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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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February 29, 2016

Dear Mark: Grass-Fed vs Grain-Finished, Lamb Feedlots, and What About Grass-Fed Eggs?

By Mark Sisson
41 Comments

Grass Fed finalFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering a few questions about grass-feeding several of you raised in last week’s comment section. First, is there a difference between grass-fed and grass-finished?What is the difference between grass-fed and grass-finished? Next, is it true that lamb is by definition grass-fed? Are there actually lamb feedlots, or can we be certain that the lamb we eat lived a fairly decent, grassy life? And finally, what about grass-fed eggs? Does such a thing even exist? After all, when most of us think about happy egg producers, i.e. fowl, are they munching away on their fair share of freshly sprouted greens?

Let’s find out:

Is there a difference between Grass-Fed and Grass-Fed/Grass-Finished?

Until recently, “grass-fed” meant that the meat was USDA-certified 100% grass-fed and finished. But in January, the USDA stopped verifying that meat advertised as grass-fed is actually grass-fed, instead urging producers to come up with their own standards. Until that happens, producers can slap the label on however they like. And sure, most cows do spend the first part of their lives on pasture before moving to the grain feedlot, but the label simply doesn’t tell us anything definitively anymore. Legally. I imagine that most beef with the grass-fed label is indeed grass-fed, at least primarily. But there’s a lot of wiggle room.

If you’re at all in doubt, dig down deep. That’s the beauty of having a smartphone in your pocket when you shop. You can look at the package, get the name of the farm (or ask the butcher or manager for the name), google it, and discover how the farm feeds their animals or get contact info so you can inquire yourself.

Grass-fed means just that: the cow ate some grass during its life. It may have eaten nothing but grass. It may have eaten a little grass and the rest grain. It may have eaten mostly grass and then spent a few weeks or months on grain to fatten up. Most cows are technically “grass-fed,” because most cows start out on pasture before moving to the feedlot.

Grass-finished means the animal ate only grass and other stuff throughout its life: hay, silage (kind of a fermented grass), forbs (herbaceous flowering plants that are not grasses), vegetative grains (grains that look more like grasses, before they become the grains we know), browse (random vegetation that’s neither forb nor grass), and crop residue (one of my favorite beef ranchers gave his cows leftovers from the vegetables he grew).

Grain-finished means the animal was moved onto grains after. It can last for the better part of a year or for just a few weeks. The longer a ruminant spends on grain, the more grass-based benefits are abolished from the meat. You don’t go from grain to grass, typically. Maybe there’s some weirdo out there starting his calves on corn and moving them onto grass for finishing, but I highly doubt it.

Isn’t lamb, by definition, grass-fed? That was my understanding and I’ve never heard anything about sheep feedlots. If you like lamb, it makes it easier to get grass fed meat on your regular grocery store run. Not quite the same as beef, but you can do a lot of tasty meals with lamb even with picky eaters.

That’s a common misconception. I wish it weren’t. I wish lamb were raised exclusively on grass and wild forage. They’re suited for it. They thrive on it. And yes, a large portion of lamb are grass-fed for their entire lives, and lamb is more likely to be grass-fed than beef, but not all of them. It ultimately depends where you get your lamb.

New Zealand lamb: 100% grass-fed. If a drought occurs, they may have to provide hay, but even that is just dried grass so it qualifies.

Australian lamb: The marketing page for Aussie lamb says the country’s animals “graze on natural Australian grasslands throughout their lives” and are only supplemented with grain “if a regional drought occurs.” And it appears to be true, for the most part. But according to the department of agriculture in Victoria, Australia, intensive feedlot feeding of lamb is “steadily increasing” to meet the growing demand for “lambs that meet market specifications.” There are definitely lamb feedlots, as the Australian article discusses the benefits and drawbacks of different types of lamb feedlots.

Icelandic lamb: 100% grass-fed, from what I could gather.

American lamb: Except for those “marketed directly from the pasture,” most American lamb is finished with grain. Feedlots absolutely exist. In my experience, smaller producers of lamb, the guys you’ll see hawking their wares at the farmer’s markets, produce exclusively grass-fed lamb. Just ask to be sure.

 

What about eggs?

Eggs are a little different. Chickens may nibble on grass. They’ll peck at it. They’ll enjoy the occasional lawn salad, absolutely. But they are omnivores through and through. They need denser sources of protein. So “grass-fed” is a misnomer.

Free-range is like “grass-fed”; it doesn’t mean much. A free-range chicken might get a little patio bereft of plant and wildlife outside the hen house to scratch around in. But it’s eating the same stuff the battery-raised chickens eat: corn and soy.

