“Grass-fed meat” has become something of a catchphrase in the health and culinary worlds; an increasing number of grocery stores and restaurants now offer grass-fed meat, and the topic has received no shortage of attention in the media. However, grass-fed meat is not some revolutionary new trend – it is simply meat from animals raised as nature intended, and a highly nutritious food that has been a part of the human diet since the dawn of evolution. Research demonstrates that grass-fed meat is more nutritious than grain-fed meat, and the farming practices involved in its production are holistic and sustainable for the environment. Read on to learn about the many benefits of grass-fed meat, and why it deserves a place in your diet.
Red meat: No longer a nutritional “bad guy”
Before delving into the health and environmental benefits of grass-fed meat, I think it is important to clear the air regarding the negative reputation red meat has gained in our society. For more than fifty years, red meat consumption has been a contentious issue. It has been blamed for a wide variety of physical ills, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Sensational headlines have plastered the covers of countless magazines and newspaper articles, telling the world that red meat is unhealthy, even downright dangerous. However, high-quality scientific research indicates that these arguments are unsubstantiated and misleading. The shaky research that has led to the “red meat is bad” dogma is largely based on observational studies, which draw inferences from a sample of a population. The problem with observational studies are that they cannot prove causation. For example, an observational study might observe that people who eat more red meat have a higher rate of colon cancer; however, this oversimplified inference does not consider the vast number of other factors that might be at play. Observational studies do not consider the type of red meat people are eating, or how the meat was cooked – the consumption of processed or char-broiled red meat is going to have very different health implications compared to unprocessed, lightly-cooked red meat. People who eat more processed red meat may also be more likely to eat a highly-processed, nutrient-depleted diet, smoke, drink excess alcohol, and avoid exercise. As you can see, any one of these variables could confound the supposed direct link between red meat and colon cancer.
In addition to the problems with observational studies of red meat intake, many of the studies on red meat and health problems such as cancer have reported inconclusive results. Unbiased research has described the associations between red meat intake and cancer as “weak in magnitude” and “inconsistent.” (1)(2) Randomized controlled trials, the gold-standard of scientific research, have also found that there is no consistent relationship between saturated fat intake from foods such as red meat and the incidence of cardiovascular disease. (3)(4) Overall, the vilification of red meat has been based on shoddy research, and has had significant effects on our perception of red meat.
Grass-fed meat and human evolution
When we look at red meat consumption from an ancestral health perspective, it becomes even more clear that this is not an inherently unhealthy food. Research indicates that dietary lean red meat, from animals that consumed a diet of grass and other forage, played a crucial role in driving human evolution. (5) We are evolutionarily inclined to benefit from grass-fed red meat, whether that meat comes from cattle or game animals.
The benefits of grass-fed meat
Raising animals on grass benefits animals, the environment, and our own physical health. Here are some of the most important benefits of raising animals in pasture, and consuming grass-fed meat:
1. A diet of grass promotes animal health
Forage (grass and other plants) are the natural diet of ruminant animals, which include cattle, goats, sheep, deer, antelope, elk, and bison. The digestive system of ruminant animals is uniquely designed to handle an herbivorous diet; grass and other leafy plants supply ruminant animals with the nutrition they need to thrive. There is also evidence that naturally-occurring chemical compounds in the plants, such as tannins and phenolic acids, help grazing animals fight of infection and maintain good health. (6)
Feeding ruminant animals a grain-based diet, as is done in industrial agriculture, goes against their biological needs, and can promote illnesses ranging from pneumonia to liver disease. The grain-based diet fed to cattle on industrial feedlots has been found to promote the growth of E. coli O157:H7 in their digestive tracts. E.coli O157:H7 is a pathogenic bacterium implicated in food poisoning that is becoming increasingly antibiotic-resistant. When the bacterium infects feedlot cattle, it not only makes them ill, but may also pose a risk of foodborne illness for humans who consume the meat from the infected cattle. (7)
In my opinion, raising animals on pasture also has a positive impact on their welfare in a way that goes beyond their physical health. I have always cared intensely about animals, and my first forays into nutrition began when I became a vegan at age nineteen, due to my concerns for animal welfare and the environment. However, I ultimately learned that I personally could not be healthy on a vegan diet. Around the time I learned this, I was introduced to grass-fed meat. I learned about local farms that raised animals in this way, and realized that this form of animal agriculture seemed to care about the quality of life of the animals involved. In a holistically-managed grass farm, animals are able to carry out lives that are in line with their needs – outdoors, eating their natural diet. This promotes animal health on a holistic scale, rather than just “managing” disease, as is done on industrial farms.
