As mentioned in our Red Scare commentary  a few weeks ago, beef gets a seriously bad rap these days. “Saturated fat !” the status quo shrieks, running in all directions, hair on fire, arms flailing, gnashing their teeth. Let’s set the record straight here. You know our decidedly pro-fat leanings . No need to go any further there. But what else is there to like about beef? To its credit, beef offers among the biggest boost of protein per ounce of any traditional food. (Yes, insects  and other underappreciated delicacies  in some cases offer more. We’ll let our good readers fill in the options here.) To boot, beef is an excellent source of niacin, vitamins B6, B12, K2, phosphorus, selenium, as well as iron, potassium, and riboflavin. In its best form (and we’ll get to that), it also serves as a good source of conjugated linoleic acid (more on this in a minute) and omega-3 fatty acids . (See why we were so compelled to defend red meat’s honor?)
The inevitable caveat, however, is this: not all beef is created equal. (Yesterday it was cheese , we know. It’s really about fact, not fussiness.) Most of the beef consumed today is not, by any stretch, what your great-grandparents (let alone Grok ) would’ve eaten. Modern day CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) do a real number on the nutrition of today’s beef cattle. Forget the happy cow image of relaxed, casual grazing on healthy, nutrient-rich grasses. CAFO cows are fed a diet of grains typically mixed with soy product  and, honestly, whatever the farmer sees fit. (We seriously know a beef farmer who fed his cows those orange jelly candies. Why? Because he got an enormous load of them cheap from the local candy manufacturer since they were “defective.”) But there’s so much more. Let’s break it down….
Grass vs. Grain Fed
What is the big deal with grass-fed beef anyway? Well, for one, the conjugated linoleic acid content. As mentioned in yesterday’s cheese post, CLA is believed to offer anti-cancer properties. It can also help decrease the risk of insulin resistance. Another big difference? A pastured diet results in a nearly 1:1 ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. This is the ratio believed to characterize our hunter-gatherer ancestors  (you know, Grok and company). What does a grain-fed ratio look like? Try 6:1. A skewed ratio is a prescription for inflammation and possible precursor/risk factor for chronic disease.
Finally, there’s the E-Coli issue. With all the concern about food safety in the last decade or so, one fact doesn’t get enough if any real press: grass fed (and finished) beef is considerably less likely to be infected with E-Coli (abstract ), particularly acid resistant E-Coli that cannot be effectively “disarmed” by our digestive systems.
It’s worth noting that many cattle start off grass-fed early on in their lives but are nearly always switched to grain in the months before slaughter. Most of the initial omega-3 stores and other nutritional benefits are lost during that time. Grass-fed and –finished are not synonymous.
In the age of so-called “super bugs,” bacteria resistant to even our most powerful drugs, you’d think the routine use of antibiotics for livestock would be scaled back if not outlawed. Not so. The majority of antibiotics in this country is administered not to sick humans or even sick animals but to basically healthy but unnaturally confined livestock. Because of the unnaturally crowded CAFO conditions (in addition to the poor diets), sickness is more common. However, instead of fixing the problem and changing the environment, all cattle are given a steady “preventative” dose of antibiotics to keep the herds clear of disqualifying disease. In response to growing antibiotic resistance, the European Union has outlawed the routine use of antibiotics in livestock, and debate is firing up in this country as well. Check out these websites for more information on the threat of CAFO antibiotic use to public health: Keep Antibiotics Working  and The Pew Charitable Trusts: Human Health and Industrial Farming .
Heard of hormonal implants? (Not the human contraceptive kind…) We mean growth hormone implants placed in young cattle that will continue to administer hormone supplements for the long term (designed for continual “re-implanting”). Check out the link (PDF ) for not only an explanation of the implant procedure but the dizzying array of hormone versions used in American livestock. Hmmm. So, that’s what’s for dinner….
Concern over hormone use has grown considerably over the last decade. Though the debate continues over the exact effects widespread use of these “natural” and synthetic hormones have on human consumers, the thinking tends to center around “how much” impact rather than “if.” The European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health (a real mouthful, yes) conducted a review (PDF ) of relevant studies as well as subsequent follow ups on additional research. Their findings revealed legitimate human impact in the areas of human hormonal disruption and cancer risk .
How about toxic pesticides (hormone disruptive, cancer-causing substances) used in growing feed and the prevalence of genetically modified grain feed? If you have reasonable access to organic, we suggest it. No one wants to be a guinea pig for Big Agra’s latest chemical or genetic concoction.
In addition to the pile of health issues, many consumers take issue with the ethical concerns and environmental impact of conventionally raised beef. Among them… Because of the extreme, unnatural confinement, CAFO cattle show significant signs of anxiety. The disposal of hormone-laden waste is an increasing controversy in certain regions of the country. Additional pesticide use for grain feed adds to our environmental chemical soup. It’s a sad existence for the cattle and an enormous burden on the land and waterways.
It’s true that meat as a whole is a resource-intensive food commodity. But humanely raised, grass-fed cattle from organic (or as close to it as possible) farms offer all the health benefits with a more sustainable farming approach. And, as we always say: waste not, want not. We whole-heartedly believe in using the entire carcass. Organ meats ? Cook ‘em up. Bones ? Throw ‘em in a pot for soup.
Times are tough, we know. Nonetheless, from a purely health-focused, informative perspective, grass-fed (and –finished), organic beef stands as the ideal – the gold standard, albeit financially or logistically unattainable for many. The bottom line is this. As Mark always suggests, go for the cleanest meat you can find and afford. A good fish oil can counter the omega imbalance of grain-fed meats when needed. A good supplement and otherwise clean diet can help minimize the effects of hormones, feed pesticides and other impurities. And be sure to visit some of our past posts for more ideas and information on good sources and great tips for enjoying (and affording) healthy meat options.
How many of you have made the transition to grass fed/finished beef? What are your sources? Comments, questions, suggestions? We want to hear them.