With access to grasses, weeds, and all the delicious invertebrates that populate such an environment, pasture-raised chickens produce the very best eggs.  They’re eating worms, crickets, ticks, spiders, rolypolies, larvae, ants. If it’s got an exoskeleton, they’re eating it. They may even eat a few vertebrates, like lizards, if they cross paths. This changes the nutrient composition of the eggs. Research shows that pasture-raised eggs are higher in vitamin E, omega-3s, beta-carotene, and vitamin A.

These are meaningful differences. When people were randomized to eat either pasture-raised eggs or conventional eggs, those who ate pastured eggs had blood lipids that were more resistant to oxidative damage. People eating the conventional omega-6 heavy eggs had 40% more oxidized LDL.

Regular old eggs are still a pretty good food. Most of the studies showing the relative innocuousness and even benefit of eating daily eggs aren’t using pastured eggs. They’re using the standard stuff you get at the standard grocery store. Still: just imagine the results if a large study used only pasture-raised eggs from bug-eating, grass-chewing chickens!

The best eggs I’ve ever had came from the Big Island of Hawaii. I bought them off a little old lady posted up in the Captain Cook area with an umbrella, a lawn chair, and a cooler full of eggs from her backyard chickens. A brief chat revealed they ate fallen mangos, avocados, mac nuts, and whatever bugs they could dig up in her backyard. The yolks were enormous and sunset-orange (usually, bigger yolks are more diluted and less rich), the whites were tough and cohesive (took forever for them to slip through my fingers when separating yolks; I bet they’d have made a great meringue). Even store-bought Big Island eggs costing $4 a dozen were better than most mainland pastured eggs going for $8 a dozen. So if you’re ever in the tropics, eat the eggs!

I hope that clears up some of your questions about grass-fed animal products.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!

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41 Comments on "Dear Mark: Grass-Fed vs Grain-Finished, Lamb Feedlots, and What About Grass-Fed Eggs?"

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Wenchypoo
Wenchypoo
7 months 1 day ago

The most appalling thing I recently learned is that farmers can LABEL their meat as “grass-fed” and actually be feeding them CORN…corn is a grass, botanically-speaking. It is a member of the grass family, as is wheat.

This made my jaw drop–now I don’t know WHAT meat is safe to eat any more! I guess I may have to go vegetarian just to avoid grains and grass-grains. Oh how I wish I lived in or near a country that actually uses GRASS to feed their animals, and not some back-door marketing ploy.

Amanda
Amanda
7 months 1 day ago

And that’s how the vegans win–scare tactics.

Shary
Shary
7 months 1 day ago

Some people actually prefer corn-fed beef. I don’t know that any of them have gotten sick or dropped dead because it’s “unsafe.” Nutritionally inferior, possibly, but unsafe? Highly doubtful.

Ziva
Ziva
7 months 1 day ago

Safe, probably. I agree with you there, but if I’m paying grass-fed beef prices, I expect just that.

Wildrose
Wildrose
6 months 29 days ago

It’s unsafe in the sense that a corn fed cow has a more acidic stomach, which can nurture the most dangerous strains of e.coli. However, proving that the infection that killed you was related to the feeding habits of the cow would be difficult…

Shary
Shary
6 months 29 days ago

Pertinent to your statement, you might find this study interesting.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC91480/

Zach rusk
6 months 27 days ago

That preference has been suggested to be merely based on habit and what people are used to eating. Grass-fed beef consumers believe that grass-fed beef tastes better. And the acute, immediate safety issue seems to relate to higher e coli incidence as mentioned in another comment as well as higher risk of other antibiotic resistant bacterial strains.

His Dudeness
His Dudeness
7 months 1 day ago

No need to let perfect be the enemy of good. If anything, local producers who sell their meat directly to consumers will be up-front about their animals’ feed.

John
John
7 months 1 day ago

I get a kick out of the phrase “pasture raised eggs”, or “pastured eggs”. I know it is just (perfectly fine) shorthand for “eggs from pasture raised chickens”, but it always brings to mind whimsical image of little baby eggs frolicking around in the grass in some farmer’s field!

Rich
Rich
7 months 4 minutes ago

I was thinking the same thing! The term “grass-fed eggs” made me chuckle… How do they get the grass through the shell?

OctoberAmy
OctoberAmy
6 months 29 days ago

LOL. 🙂

Geranium
Geranium
7 months 1 day ago

I went on silage harvest with a custom crew two different years. Every thing we cut and took to the farmstead to make into silage was corn. Everything. That was in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota.

