The Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Meat: Part 2

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grass-fed meatFat can be a wonderful thing.

Fats can be the most nutrient rich part of your diet, or they can cause numerous diseases – depending on which fat we’re talking about.  What an animal eats will change the kind of fat in its tissues.  If an animal eats a suboptimal diet including grains and legumes, its fat loses much of its nutrient quality in surprisingly little time.  The second study we cover in this two-part series examines fats present in grass-fed meat besides omega-3’s and CLA, along with various nutrients stored in the meat and the fat.

The last article in the series showed grass-fed meat has more omega-3’s and CLA than grain-fed meat.  Both of those fats are beneficial, but there’s more.  The new study in this article compared a broad spectrum of nutrients in grass-fed and grain-fed beef.  It measured carotenoids, the total amount of fat, and the types of fat including:

  1. Omega-3
  2. Omega-6
  3. Cholesterol (this isn’t a fat, but its still important)
  4. Total Saturated Fat
  5. Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
  6. Trans-Vaccenic Acid (TVA)*

*Trans-vaccenic acid is metabolized into conjugated linoleic acid, and performs similar functions.  It can speed fat loss, fight cancer, and improve brain function. It is technically a naturally occurring “trans-fat” but it does not cause the same the negative health problems that margarine or hydrogenated fats do.

Study #2: Conventional vs. Grass-fed

Effects of conventional and grass-feeding systems on the nutrient composition of beef.

In 2008, meat samples were collected from around the country at three different times.  Grass-fed meat was taken from 13 states, and grain-fed meat was collected from Ohio, Texas, and South Dakota.  The nutrient content of the grass-fed meat was analyzed and compared to the grain-fed meat.

Results

The grass-fed meat had higher levels of carotenoids, making the fat appear yellow.  Generally, the more carotenoids in a substance, the more nutrients it contains.  Yellow fat (like grass-fed butter) is a sign of high nutrient density.  One of the things you’ll notice when cooking grass-fed meat is the yellowish color of the fat.

More carotenoids = more antioxidants+nutrients (and more flavor too).

“…grass-fed beef had fat that was more yellow in color than control beef.”

Grass-fed meat had slightly less total fat, but both types of meat were considered lean.  Neither one of them was more than 4.3 percent fat for the cuts studied.

The real difference was the type of fat in each meat.  Grass-fed meat was higher in saturated fat (that’s a good thing, but for you fat-phobic people, there are other studies that show grass-fed meat has less saturated fat), omega-3’s, CLA, and trans-vaccenic acid (similar to CLA).  Both grain-fed and grass-fed animals had about the same amount of omega-6, total polyunsaturated fat, and cholesterol.

Grass-fed meat had the same amount of omega-6 fatty acids, and far more omega-3‘s.  This means grass-fed meat has a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.  The higher levels of saturated fat are a bonus.  You want to avoid an overabundance of polyunsaturated fat.

“…grass-fed beef had… a greater content of SFA (saturated fats), n-3 fatty acids, CLA, and trans-vaccenic acid than did the control samples. Concentrations of PUFA, trans fatty acids, n-6 fatty acids, and cholesterol did not differ between grass-fed and control ground beef.”

Summary

Grass-fed meat was higher in…

  • Carotenoids and trace nutrients.
  • Saturated fat.
  • CLA and TVA (super healthy fats)
  • Omega-3’s.

Grass-fed and grain-fed meat had the same amount of omega-6 fats, cholesterol, and total polyunsaturated fats.

One of the most important health markers is your omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio.  A commonly cited healthy ratio is 2:1 but the Bulletproof recommendation is to keep it below 1:1 and to make sure the omega-6 you eat is mostly uncooked.  Most Americans have a ratio of 20:1 to 30:1.  Along with other dietary measures, consuming grass-fed meat will help improve this ratio.  Just like in the 2006 study cited in our first post, grass-fed meat had more omega-3’s, CLA, and TVA.  Grass-fed meat has more antioxidants, and a broader spectrum of healthy fats.  The higher antioxidant content in grass-fed meat will also protect the omega-3’s and omega-6’s from oxidizing.

When it comes to meat, grass-fed and grain-fed don’t even compare. Go grass-fed, every time.

Looking for a reliable source of grass-fed meat that delivers across the U.S.?  We recommend Alderspring Ranch as the best value for grass-fed.

Some background research for this post may have been conducted by Bulletproof staff researchers.

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By Dave Asprey

  • All of this is good, but I am sure grain-fed meat has to have some better quality to it than grass-fed as well.(although less important, to the points mentioned) To avoid super-bias, you should include positive information on both types.

    • Jedarojr

      Grain fed meat is cheaper. That is THE only positive to grain fed. Grass fed meat cost to tax payers is more, increases the profitability of big pharma, and big aggraculture. The torture to animals is generally greater, and the impact on the planet is hugely negative. The animals do NOT eat grains as part of their natural diet… So the cows develop more h.pylori salmonela, require more antibiotics, store more toxins in their fat, and get fat much faster (therefore time to market is shorter, which is part of why it is cheaper.) The animals “need” less space, and live shorter lives. Does that constitute bias?

