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Grass-fed Vs. Conventional: When Does It Matter Most?

By now, you’re convinced of the general overall superiority of grass-fed, pasture-raised meat [1]. 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:

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 [6], 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 [7] (versus indoors on a diet high in omega-6-rich soybeans and corn) has a better omega-3/omega-6 ratio [8], less PUFA, and more monounsaturated fat. The improved fat quality renders it more resistant to high heat. Another study [9] found that raising Iberian pigs outdoors on an acorn and grass diet improved both the monounsaturated fat content and O3/O6 ratio.

You’re buying dairy

The evidence continues to mount in favor of organic and/or pastured dairy. Not only is it higher in omega-3 fats and antioxidants, the amount present in organic/pastured dairy is relevant to consumers [10]. It contains about 50% more omega-3 fats [11] than conventional dairy, meaning it has a physiological impact. If you’re eating a lot of dairy, maybe you’re a kid or a pregnant lady trying to get adequate calcium, organic pastured dairy is especially crucial.

You’re buying cream or butter (or ghee)

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 [17] 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 [18] 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 [19]? This is just conjecture, but I’m confident it’s correct. Grass-fed animals move more than feedlot animals. They walk, they run [20], they cavort [21], they wrestle [22]. 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 [23] 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 [24]antioxidant [25], and micronutrient content of meat and dairy in a favorable way, but not the amino acid profile. Whey protein [26] 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 [27] 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

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 [28] in grass-fed meat, like zinc [29], 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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