Geranium
Geranium
7 months 1 day ago

The silage was for both beef and dairy cattle.

Marge
Marge
7 months 1 day ago

Silage is way better feed than some feedlot corn. It includes all the grassy parts of the corn rather than just the seeds, and it’s fermented. The fermentation actually broadens the nutritional profile somewhat, and drops the phytates and lectins, and even breaks down some pesticides.

LJ
LJ
6 months 29 days ago

Fantastic point. And silage can be made out of pretty much any crop, including the same grasses & legumes used for making hay. Some farmers call this haylage, but some refer to it as silage. Either way it’s excellent feed.

Bob Niland
7 months 1 day ago
re: They may even eat a few vertebrates, like lizards… Ours catch and eat juvenile mice when they can. Chickens don’t realize they aren’t still dinosaurs. On the “pastured” marketing misdirection, if you can’t visit the farm and check, there’s really no way to know with today’s worthless (or absent) legal definitions. The biggest problem with CAFO meat and dairy may well turn out to be the stealth Omega 6, especially the linoleic acid (LA). Even for someone avoiding the industrial seed oils, it’s easy to get enough second hand ?6 to prevent getting your ?6:?3 ratio down where it… Read more »
Alfred
Alfred
7 months 11 hours ago

The way I look at it at least those Omega 6 fats are manufactured by the animal. Thats got to be way better than high heat solvent extraction. If I pay attention to everything else I can balance with supplementation and using coconut, olive, avocado, palm,etc for cooking all my veggies in. I hope that works because that is basically how I do it.

Bob Niland
7 months 10 hours ago

re: …at least those Omega 6 fats are manufactured by the animal.

a. That probably doesn’t matter.
b. I’m not sure it’s true, but see a:

If the ?6 18:2 LA is higher in CAFO critters, it’s higher, and the source is not really material. LA is LA.

I personally suspect that it’s coming in with the feed and just being packed away as-is. I’m willing to be mistaken.

If you can’t find credible organic pastured, “lean” CAFO may be safer than full-fat CAFO.

Alfred
Alfred
7 months 10 hours ago

The processing makes a difference, at least with me. If I mess up and consume very much soybean oil (or other industrially processed oil) my digestion complains. It doesn’t with the fat that comes attached to the meat whether it’s conventional or grass fed organic, and I buy both. I do make an effort to maintain some sort of balance though.

Angie
7 months 5 hours ago

Baby mice! Chicken Mousers! That’s fantastic!

barry
barry
6 months 29 days ago
Keep in mind oxidized omega 6 is the problem. It is true we need to balance our omega 3 omega 6 ratios but eating a handful of almonds or an avocado (both of which are loaded with LA) is a far cry from eating something cooked in vegetable/seed oil. Actually I saw a report showing despite high omega 6 content avocados are actually anti-inflammatory. Now I have no idea how this plays into grain fed cow, but I doubt eating a grain fed steak is equivalent to eating something cooked in corn oil. Even oxidized omega 3s will cause an… Read more »
Tom
Tom
7 months 1 day ago

Anybody know if Canadian and/or Mexican beef is finished in feed lots?

Anemone
7 months 9 hours ago

Canadian beef and lamb are usually grain-finished.

Wildrose
Wildrose
6 months 29 days ago

Canadian lamb can be grass only, but it will say so and it will be hideously expensive.

Janknitz
Janknitz
7 months 1 day ago
A couple of things about eggs: First, when we lived on the Big Island in the early 1990’s those store bought eggs were shipped in from the mainland, they were NOT local eggs. So they cost a lot, they were old and “factory” produced. Maybe that’s changed??? (I hope so). Second, we now live in a Northern California county that has historically been a big egg producing county. So we try to go see the farms where our local “pasture raised” eggs come from. And yes, some do let their chickens roam around land with specially trained guard dogs to… Read more »
Jack Lea Mason
Jack Lea Mason
6 months 28 days ago

Sometimes chickens are fed flax seed. This at least is a source of omega three and somewhat better than factory farm grains. Also chickens will eat shrimp heads, fish guts, and just about anything unappetizing or past the expiration date.

Marilyn Noble
7 months 1 day ago
I’m afraid there are several misstatements in your summary of the meaning of grassfed. It’s a confusing issue, and the USDA’s recent action on their grassfed standards has made it more so. But here’s how it works: USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service did not drop their approval process for label claims. FSIS has to approve any label that appears on a package of meat. In the case of grassfed, they will approve a label reading “grassfed” or “100% grassfed” ONLY if the producer states that the animal was fed nothing but grass/forage from weaning to slaughter. If the animals… Read more »
Teasea
Teasea
7 months 1 day ago

Just been to Albania a few months ago at the hotel breakfast the freshly fried eggs were all bright yellow and the majority were double yokers.

