By now, you’re convinced of the general overall superiority of grass-fed, pasture-raised meat. If you come at it from the nutrition angle, grass-fed wins across the board. If you’re more concerned with the ethics of animal husbandry, grass-fed animals live overall better lives than animals in concentrated feedlots. If you worry about the use of antibiotics in agriculture and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, grass-fed animals receive less medication (and sometimes none). Whatever your inclination, animals who range free and nibble their biologically appropriate diet of various grasses tend to be happier, healthier, and produce more nutrient-dense meat, milk, and fat. It’s objectively “better.” Even an honest vegan will admit that.
But the stuff is expensive. I have the luxury of buying and eating solely grass-fed, pasture-raised meat and dairy, but not everyone can. Most folks have to choose. They have to pick their battles. Today’s post will help you choose wisely.
When to buy grass-fed/pasture-raised:
You’re buying high-fat meat
The real difference between grass-fed and conventional meat lies in the fat. Several key differences exist:
Grass-fed fat is higher in omega-3s than conventional fat. The absolute amount isn’t very high, but if you eat a significant amount of animal fat—as many Primal people do—the omega-3 adds up.
Grass-fed fat is higher in stearic acid, a cholesterol-neutral saturated fat. If your blood lipids are sensitive to saturated fat, even conventional researchers admit that stearic acid (which converts to oleic acid in vivo) is neutral or beneficial.
If you’re buying high-fat meat like roasts, rib-eyes, ground beef, ox tail, and other cuts, go grass-fed and make it count.
You’re buying bacon
As much as we fetishize the formerly forbidden food of bacon, it’s really not supposed to be eaten in massive quantities. My favorite way to eat bacon is as an ingredient in other dishes enhanced by the smokiness and fat. Sure, I’ll eat a few strips of really good bacon but I’m not sitting down to a pound of bacon. I’m not using bacon as a protein source. If you treat bacon like a condiment, you can afford the expensive pasture-raised stuff.
The evidence suggests it’s worth it. Pork raised in the outdoors on a high-oleic acid diet (versus indoors on a diet high in omega-6-rich soybeans and corn) has a better omega-3/omega-6 ratio, less PUFA, and more monounsaturated fat. The improved fat quality renders it more resistant to high heat. Another study found that raising Iberian pigs outdoors on an acorn and grass diet improved both the monounsaturated fat content and O3/O6 ratio.
Butter/cream is (almost) pure milk fat, accentuating the differences between grass- and grain-feeding. Studies indicate that concentrated grass-fed milk fat really is better than the conventional stuff.
Is regular old cream, butter, and ghee okay to eat? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet against grass-fed and the price difference isn’t great enough to justify taking the chance.
You care about farmer profits
The reason why grass-fed meat costs so much more than conventional meat is multifold:
They’re less efficient growers. Grass-fed animals are harvested at 22 months; grain-fed animals are harvested at 14 months.
They can’t be produced “in bulk.” Grass-fed livestock cannot, by definition, be crammed into feedlots. Space is a premium, and that means fewer animals per acre.
That makes wholesale grass-fed less profitable in general than wholesale conventional feeding. But when you sidle up to the grass-fed beef farm stand and initially balk at the prices, know that they’re not just artificially raising prices out of greed. Those prices are necessary for the farmer to stay afloat, make a living, and keep raising animals and producing meat the right way. And it means your purchase is going directly to the person who raised your meat, not run through the gauntlet of middle men.
You care about the environment
Last week, I explained how rotational grazing is better for the environment than normal range feeding or conventional feedlotting (yep, that’s a verb). It keeps livestock on a more natural feeding pattern, gives ample time for the paddocks to regrow its plants, and helps sink more carbon into the soil. Grass-fed ranchers are turning to rotational grazing in increasing numbers, so by purchasing grass-fed you are likely supporting farmers who employ environmentally-friendly methods.
You want more collagen
Who doesn’t want more collagen? This is just conjecture, but I’m confident it’s correct. Grass-fed animals move more than feedlot animals. They walk, they run, they cavort, they wrestle. All this means their joints receive more loading than the animal who just stands around eating grain and farting. And since like all other tissues the connective tissue responds to loading by strengthening and fortifying itself, grass-fed meat and bones and joints should have more collagen than their conventional counterparts.
When conventional is fine:
You’re buying protein powder
Protein is protein is protein. Soy isn’t whey, but grass-fed whey isolate is identical to conventional whey isolate. The feeding method does not alter the content and composition of the amino acids present in a protein. Grass-feeding can affect the fatty acid, antioxidant, and micronutrient content of meat and dairy in a favorable way, but not the amino acid profile. Whey protein is about the protein–the amino acid profile. If what you want is pure dairy protein and you’re only worried about the nutrition, the source doesn’t matter.
You’re buying gelatin powder
Same situation as whey; gelatin is a protein. The feeding method doesn’t affect the protein content or amino acid concentration, so there’s no nutritional need to buy grass-fed gelatin. That said, most of the gelatin brands popular in the ancestral health community do come from grass-fed sources.
You’re feeding picky eaters
I love a good grass-fed ribeye. I love the texture, the intense flavor, the deep yellow marbling, the complexity. But to some people, grass-fed meat is “tough” and “gamey.” If you’re feeding a dinner party full of these types of folks, people who’ve never had grass-fed beef, who are picky eaters, who prefer blander, more comfortable flavors, going conventional is probably safer. It’s more forgiving to cook and everyone (except for the hardcore Primals in attendance) will enjoy it.
You’re buying lean meat
If you can budget for it, lean grass-fed meat is still the superior choice, but since the major differences lie in the fatty acid composition and content, lean meat doesn’t have to be grass-fed. As mentioned above, the protein remains the same regardless of the feed. You will miss out on a few nutrients found in slightly higher levels in grass-fed meat, like zinc, sodium, and B12, but these are balanced by slightly lower levels of magnesium and potassium. Either way, it’s mostly a wash and all red meat, whether grass-fed or conventional, is a good source of all those nutrients.
Grass-fed animal foods aren’t a deal breaker for successfully going Primal. You can be incredibly healthy without ever sniffing a piece of grass-fed lamb. But if you’re going to eat a lot of animal foods, you owe it to your health to choose grass-fed when it matters most. Hopefully today’s post helps you decide what that means to you.
Let’s hear from you. When do you buy grass-fed? When do you skip it? I’d love to know your decision making process.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care!
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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 three decades researching and 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 Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.