      • Well said, except not all cuts are more expensive. We’ve got some posts planned that show you how to get grass-fed meat for even cheaper than grain-fed, depending on where you live. Cheers 🙂

        • geehuro

          where are the posts?? armi, do you get ground beef or steaks?

    • Brian,

      Grain-fed meat is in no way superior to grass-fed meat. I agree that you should look at both sides of every argument, which is why I included all the studies that show gain-fed meat is healthier. As you can see, there aren’t any.

  • Pabray46

    I think you guys are way more intuitive than most. All week I’ve seen new posts/blogs addressing details of the very questions I’m dealing with now that I started the Bulletproof diet this week.
    Right on!

  • maja-lisa

    I have recently started following the bulletproof diet, but i am quite puzzled why you are so thrilled about saturated fat?
    I can’t seem to find any research saying that saturated fat is good – only that unsaturated fat is good (which of course has been stated for a long time).
    Can you give me more details or link to scientific research that shows the benefit of saturated fat over unsaturated?

    • Hi. I am also confused about this topic. However, a doctor who had reseached the subject thoroughly, told me that the ‘experts’ had misinterpreted the evidence and got it wrong on cholesterol as a cause of heart disease. There is lot of useful information and more links on the possible benefits of saturated fats here (see second answer): http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index;_ylt=AsEA8g7ECK9mLjH1W36ALekjzKIX;_ylv=3?qid=20111012151057AADyMgV

      However, I’m not sure that this means that saturated fats are actually better than unsaturated fats (afterall, we all know that omega-3, an unsaturated fat, is extremely healthy). I think some of each and/or certain types of each are good.

  • Good stuff, but I would like to correct one thing and clarify the meaning of ‘grass-fed’. At the start, you have included legumes along with grain as a ‘sub-optimal’ diet for cattle. That’s not really right. Basically, “grass-fed” is short for “fed a high roughage, grass-based diet”, as opposed to a cereal (grain)-based diet. This means mostly grass, but it does NOT mean only grass (though that may be the case).

    Ruminants are meant to eat roughage, and this includes not just grass, but other green, fibrous plants, such as clover and herbs. It is not actually ideal for the cattle to be eating ONLY grass as that would be a very limited and somewhat unnatural diet). Like humans, a diverse diet is better than eating only one food type.

    A traditional pasture for cattle, for example, would have many other plants as well as grass – see your photo above! The best cattle diet is largely grass, but also with a good mix of herbs (deep-rooting herbs provide minerals) and legumes such as red clover (for protein). Legumes – such as clover – are a perfectly acceptable and indeed a good part of a grass-fed cattle diet. (I’m referring to the whole plant being eaten, not just feeding the beans/pods.)

    The amount of legumes in the diet is variable, and depends on the cow breed and stage of the rearing. Some traditional breeds will mature well on rough grassland plants alone. But more modern breeds do well with more protein such as from clover in the pasture, especially at the fattening stage.

    This is the approach of organic farming, ie. to try to provide the animals natural dietary preferences, and in so doing get a better quality, more nutritious food product. Indeed, European research has shown that the red clover in organic cattle diets is responsible for some of the key health benefits, including the higher omega-3 content of organic milk – see link below. (US grass-fed cattle farmers probably use different legumes, such as alfalfa.)

    http://www.streetdirectory.com/food_editorials/beverages/beverages/organic_milk.html

    So, please remove ‘legumes’ from that sentence, as legumes are a good and often important part of a ‘grass-fed’ cattle diet. I hope this makes sense.

  • Interesting point about the yellow fat in grass-fed beef.

    However, “You want to avoid an overabundance of polyunsaturated fat.” You know that’s not right! One of the main PUFAs are the omega-3 fatty acids that you are championing. Most people don’t get enough of this, though they get far too much omega-6, another PUFA.

    The study seems confusing. You say it found that grass-fed beef “had far more omega-3s.” But then you quote from the study saying that “Concentrations of PUFA … did not differ between grass-fed and control.” Which is it?? Well, there are plenty of studies that show that grass-fed beef, and cheese and milk from organic/grass-fed cows have more omega-3s and other nutrients, so I’m not too worried by this apparent discrepancy. But would be good to know which way it actually was.

    I’m off to buy some grass-fed beef today. Living in the UK, we are lucky that most of our beef is mostly grass-fed. It’s probably not as good as it should be, but we don’t have the intensive grain-feed-lots that are standard in the US. And if I want to be sure, it is easy to buy organic beef in the supermarkets (European laws require all organic beef and lamb be mostly grass-fed). I really hope that the US moves away from the feed-lot system, which is so unhealthy!

    • You do want to avoid an overabundance of PUFA from all sources. You’re right than many people don’t get enough n-3 fats, but you can have too much n-3 fats because they’re easily oxidized..

