Traditional vs. Grass-fed vs. Organic Beef
Cost-Benefit Analysis: Traditional vs. Grass-fed vs. Organic Beef
By Ryan Rupert
Any person who makes the decision to “clean up” their diet inevitably embarks on the task by asking for advice. Whether that advice comes from the internet, books, friends, or a professional source, the end result is always the same: confusion and conflicting answers. A well-known author may tell you to eat only organically-raised foods and then the 6 o’clock news will report that there are no benefits to organic foods that warrant the increased cost. What do you believe? Who can be trusted? While the answer to that question is beyond the scope of this article, what I will delve into is the first 30% of this issue; beef!
Before we check out the scientific research, we have to know what’s available. A trip to the local supermarket will reveal that we have many more choices than just regular and organic. Let’s begin by defining the terminology you’ll find out there in the wild.
All cows spend the first 6-12 months of their lives drinking milk in the pasture. It is after that time that the following distinctions come into effect.
Conventional / Conventionally-raised – These are cows that lived on a feed lot and ate grains as their primary source of food. Their feed is generally made from soy and corn. This diet fattens them quickly (just like people!), as cows evolved to eat grass. These cows are given antibiotics and hormones to keep them from getting sick in the crowded feed lots and to help them gain weight quickly.
Grain-fed – A cow that ate primarily a soy and/or corn-based grain diet.
Grass-fed – A cow that ate only hay or other grasses throughout its life. This distinction does not mean that the cow roamed freely in a pasture its whole life. Grass can be transported to feed lots.
Pasture-raised – Generally this refers to a cow that was given access to the outdoors most of its life, weather-permitting. The USDA doesn’t currently have a clear-cut legal definition for this term, requirements for how much space the cows have, or how much time they spend outside. While these cows may eat a lot of grass, their food may be supplemented with grain.
Organic – To be certified organic, a cow must have been raised on an organic pasture (no pesticides or herbicides applied to the grounds for 3 years prior to animal grazing) and have eaten certified organic feed (this could be grain and/or grass based). These cows also cannot receive any antibiotics or hormones.
Natural – This is a vaguely-defined and unregulated term. To the USDA, ‘natural’ primarily means the finished product has no additives such as colorings, flavorings, or preservatives. Where the cow lived, what it ate, and what drugs it was given remains a mystery.
Certified Humane – Organizations independent of the USDA have begun offering certifications to meat producers. Certified humane is one of the more common of these 3rd party certifications. To receive this label, a meat producer has to adhere to a 53-page book of regulations that ensure the animals are raised and handled in the most compassionate and cleanly manor possible. Cattle with this designation have access to the outdoors as much as is sensible and their feed can contain no animal byproducts. Their feed can be either grass or grain.
Is it worth it?
Now that we know the details of the most common labeling terms, let’s get back to the real question at hand: is it worth it to pay 3 times as much for organic or grass-fed beef as you would for conventionally-raised? This is a three part answer, so go grab some beef jerky and settle in.
Let’s start with the easy part- if you are concerned with how the animal you’re eating lived its life and how it was treated, then of course it’s worth it to spend a little extra for pasture-raised or a good bit extra for certified humane. Not only are you voting for healthier, cleaner, and more humane farming practices with your money, but you’re getting a better tasting product as unstressed animals produce higher quality meat. Chronic stress results in animals with depleted muscle glycogen stores. After death, the glycogen in muscles converts to lactic acid in the process of rigor mortis. High lactic acid levels after death make the meat more tender, resist spoilage longer, retain a more desireable color, and overall taste better.
The next part of this is about the drugs. Are the hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides involved with conventional cattle raising worth being concerned about? Or in other words, is the extra expense of organic warranted? Currently the following hormones are approved for use in food animals: estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, and the synthetic hormones trenbolone acetate, progestin melengestrol acetate, and zeranol. Also, 80% of the antibiotics sold in the US are used on livestock. Some of these drugs are given in close time proximity to slaughter, so yes, there’s some leftover in the meat. The jury is still out on whether these small traces of hormones and antibiotics are damaging to humans. Cattle industry sponsored studies of course say there’s no danger, and independent research is still just saying maybe. There have been studies showing an increased risk of breast cancer in those with higher lifetime exposure to estrogen. Whether that equates to a higher risk of cancer from eating hormone-treated beef remains to be seen. Another problem often associated with hormones and pesticides in beef is early puberty in children. Some researchers claim that small hormone disruptions in children can have drastic effects, however it is difficult to place the blame on just one source in an environment where we are exposed to toxins and added hormones from many angles. For now, no one can prove without a doubt that there are adverse affects from these trace chemicals. What we do know for sure is that the chemicals are present in our meat. Avoid any potential problems by buying organic beef which, by definition, has never been given hormones, antibiotics, or eaten pesticide-treated feed.
Finally, is grass-fed beef more nutritious than grain-fed? Both are highly nutritious (and delicious), but there are a couple of standouts with grass-fed beef. First, grass-fed beef is as much as 5 times higher in omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed. Grass-fed also contains twice as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid associated with lower body fat and decreased risk of cancer. Grass-fed also outranks grain-fed in vitamin content, containing more vitamin A, vitamin E, thiamine, riboflavin, potassium, zinc, iron, and phosphorus. If you’re tracking your caloric intake, you’ll also be interested to know that grass-fed beef is leaner, and so contains about 100 less calories per serving.
In the end, there’s not really a cut and dry answer as to whether it’s worth it to buy high-end meats. It really depends on your budget and what issues you find important. If you already eat a proper diet and take supplements like fish oil, you don’t really need to invest in grass-fed beef. The best bet for your money at this point appears to be organic beef, either grain or grass-fed. Even though the research against hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics in meat isn’t yet conclusive, there are a few things we know for sure. First, pesticides are by definition toxic to living things. Ingesting them, even in small amounts, over many years cannot possibly be advantageous to one’s health. Second, pesticides contaminate the soil and ground water through runoff. Third, the overuse of antibiotics in humans and livestock is breeding superbugs that are resistant to treatment. Fourth, the main reason we have to give antibiotics to cows is because conditions in factory farm feed lots are overcrowded and dirty. I don’t consider myself an animal rights activist, but subjecting an animal to stressful conditions most of its life before we kill it and eat it feels morally questionable. Furthermore, studies show happy cows do in fact taste better. Lastly, many other countries including Japan, Australia, Canada, and the European Union already ban the use of hormones and strictly limit antibiotic use in livestock due to potential health hazards to humans. Many countries have also banned the import of US raised meat. This raises one final question. Do we Americans have too much of a laissez faire attitude when it comes to our own food?
I hope this information will help make your shopping trips a little easier!
Chambers, P. G. “Guidelines for Humane Handling…of Livestock.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/x6909e/x6909e01.htm#TopOfPage. 2014.
Gunnars, Kris. “Grass-fed vs. Grain-fed Beef- What’s the Difference?” Authority Nutrition. https://authoritynutrition.com/grass-fed-vs-grain-fed-beef. 2015.
Johnson, Jo. “Why Grass-Fed is Best.” Rain Crow Ranch. Http://americangrassfedbeef.com. 2016.
USDA. “Organic Livestock Requirements.” National Organic Program. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Livestock%20Requirements.pdf. 2013.
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