Dear Mark: Vegetarian-Fed, BCAAs, and Bland Grass-Fed Beef

You’re at the store, and you want to get some beef. You’ve been keeping up with the word on the street, so you’re aware of the importance of the cow’s diet. You look around for grass-fed beef, but have zero success. They do, however, have “vegetarian-fed” beef, which sounds nice. I mean, who wants their beef eating animal parts? And aren’t vegetarians pretty healthy? Why, I bet vegetarian-fed cows are even healthier! Eh, not so fast. What does it really mean? Anything? Labels can be tricky. Usually are, in fact, by design. And sneakiness works.

So – do these labels actually tell us anything we didn’t already know? Let’s find out the answer to this and other reader questions.


Hello again. You answered a question from me not too long ago re: the George Foreman-style grills. Took your advice to stick with grass-fed beef and ditch the grill. Happy with the results…so thanks as always.

I’m writing with a closely-related question…and one that might even be worth addressing in one of your articles in order to get the truth out there (you decide). My question is with respect to “vegetarian-fed” meat and poultry. Most groceries I shop at have meat/poultry products that boast a number of claims clearly-designed to draw attention from health enthusiasts, like “no growth hormones” and “no antibiotics”. Those two seem to be pretty straight-forward, but then there is “vegetarian-fed”…

I will admit that they fooled me at first. My initial thought was that it must mean no animal byproducts and grass-fed diet; I chucked it in the cart without a second glance. However, last week I began to ponder the ethics of big industry (that we all know to be so moral and honest), and specifically, I wondered if, just perhaps, they were using “vegetarian-fed” as a label to disguise the crappy GRAIN-fed diet as something sounding much more healthy. I hit the internet forums, and the consensus seems to be that – yes, this is nothing more than clever marketing wordplay (I guess grains, corn, and even old tires COULD be argued to be vegetarian since they’re NOT made of meat) to get people to think that they’re buying a higher-quality product, when really it’s just a sham. Anyway, I’m buying true grass-fed beef from Whole Foods moving forward, but I didn’t see a whole lot of exposure of this issue. Could you confirm that what I’m reading is correct? Or let me know if I missed anything? Figured this might be another great opportunity for you to help educate our community, as you’ve done a wonderful job with so far. Thanks, Mark.


Your instincts are correct. Most vegetarian cows are a lot like the average human vegetarian. They’re not out there eating fresh salads, buckets of green vegetables, berries, roots, and tubers; they’re eating vegetarian microwavable pizza, pasta, vegetarian desserts, and Tofurkey. In other words, they are still eating junk, just not junk that contains animal products. But because the term “vegetarian” evokes images of perfect health and purity – images we know from seeing vegetarians in the wild and our own dalliances with that way of eating to be mostly fantasy – it sells products. Now if a human vegetarian (who has complete control over his diet and a real stake in its quality) can’t be bothered to do it right, imagine the quality and composition of a vegetarian cow diet put together by a food producer whose primary interest lies in maximizing profits. It’s certainly not fresh green grass, or else they’d put “grass-fed” on the label.

The one that really bugs me is the vegetarian-fed chicken. While I acknowledge the sneaky underhandedness of labeling their diets vegetarian, at least cows, lambs, and goats really are physiological vegetarians. they aren’t really lying about the animals physiological dietary requirements. They actually are vegetarians who would, except for the odd bug or other microorganism picked up in the course of munching on grass and forage, never eat animal flesh. But chickens? Chickens are omnivores, through and through. Domestic chickens actually come from the red junglefowl, a voracious omnivore from the jungles of Asia. One study (PDF) on the feeding habits of red junglefowl found that earwigs, bees, wasps, ants, termites, crickets, locusts, snails, leeches, and snakes formed a significant portion of their diet, with females (the egg-layers) eating a greater proportion of vertebrates/invertebrates than the males. Ask any chicken farmer and they’ll laugh at the notion of a vegetarian chicken. They will eat bugs, mice, lizards, and sometimes each other. They are unequivocally omnivorous and feeding them a vegetarian diet produces subpar meat and eegs.