2. Raising animals on grass is sustainable
Livestock production is one of the most environmentally-destructive processes taking place on our planet. It necessitates deforestation to grow monocrop plots of soybeans and corn, which are used to feed industrially-farmed animals. Conventional livestock production also pollutes our water and air, confines animals to horrific living conditions, and involves the use of pharmaceutical drugs in the animals, the residues of which can end up in our food. This form of livestock production is extremely unsustainable and damaging to every component of the food chain.
Raising animals on grass, on the other hand, is a holistic method of farming that mimics the rhythms of nature. Farm animals allowed to graze on grass play a crucial role in nutrient cycling, which is the movement and exchange of organic and inorganic matter between organisms in an ecosystem. For example, cows contribute to nutrient cycling by first grazing on grass, and then by fertilizing the grass, and potentially other crops, with their manure. Sunlight provides the energy for growing the grass that feeds the cows, and various other animals and plants in the environment provide their own inputs to the system. Thus, in this cyclic system, there is little need for unsustainable inputs such as fossil fuels, pesticides, and herbicides. Research has found that grass-based farming reduces greenhouse gas emissions when the grass ecosystem as a whole is taken into account.(8) Raising animals on grass may therefore lead to a healthier earth, healthier animals, and ultimately, healthier meat.
3. Grass-fed meat is higher in omega-3 fatty acids
A diet of grass promotes higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in animals compared to a grain-based diet. Omega-3 fatty acids play an important role in human health, and research indicates that many of us are deficient in this type of fat. While fatty cold-water fish are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, they are not necessarily the most sustainable omega-3 source for people who live far from the ocean. Grass-fed meat may be able to help fill this gap, by providing a high-quality source of omega-3 fatty acids. (8)(9)
4. Grass-fed meat is higher in CLA
The meat of animals raised on grass is also higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed animals. CLA may have anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties, improve blood lipid levels, and increase insulin sensitivity. (10)(11)(12)
5. Grass-fed meat has a higher antioxidant content
Carotenoids, such as β-carotene, are pigments in plants that possess antioxidant properties. Β-carotene is a precursor for vitamin A in the human body. Ruminant animals raised on grass contain higher levels of carotenoids in their muscle tissues than grain-fed animals. By eating grass-fed meat, you ingest these carotenoids, which can then be converted into vitamin A in your body. Vitamin A is important for many physiological functions, including eye and skin health, cell differentiation, reproduction, and immune system health. Grass-fed meat is also higher in vitamin E than grain-fed meat; (13) vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that may protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer, and enhance immune function.
In addition to β-carotene, grass-fed meat is also higher in glutathione, superoxide dismutase, and catalase, enzymes that act as antioxidants in the body. (14)
6. Grass-fed meat is less likely to contain antibiotic and hormone residues
Approximately 80% of antibiotics in the United States are used in livestock such as cows. Antibiotics are used to promote rapid weight gain in the animals, and also to fight off bacterial illnesses that arise due to the cramped, unsanitary living conditions on feedlots. Hormones may also be used to promote growth. In the end, residues of these pharmaceutical drugs can end up in the meat produced from feedlot animals. The chronic, low-level exposure to antibiotic residues through food may contribute to microbiome disruption and antibiotic resistance in humans.(15)
7. Grass-fed meat is safer than grain-fed meat
Research published in Consumer Reports found that choosing grass-fed meat over grain-fed meat reduces the risk of food poisoning and exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (16)
The cost of grass-fed meat
Many people are concerned about the high cost of grass-fed meat relative to grain-fed meat. If you are purchasing grass-fed meat at a store such as Whole Foods, it will certainly be more expensive. However, if you can find a local farmer who raises animals on grass, this could be a much more affordable way to get healthy grass-fed meat into your diet. Check out the website Eat Wild to find farmers near you!
Now I want to hear from you! Are you a fan of grass-fed meat? Let me know in the comments below!