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Cows that are totally grass-fed take much longer to reach market weight than grain-fed cattle.Eye Ubiquitous

The Question

Is grass-fed beef better for you than regular beef? What's the difference, nutritionally speaking?

The Answer

If you're a beef eater, you've likely noticed packages of grass-fed beef showing up in grocery stores beside standard-issue, grain-fed beef. And perhaps you've heard that grass-fed beef is better for you: Advocates contend it's lower in fat and calories and higher in omega-3s and antioxidants than regular beef.

Turns out, the claims are true. A number of studies have revealed that meat from grass-eating cows has nutritional advantages over conventionally raised cattle. But those benefits don't necessarily translate into better health.

Grass versus grain

All beef cattle are raised on pasture (grass) after they're weaned. Eventually, though, conventionally raised cattle are sent from pasture to feedlot, where they're "finished" on a concentrated grain diet (usually corn) in an effort to fatten them up quickly for market. (A small amount of grain-fed beef is raised on conventional farms rather than intensive feedlots.)

Grass-fed cattle, on the other hand, spend their entire lives eating only grass; they are not fed any grains. In the spring, summer and fall, cows graze on pasture, and in the winter, they eat hay (dried grasses) and haylage (fermented grasses).

Unlike grain-fed cattle, 100-per-cent grass-fed animals take six to 12 months longer to reach market weight. Up to one year of extra grass, care and labour is predominately why grass-fed beef is pricier than most cuts of conventional beef.

Grass-fed beef is not the same as organic beef. Cattle that produce organic beef are given some access to pasture; when they don't eat grass, they're given organic feed that is free of antibiotics, hormones, synthetic pesticides and herbicides and genetically modified ingredients.

As a general rule, though, antibiotics and growth hormones are not part of the diet of grass-fed cattle. To be sure, read package labels or ask your butcher.

Better for beef eaters?

Grass-fed beef is leaner and lower in calories than grain-fed beef due to less marbling, the visible flecks of fat in your rib-eye steak and prime rib roast. (Fattening cattle with grains maximizes marbling.)

Most claims, however, focus on omega-3 fats, in particular alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Higher intakes of this plant-based omega-3 fatty acid are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and depression.

According to Dr. Richard Bazinet, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto who analyzes fatty acids in beef, grass-fed beef outranks grain-fed beef when it comes to ALA.

Conventional beef has about 20 milligrams of ALA in three ounces, whereas the same amount of grass-fed beef has 50 to 100 mg. A big difference? Yes. Meaningful? That depends.

Women need 1,100 mg of ALA each day; men require 1,600 mg. Eating a six-ounce grass-fed steak three times a week provides, at most, 5 per cent to 8 per cent of your daily ALA requirement. Keep in mind that during cooking, the ALA content of meat will decrease since ALA is found in fat.

Making the switch to other grass-fed animal foods, such as pasture-raised poultry and eggs and grass-fed dairy, could conceivably make an appreciable difference towards your daily ALA needs.

Even so, some of the best sources of ALA include flax oil (one teaspoon has 2,400 mg ALA), ground flaxseed (one tablespoon has 1,200 mg), chia seeds (one tbsp. has 1,700 mg), walnuts (seven halves have 1,280 mg) and hemp seeds (one tbsp. has 850 mg).

Analyses have also revealed that, compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef has a higher concentration of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid thought to have anti-cancer properties.

Yet, some experts say this difference disappears when the meat is cooked. Like ALA, CLA is found in the fat content of meat.

Grass-fed beef is also higher in antioxidants such as beta carotene and vitamin E than conventional beef. Whether the amounts are large enough to be significant to health remains to be seen.

Better for cows?

To me, it seems that grass-fed cattle lead more natural lives moving about in open pastures and eating the food that nature intended them to eat. Ruminant animals such as cows are well equipped to digest grass and turn it into protein.

Cows are not, however, evolved to digest grain. Switching cows to a corn-heavy diet upsets their digestive system and increases the likelihood of acidosis (acidified rumen), which can lead to heartburn, stomach ulcers and liver abscesses.

The vast majority of grain-fed beef comes from cattle raised in overcrowded feedlots without access to pasture, fresh air or exercise.

Bottom line

Beef is an exceptional source of protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc. That doesn't change, whether it comes from grass-fed or grain-fed cows.

The fact that grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids – or beta carotene – is irrelevant to me.

I get plenty of each in my usual diet. I add ground flax to oatmeal and smoothies, snack on walnuts with fruit, eat leafy green vegetables every day and throw in a sweet potato or two each week. I'm pretty sure I'm well covered.

Still, grass-fed beef gets my vote. That's because grass-fed animals live a more humane and natural life than do grain-fed livestock confined in feedlots. To me, that's worth spending a little extra money on.

Whether you choose grass-fed or conventionally raised beef, don't overdo it. Heavy intakes of red meat are linked to a greater risk of colorectal cancer, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Enjoy your steak – or burger – but do so no more than three times a week.

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