So while I wouldn’t call it a complete sham – you don’t want your beef having eaten chicken manure, for example – it’s not anything special. Cows being vegetarian does not deserve a special announcement.

Hey Mark,

I recently started a regimen of consuming 30 grams of BCAAs per day in a post-workout, fasted state per Martin Berkhan’s recommendation in his Leangains protocol. My question is: Are there any potential negative effects to BCAA supplementation? If not, what do you consider the best protocol for using them to enhance a healthy Primal lifestyle?



For those who don’t know what BCAAs are, I’ll give a quick rundown. Of the 20 standard amino acids (the building blocks of protein) used by the human body, nine are essential, meaning we cannot endogenously manufacture them and instead require an outside source. Of those nine, three are branched chain amino acids: leucine, which converts into ketones; isoleucine, which converts into glucose; and valine, which also converts into glucose.

If you’re doing fasted weight training, it would be prudent to use them as recommended by Martin, who has a bit of experience in this area. They are muscle-sparing, especially during intense resistance training, which is why Martin recommends them for fasted workouts. The last thing you’d want during a fasted workout is for your body to start breaking down muscle to create glucose. Based on that study I referenced earlier, it sounds like taking them before a fasted workout would be more effective than after, though if you were planning on continuing the fast post-workout, more doses on the hour should prevent muscle breakdown until you’re able to eat some real food.

There are no real downsides to BCAAs besides the cost. As BCAAs are also found in animal protein (just not as concentrated), they’re as safe as eating the foods that contain them. If you’re already eating meat and eggs, I wouldn’t be worried about BCAAs. For my personal goals – which as you may know are to remain healthy, active, and playful for the rest of my life – supplementing with BCAAs just aren’t worth it. For someone who is lifting hard, lifting heavy, and lifting fasted, some smart BCAA supplementation could make a noticeable difference. Whether that difference is noticeable enough to justify the added expense is up to you.

I have bought grass fed/grass finished beef and buffalo a few times. Overall, the beef tastes bland, with little flavor except for the seasonings we put on it. We like our beef “medium” quite pink in the middle, so we are not over-cooking it.

I was raised on a small farm and if I remember correctly, feeding corn before butchering added marbling and “flavor”. Am i just used to eating corn finished beef? Or, am I not buying the right kind of grass fed beef? Or, do I need to be patient and acquire a taste for grass fed beef?


Honestly, I think you need to shop around. Grass-fed beef shouldn’t be tasting like that; it should be exceedingly beefy, even gamey to some.

How does this happen? The problem with a label like grass-fed is that the presence of grass in a cow’s diet does not guarantee flavor. Not all grass is the same, nor does it all have the same nutritional content. You know how a tin of berries from the farmers’ market that was picked the same morning from rich cultivated soil tastes way better than the pint of berries from the grocery store? Grass responds to growing conditions in the same way – just like any plant would. It needs good soil packed with nutrients. It can’t conjure all that good stuff up from nothing. If the cows are nibbling on short grass that is barely surviving on mineral-bereft soil, the meat just isn’t going to be as good or nutritious as meat from cows that are eating fresh spring grass thriving in loamy mineral-rich soil. It will have fewer minerals, vitamins, and omega-3s, and you’ll taste the difference.

Most people who come to grass-fed beef from corn-fed beef take a while getting used to the intense beef flavor. Since you’re experiencing the opposite, I strongly suspect you’re just eating bad grass-fed beef that has been raised on poor soil and (subsequently) poor grass. Try a few more and I bet you’ll find one you like.

Sherry, maybe if you respond in the comments and give your location, local readers can respond with some recommendations. Sound good?

That’s it for me, folks. I’m gonna hit the hay pretty soon. It was a crazy weekend.

Grok on!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!