Cows that eat grass and also are fed grain either to supplement their hay and pasture allotment or closer to the end of their life before slaughter are termed “grain fed”.
However these terms only refer to a cow’s diet and not much about its lifestyle. They tell you nothing about if that cow was in a pen and fed exclusively grass/hay. It doesn’t tell you if that cow was raised by organic or certified naturally grown standards. It doesn’t tell you if it was healthy at the time of slaughter.
Grass fed beef vs. grain fed also doesn’t tell you if that cow has had antibiotics or growth hormones during its life if that matters to you.
Remember: The terms grass fed or grain fed tell you nothing about how that cow was raised or its health at slaughter.
Why does everyone promote grass fed beef?
Because it’s trendy and many people do believe it’s healthier–but there’s always a catch or two. From a macros and nutritional standpoint, grass fed and grain fed beef are strikingly similar. According to the National Beef Checkoff–a source for beef information that’s non biased–here are the nutritional statistics for grass fed beef vs. grain fed:
Total fat: 2.9
Total fat: 5.2
Fat amounts on grain fed beef will be higher because grain fed cows have more marbling or fat throughout the meat. You can see that both grass and grain fed are very similar in protein, zinc and iron levels and beef from either source contains more than 10 different essential nutrients. There’s not the big difference in nutrition everyone would want you to believe.
The omega 3 vs 6 debate: Why some say grain fed is unhealthy
So here’s where the debate comes in. Americans as a whole eat way too many omega-6 fatty acids. Say a big thank you to vegetable oil and processed food for that one. Everyone wants to blame the beef for it when no one is looking at the amount of seed oils (canola, vegetable, safflower and sunflower) and fast food that’s fried in it that we’re eating in this country.
Eating omega-6’s in moderation may not be an issue as long as they are outweighed by the inflammatory-fighting healthy benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Your diet should be predominantly omega-3 fats like those from fish, avocados, and nuts and seeds.
Not surprisingly, cattle that are grain fed are higher in omega-6 fats mostly because the grain sources they are fed like corn and soybeans are naturally high in those fats. So people like to say that grain fed beef is unhealthy because of its omega-6 ratios. Grain fed beef has a ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 of 9:1. Grass fed has a ratio of 2:1. So there are 9 times more omega-6 fats in grain fed compared to just 2 times as many in grass fed.
What matters more when it comes to buying beef?
I think what matters more is the life of the cow. How it was raised (including what it was fed) and what medications it took. Did that cow live on green pastures with fresh water and a place to graze? Was it healthy at slaughter or had it been sick lately? Your store bought beef will never be able to answer those questions.
When you source your beef, get it local, and get it from a farmer so you can ask questions. Find out about the cow’s life and get one that’s strong, has shiny fur, looks healthy and is out on pasture. Make your healthy beef buying decision be based on the actual farm vs the label they carry.
So where does beef at the grocery store come from?
It can come from a few places. In 2020, for every pound of US beef this country exported, we imported 1.5 pounds. And that’s just the meat itself we were tracking. The number of imported cattle is even higher and the beef is coming from Canada, Australia and much of Mexico and Latin America. Once the meat passes inspection here in the United States, it gets a “product of the USA” label even if it wasn’t raised here.
US raised beef is largely produced on farms all over the country then those cattle are sold and shipped out West to a feedlot facility where they are grain fed a scientifically balanced diet for a specific time before going to one of the big 4 meat processors in the United States. These 4 companies process, control and ship 85% of all beef in the United States.
And that’s the meat you find in your grocery store. Processed and packed in black plastic containers in long strings you never can seem to break up when it cooks. You don’t know where it came from and next to nothing about its life.
That’s your grain fed supermarket meat.
Want what a beef farmer wants, and its this: A healthy cow.
If you have been buying grocery store meat and have recently decided to support your local farmer to buy their meat instead, please look beyond their label. Rather, look at the farm itself. Meet the farmer in person and develop a better understanding of their production.
It might be easy to turn away a pasture raised slab of beef simply because it wasn't labeled "Grass Fed" but that certainly does not qualify that meat as unhealthy. As a matter of fact, that animal was likely raised on grass, skipped a commercial feedlot, had a name, lived on open land all of its life and was well tended to by its farmer. It's a fact that sick, injured animals cost farmers and ranchers way more money than healthy ones. Trust the people you are doing business with to understand their line of work. Know they practise humane methods to ensure longevity and profitability. Find a local farmer and build a relationship with them. Support them in all the ways you are able to and help educate others around you. A label is just that, a label. The truth really isn't that hard to see, if you open your eyes. Its likely on a roadside pasture in a small town near you, eating grass.