They still represent a tiny share of the overall beef market, but the number of grass fed cattle producers has been steadily increasing. One of the reasons consumer demand for grass fed beef has been growing has been the nutritional component; on its web site, the American Grass fed Association boasts, “Meat, dairy products, poultry and eggs from animals fed grass diets, rather than grain-based diets, are higher in beta carotene (Vitamin A), conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and Omega-3 fatty acids.”
The website went on to further discuss how research has shown these elements to be crucial in reducing the incidence of diseases like diabetes, cancer and high blood pressure. The AGA also notes the beef from grass fed cattle is lower in fat and calories.
Does that mean meat from grass fed cattle is better for you? Daniel Rule, professor of ruminant nutrition with the Department of Animal Science at the University of Wyoming, says, “There’s no clear-cut answer”—because those two claims, of healthier fat and lower calories, are contradictory.
Rule who has conducted research with lab animals on beef fat consumption and cholesterol, says he believes regardless of its source, lean beef is probably the most healthful alternative. “That implies there’s not very much fat in it,” Rule says. “Grass-fed beef, if done in a way that does not allow for excessive finish, will be mostly lean meat…Grass-fed producers who produce a lean beef, I think, are producing the right product.”
This is based on his research, which found that when the lab animals consumed a diet high in fat but low in cholesterol, the animals’ own blood cholesterol did not increase. “However,” he says, “when we added cholesterol to these animals’ diets, the diet that contained the cholesterol plus the beef fat…supported the greatest blood cholesterol level.” Saturated fat, such as beef tallow, by its nature also contains cholesterol. Rule says this conclusion was corroborated somewhat by a human study, which found when young adults with normal cholesterol ate a low-fat diet that contained both beef and beef fat, their cholesterol levels rose.
So, here’s the conundrum. If the healthiest meat for the consumer is the leanest meat…can the grass fed industry also argue that its product is healthier because it’s higher in omega-3 and CLA? Rule says grass feeders, along with cattle raisers who market their product as organic or natural, have turned the healthier fats angle into a significant marketing approach. But he says although his research does indicate the fat from grass-finished product is higher in omega-3 and CLA, “ I am not going to say that it’s a rich source of either of them for beef. If the consumer is eating lean beef, that means there’s just not that much fat. If there’s not that much fat, and these fatty acids represent a small proportion of the total fat, then the consumption of these fatty acids cannot be that great.” He attributes the confusion to what he calls “some poorly interpreted information from the dairy side of things.” There’s been more research on the effect of an all-grass diet on dairy production than there has been on beef, but as Rule says, virtually all of the nutrients a dairy cow consumes go into the production of milk; if there is omega-3 or CLA in the animal’s diet, more of it is concentrated in the end product. “You look at a beef animal compared with the milk produced in a day, and the amount of muscle produced in a day is going to be quite a bit less,” he says. “As you go through the entire growth phase of a beef animal those omega-3s, CLAs and other fatty acids are going to be spread quite a bit more thinly. So we can’t really quantify what’s going to happen in beef compared with dairy.”
Not all of the beneficial fats consumed by either a beef or dairy animal are going to wind up as part of the finished product; Rule says they first have to run what he calls “the bacterial gauntlet.” The gastro-intestinal track of cattle is designed so that feed is broken down by bacteria into components that are then taken up by the animal for its nutritional needs. Intestinal bacteria, he says, “do not like unsaturated fatty acids; bacteria look at them as a toxic substance, because it affects bacterial growth if there’s too many of them.” So the bacteria convert them to saturated fat, which leads to the health concerns associated with red meat.
Rule is conducting research on whether it’s possible for increase the amount of omega-3 in beef by supplementing the animal’s diet. The fat is known to be available in high quantities in fish; he’s using a supplement produced by Virtus Nutrition that’s already in use by the dairy industry, and is made up of fatty acids from fish oil that have been chemically bound to calcium. He says, “That allows a little over half of what that animal consumes to be protected from that ruminal breakdown. At the same time, because it’s complex of calcium, those fatty acids aren’t going to be available to have a negative effect on bacteria; they can go right on through the track and be absorbed intact.” But he emphasizes they’re not trying to test the supplement’s feasibility for the market—they’re just finding out whether it works at all.
With the increase in producing grass fed beef has come more research. The University of Georgia has a Grass-Fed Beef Initiative, while in the Intermountain West Rule says they’re “initiating a USDA project that focuses on the production of grass-fed beef from all levels, from forage production to animal production to the meat to the marketing and the nutritional aspects beyond that…As the industry begins to grow, so is interest in doing research to try to determine what’s really doable, what’s real, and are there any myths being promoted as far as nutritional content?”
Such as the healthfulness of eating highly fatty beef, whether or not the fat contains CLA or Omega-3. Grass fed beef takes a little longer to produce, but it can still be highly marbled. “In comparison to feedlot cattle, you can do it almost equally, but you can’t do it at the same rate,” Rule says. “They’re going to require a significantly greater intake. Most grass-fed producers are going to feed them out on pasture, as long as the pasture’s producing adequate supply. The more astute producers will be able to rotate; hopefully they can irrigate, and hopefully they’re on land that’s fairly productive for their forage. Otherwise, they’re going to have to supplement with harvested forage.” He says most forage is high enough in nutrient content to allow cattle to put on weight beyond simple muscle development.
Rule says he heard a presentation during which a producer said he tells clients who say they want lean beef, “You don’t want the lean, you want the fat; all the nutrition is in the fat.” He says he hopes other producers aren’t thinking the same way. “If they are,” he says, “grass-fed beef producers are going to work very hard to get a lot of fat deposited on their cattle on grass, and I think that’s going to be a mistake in the long run.”