      Differences in the concentration of PUFA did not reach statistical significance, but there was a significant increase in the omega-3 in the grass-fed beef in relation to its omega-6 content.

      If you read the full text, you’ll see PUFA is 2.7% of the grain-fed, and 2.44% of the grass-fed meat. The grain-fed meat was 2.2% omega-6, and the grass-fed meat was 1.85% omega-6.

      The total amount of PUFA between the two samples was about the same, but 36% of the PUFA in grass-fed meat was n-3, while 82% of total PUFA from grain-fed meat was n-6.

      This means the ratio of n-6 to n-3 fats was 2 times better for the grass-fed meat. Here’s a chart of the fat breakdown from the study:

      http://jas.fass.org/content/86/12/3575/T5.expansion.html

      Good luck with finding some high quality grass-fed beef 🙂

      • Okay, thank you for explaining. Interesting to see the table. Actually, the ratio of omega 6 to 3 was over four times better for the grass-fed beef! 2:1 versus 9:1. The figures on CLA are useful as well.

        I can’t imagine getting an over-abundance of omega-3 through a good diet. It’s a challenge for us all to get enough. So, I guess you are thinking of supplements, when you say this.

  • I haven’t been following your blog and have just joined in the discussion on this topic as I came across it on the internet. So hope I am not saying things that are out of place here.

    It’s great that you are promoting grass-fed beef, I strongly agree with this. However, for beef to make decent contribution to one’s recommended nutrition, I believe one has to eat a fair bit. A good-sized grass-fed steak would give something like half the amount of omega-3 needed for the day (a grain-fed steak is not worth bothering with), and half to two-thirds of several other vitamins/minerals. However, one needs to get the rest from somewhere and one is not going to eat a large steak more than once a week, if that! So, I strongly believe that a move to grass-fed beef should be part of a wholesale move to grass-fed meat and dairy generally. ie. all beef, milk, cheese, butter, yogurt and eggs should be from grass-fed/free-range/organic animals. That will probably then make up the difference and provide enough omega-3 for several more days worth. And I think one still needs to eat oily fish at least once a week (over two days worth per portion). Well, that’s as far as I have got on this.

    I already eat only organic beef/milk/cheese/butter and organic eggs, and have been for some time. So I think I am close to okay on omega-3. They also taste better and I know it’s so much better for the environment and animal welfare, so it’s a happy choice. The cost difference is just about affordable in the UK on a modest income.

    • You make a good point, but I usually eat about 1-2 pounds of grass-fed beef per day, not per week. The amount of omega-3’s needed for health has also been overblown. Read Chris Masterjohn’s PUFA report for more details. In summary, you need less than a gram a day of omega-3’s to support optimal health.

      http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/PUFA-Special-Report.html

      Also, you have to remember that omega-3’s aren’t the only nutrient in grass-fed meat. It’s also higher in carotenoids, minerals, and antioxidants than grain-fed.

      You’re absolutely right that grass-fed meat tastes far better, which is good enough reason to choose it over grain-fed beef 🙂

      • Okay, I hadn’t considered that you were arguing for eating so much beef! Sounds great. Interesting. Yes, the nutritional benefits make sense then (and l have to check Masterjohn’s report). I think lamb, pheasant and venison offer similar nutritional benefits (if you ever want a change :))

  • Chuck

    I found a local farm that has grass fed beef which is then “legume finished”. What is this and how much negative interaction will come from the legume finishing?

    You guys are awesome and thanks for everything!

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  • I just found this article that talks about “High Welfare” animals vs. factory meat. It’s from the UK. It compares several animals. Let me know what you think.

    http://www.ciwf.org.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2012/n/nutritional_benefits_of_higher_welfare_animal_products_report_june2012.pdf

  • Question: US Wellness “wet ages” their beef for a month. Does wet aging not produce the toxins that dry aging does?

    • Zach

      i heard an interview with the owner, it’s a process they do to tenderize the meats, it involves enzymes… so i wouldn’t say yes or no, just I think that might help keep production of mycotoxins….

  • Erik M

    Dave, I just spoke to a farmer about his beef and he stated that he starts the calves on grain 5lbs/day then transitions to grass-only for the majority of their life (claims 98%-99% grass fed). The animals are not treated with antibiotics or hormones, however he can not guarantee that all the feed is organic. What are your thoughts on this, I would like to purchase locally but I am having trouble finding a 100% grass fed farmer in my area.

  • badge

    Is there any research/knowledge source around the differences in cattle breeds in relation to nutrient density? Or amongst different ruminant species (bison, yak, water buffalo, gnu??).

  • T.Nate

    Grassfed meats also have a higher vitamin K2 content in the fat. Where the carotenoids go, vitamin K2 follows.

    Vitamin K2 is a very, very important nutrient!

  • Rita

    I bought a beef from the stock barns. How long do I need to leave it on grass only to ensure that it is now “grass-fed” only meat?

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