Chris
Chris
7 months 1 day ago
The best eggs I’ve ever had were from a farmer’s market in the south of France. Bright orange yolks and such a creamy taste. The only thing I’ve had comparable here in the States are usually from friends backyards or farms that raise chickens. I’ve tried a lot of pastured eggs here in the SF Bay area, and the best eggs that can I’ve found are from Vital Farms. They sell a few different types (organic pastured, non-GMO conventional pastured, and conventional pastured). The middle non-GMO dozen seems to be the best value to me. About $7.50 per dozen with… Read more »
OnTheBayou
OnTheBayou
6 months 28 days ago

I tried those Vital eggs six months ago. Very expensive, as you note. I was quite disapointed. The eggs had standard caged yellow color, not orange. And they didn’t taste any different.

I’ve had great eggs from different sources over the years, and these did not qualify.

Chris
Chris
6 months 28 days ago

Strangely, their organic brand has yellow yolks. Try the non-gmo brand (I think they are called “Backyard Eggs.” Very deep orange in color.

Though I’ve read from this site and Chris Kresser’s that it’s not all about orange—it’s more about the deepness of the color. Deep yellow is also good; very light or faint yellow is not.

gray whale
gray whale
7 months 1 day ago

We feed our chickens EVERYTHING. Except for chicken. Bacon fat is a favorite and it’s cute when they get it stuck all over their beak.

Elizabeth
7 months 1 day ago

I buy my eggs from local farmers. Since I’m in PA, the chickens are given supplemental feed in the winter, but I have been assured it is non GMO. The yolks range in color from gold to deep orange and the eggs are delicious. On the rare occasion that I run out of them and buy “conventional” eggs, my daughter can taste the difference right away even if I don’t tell her.

Alfred
Alfred
7 months 11 hours ago

The best eggs I ever had came from my backyard. The chickens had a fence around their coop but it was moved a couple times a year. The part they weren’t using I used for my garden. Wow! 9 foot tall corn and everything grew fast and had dark green leaves.

Coco
Coco
7 months 8 hours ago

How this post (and the comments) made me wish I will be able to taste a pasture egg at least once before I die.

Angie
7 months 5 hours ago
We’re in Italy, so it’s really difficult to get pasture-raised anything – there simply isn’t the land mass, and the relative population is huge. So we do the best we can. We buy organic beef, and we keep our ear to the ground for farmers out in the hills who might keep a cow or two for their own family – they’re usually willing to part with ten kilos. Sometimes we get home-raised rabbit. Eggs come from a friend – he tosses them grain, but they’re out scavenging all day – but we haven’t yet found farmers’ chicken. We’re attending… Read more »
Shary
Shary
6 months 29 days ago
I’m always amazed at the level of paranoia that develops over what we eat. Sure, grass-fed animals are possibly more nutritious, but most of us have eaten conventionally-fed meat over the years, probably enjoyed it, and never gave their feed a second thought–until the grass-fed bandwagon rolled into town. On the one hand, it’s good to raise a public ruckus. If we don’t, God knows what we’ll be tricked into eating a decade or two from now. Luckily, there are always ranchers and farmers willing to comply with demand, if you can afford to pay for it, and if you… Read more »
Amanda
Amanda
6 months 28 days ago

+1–every time I run into the grass vs. grain or veggie vs. omnivore arguments I think about how lucky we are that we can CHOOSE how to eat.

Chris
Chris
6 months 28 days ago
While I agree with you Shary that becoming obsessed with where food comes from can be stressful (Mark has covered this topic before, and I often fall victim to this), just because we do have the luxury to choose how to eat doesn’t mean we shouldn’t demand to know where our food comes from to help improve the system. Google “how much different countries spend on food” and you’ll see some great articles at the top. We spend less than any other country in the world on food per yearly income. And it’s not because we make more money that… Read more »
barry
barry
6 months 29 days ago

I must admit the whole grass fed and grass finished thing gets confusing from time to time. The hamburger meat I get from my Krogers says “100% grass fed” and “certified organic”. Now it doesn’t say grass fed and finished but assuming the 100 percent remark along with the organic remark I’m assuming the cow never made it to the feedlot, assuming, perhaps I should contact the company through email and get a definitive answer. Since I’m paying 6 bucks for a single pound I better be getting premium.

Topcat
Topcat
6 months 28 days ago

Know your farmer and look to see how he/she raises their animals.

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