Beef: Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed
Grass-fed beef, as the name implies, comes from cows that eat mostly grass. Grain-fed cows eat a diet that includes soy, corn, and other additives. Grain-fed cows may also be given antibiotics and growth hormones to fatten them up quickly.
No studies have proven that grass-fed beef is better for your health. But pound for pound, it may have less total fat and fewer calories. Also, grass-fed beef has up to six times more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than regular grain-fed beef.
Many people also believe grass-fed beef to be a more humane option. Beef certified by the American Grassfed Association comes from cattle that spend their lives grazing in pastures. Conventionally raised cattle start their lives in pastures but then are shipped to feedlots for several months to a year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has created a grass-fed beef program for small and very small beef producers. Approved producers are included on the official USDA SVS Grass Fed Program list.
The nutritional profile of beef changes depending on the cut of meat and how you cook it. For example, one 4-ounce serving of raw ground beef contains about:
A serving also gives you 11% or more of your recommended daily dose of iron, depending on your size, as well as these vitamins and minerals:
Grass-Fed Beef Nutrition
A 4-ounce serving of raw grass-fed ground beef contains :
- Calories: 224
- Protein: 22 grams
- Fat: 14 grams
- Carbohydrates: 0 grams
- Fiber: 0 grams
- Sugar: 0 grams
Its levels of most vitamins and minerals are similar to those of regular ground beef. But grass-fed beef may contain more:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Vitamin E and other antioxidant vitamins
- Healthy omega-6 fatty acids
Is Beef Healthy?
Beef can be part of a healthy diet but should be eaten in moderation. Many studies have found a link between eating lots of red and processed meats and an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Heavy meat-eating has also been linked to a risk of early death.
While eating beef increases your health risks overall, it does have some benefits -- if you eat it in small portions and choose lean cuts. Some experts say a good rule of thumb is to have no more than two or three servings of red meat per week.
Benefits of Beef and Grass-Fed Beef
Benefits of beef
Blood health. Beef is rich in iron, specifically a type called heme iron, which your body absorbs very easily. The iron in beef helps your body produce hemoglobin, a protein that helps your blood carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Getting too little iron can put you at risk of iron-deficiency anemia, meaning your body isn’t getting enough oxygen. You might feel tired, listless, weak, and mentally foggy.
Meat also helps your body absorb non-heme iron found in plant-based foods. One study even found meat supplements more effective than iron tablets at maintaining iron levels in women during exercise.
Immunity and healing. Beef is a good source of zinc, which your body needs to heal damaged tissue and support a healthy immune system. Children and teens also need healthy amounts of zinc to thrive and grow.
Muscle function. Since beef contains every amino acid your body needs, it’s a high-quality source of protein. Protein is essential for muscle health. It rebuilds the muscle tissue that's naturally lost in the wear and tear of daily life. Protein also helps you build more muscle and is especially helpful if you’re working on strength training.
A single serving of beef supplies the recommended daily amount of protein, helping to prevent lost muscle mass. Losing muscle mass can make you feel weaker and may make it difficult to keep your balance, especially if you’re age 55 or older.
Beef contains beta-alanine, an amino acid that helps your body make a compound called carnosine. Carnosine is important for muscle function and may increase your ability to do high-intensity exercise. High levels of carnosine have also been linked to lower fatigue and higher muscle performance in humans.
Studies indicate that cattle’s diet doesn't have much effect on how much protein it contains.
Benefits of grass-fed beef
Grass-fed beef has many of the same health benefits as grain-fed beef, but research has found a few added perks:
Heart health. While it still contains some saturated fat, grass-fed beef has somewhat lower levels than grain-fed beef. It also contains slightly less total fat.
Disease prevention. Studies have found that grass-fed beef contains two to six times more omega-3 fatty acids than feed-lot beef. Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to help prevent and treat many diseases. They include heart disease, stroke, autoimmune diseases such as lupus, eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, and others. Still, grass-fed beef contains far fewer omega-3s than fatty fish, seeds, and nuts.
Studies have also found that grass-fed beef contains more antioxidants than grain-fed beef. Antioxidants help prevent cell damage that can lead to serious diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
Fewer superbugs. All meat can contain bacteria. But a 2015 study that tested 300 packages of ground beef found that 18% of the grain-fed samples contained "superbugs" -- bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics. By comparison, 6% of the samples of grass-fed beef contained these bacteria, as did 9% of samples of organic or antiobiotic-free beef.
Potential Risks of Beef
Whether it's grass-fed, grain-fed, or organic, beef has some potential health risks beyond the saturated fat and cholesterol.
Studies have linked eating lots of red and processed meats to an increased risk for colon cancer, one of the most common types of cancer in the world. Scientists have discussed several components of beef as the culprit for this increased risk. They include its high heme iron content as well as a type of cancer-causing substance produced when meat is overcooked.
Eating raw or undercooked beef carries a risk of infection by beef tapeworm, an intestinal parasite. This is more common in underdeveloped countries but can happen anywhere if beef isn't properly prepared.
While rare steak is generally safe, make sure your burgers are cooked all the way through. That's because grinding beef can spread bacteria that cause food poisoning, like E. coli, throughout the meat. But on a steak, bacteria tend to stay on the surface, where cooking kills them.
Since beef is rich in iron, some people who are prone to iron overload can get it from eating too much beef. Excessive iron in the body can lead to cancer, heart disease, and liver problems.
Iron overload is most often the result of a genetic condition called hereditary hemochromatosis, which causes you to absorb too much iron from food. People with this condition should limit how much red meat they eat.
Is Organic Beef Healthy?
Many people are concerned about chemicals and additives fed to animals on farms and their effects on our health and the environment. While there's no scientific proof that organic beef provides extra health benefits, organic farming does offer some advantages.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has standards in place that food must meet to be certified as organic, whether it's produced in the U.S. or imported. Some of these standards include:
- Animals can’t have any antibiotics or growth hormones.
- They can’t be fed protein or byproducts from mammals or or poultry.
- Their feed can’t have been exposed to pesticides, growth hormones, or fertilizers.
- They must have access to the outdoors.
USDA standards aim to ensure that animals raised on organic farms are raised in a more ethical way than those raised conventionally.
How to Prepare Beef
To get the nutritional impact of beef with less cholesterol and saturated fat, choose leaner cuts. Look for cuts labeled “extra lean” or “lean,” and always choose pieces with the least visible fat.
Cut off as much visible fat as you can before you cook beef. The cooking process will cause much of the rest of the fat to melt away. Choose a cooking method like grilling, broiling, or roasting, where the beef is sitting on a rack and the fat can drip away into a pan.
Here are a few ways you can try cooking lean beef:
- Mix a low-fat marinade using red wine, lemon juice, or soy sauce, then broil beef in the oven.
- Rub cuts of beef with a blend of herbs and spices, then cook it on the grill.
- Chop beef up into small pieces, cut up some veggies, and add them to skewers for some tasty beef kabobs.
- Roast beef seasoned with salt, pepper, and your favorite spices.
Healthier Alternatives to Beef
Plant proteins and other low-fat sources of protein offer healthy alternatives to beef. Some of the most heart-healthy protein choices include:
- Beans, including soybean products
- Fish and shellfish
- Low-fat dairy products
- Lean poultry, such as skinless chicken