Out to Pasture: Natural Beef Makes a Comeback


Out to Pasture: Natural Beef Makes a Comeback
Many health-conscious folks no longer eat beef. Others are taking another look as more farmers revert back to traditional farming practices and raising more "natural" animal products.  Like all the articles in the Hippie Wisdom newsletter, the question we set out to answer is: Why go natural? Are there significant health advantages to choosing natural beef?

I was surprised to learn that last year, despite the research associating regular beef intake with heart disease and colon cancer risk, Americans ate more beef than chicken. Unless you’ve altogether tuned out the negative scientific studies, you probably eat beef sparingly (if at all); and when you do partake, you may feel twinges of guilt. Are we accurate to consider beef an unhealthy food?

Our biological ancestors relied heavily on wild meats. Scientists estimate that during a 1-2 million year period, deer, elk, and other wild game comprised as much as 50% of our diet and plant foods the other 50%. There is good evidence that the cells of our bodies are genetically programmed (through the course of evolution) to rely on specific plant chemicals (think almonds, spinach, tomatoes, blueberries, etc.). Would we not also be well-adapted to the natural chemicals in wild meat? And if so, why then is the healthiness of beef questioned today?

First of all, modern beef is a far cry from wild meat – it’s domesticated. Wild animals are skinny animals, not plump and juicy. I’ll bet you’ve never seen an overweight deer running alongside the highway. Farm animals are much fatter (compare the fat differences between wild game and beef in the table below). In the early 20th century, cows lived on the range, eating their natural diet of grass. In the 1950s, the cattle industry began fattening up cows by feeding them grain in the latter stages of their lifespan. This dietary switch produced larger cows with fatter – and tastier – meat. For the industry, finishing cows in feedlots has been a profitable farming practice.

 Meat
(per 3.5 ounce serving)

Fat (grams)

Saturated Fat (grams)

% Calories from Fat

Prime rib

30

12

75%

Ground beef (80% lean)

18

7

59%

Ground beef (90% lean)

11

5

49%

Beef tenderloin

10

4

42%

Deer

3

1

18%

Elk

2

1

12%

John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution, writes about the changes within the cattle industry in the 20th century:

“Traditionally, all beef was grass-fed beef, but in the United States today what is commercially available is almost all feedlot beef. The reason? It's faster, and so more profitable. Seventy-five years ago, steers were 4 or 5 years old at slaughter. Today, they are 14 or 16 months. You can't take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. It takes enormous quantities of corn, protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.”

You may wonder how grass-fed beef could be healthier than what’s available in the supermarket today. When cows eat grains instead of grass, they not only become fatter but the amounts of different fats in their muscle and fat stores change. These changes make a huge difference for our health. The notable differences are in the amounts of saturated fats, omega 3s, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).

  • Supermarket beef (grain-fed) is a major source of cholesterol-raising saturated fat in the American diet. Grass-fed beef contains 50% less saturated fat than supermarket beef.

  • Grass-fed beef contains significantly more omega 3s (beneficial fats found in salmon and other oily fish) than supermarket beef.

  • Grass-fed beef contains nearly 50% more CLA than supermarket (grain-fed) beef.[i]  CLA is being investigated for its ability to prevent cancer and possibly reduce overall body fat composition.

Many believe that grass-fed beef is certainly healthier for the simple reason that grass – and not grain – is a cow’s natural diet. Chew on that for a moment.

Natural Beef
The next time you visit the meat section of your natural foods market - be it Whole Foods, Wild Oats, or another store- you’ll find one or more of the following options:

  • Organic Beef – Certified by a third party. It means that the cows are given access to the outdoors, sunshine, and pasture and that they are fed 100 percent organic feed. These cows are typically fed some grain.

  • Natural Food Store Beef – Many natural food stores, like Whole Foods, sell some beef that is NOT ORGANIC but was range-raised for at least two-thirds of the animal’s life, without being fed any animal by-products*, antibiotics, or growth hormones.

    *Note: While most beef sold in natural food stores comes from cows fattened on grains, the cows are NOT fed “rendered proteins” which includes poultry litter, pork scraps, restaurant leftovers, out-of-date pet food, and cow blood (see Mad Cow Disease below).

  • 100% Grass-Fed or Grass-Fed Only – Not certified by a third party unless indicated as organic. Check your sources carefully. Often not available in natural food stores. Check online for a farmer near you:
    http://www.eatwild.com/products/index.html

  • Free-Range – means that cows are not entirely confined to a feedlot. Free-Range does not mean that cows are fed a healthy diet.

  • Natural –doesn’t mean much of anything. Technically, it means the beef is minimally processed and that no preservatives or artificial ingredients are used in the processing. By definition, regular supermarket beef is considered natural.

Mad Cow Disease
Scientists believe that Mad Cow Disease, which is located within the brain and spinal tissue of infected animals, is transmitted to cows by feeding them this infected tissue as a source of protein. Cows in the U.S. have been fed brain and spinal tissue of other cows until this practice was banned in 1997. But there are still several loopholes by which cows today are still being fed cow by-products; cows, which were designed by nature to eat grass, are routinely fed poultry litter, pork scraps, restaurant leftovers, out-of-date pet food, and cow blood.

It is currently believed that organically raised cows and 100% grass-fed cows – because they are not fed any animal by-products - carry no risk of Mad Cow Disease.

E. coli
According to the Center for Disease Control, every year more than 7,000 people contract E. coli food poisoning (technically called Escherichia coli 0157:H7) and at least 150 people die from this bacterial illness. Contaminated ground beef is responsible for roughly 50% of all of the outbreaks reported in the last decade.

Grain-fed cows have 100 times more E. coli in their waste than grass-fed cows. In addition, the E. coli in grain-fed cows is 1000 times more resistant to our stomach acid, thereby greatly increasing the likelihood of illness.[ii] Even more amazing, studies have shown that feeding grass to cows for only five days reduces the number of E. coli by 1000 times and significantly reduces its acid resistance.[iii] The likelihood of getting E. coli poisoning as a result of eating grass-fed beef is much lower than eating supermarket beef. 

Switching all feedlot cattle in the United States from grain-based diets to hay prior to slaughter is not currently feasible, in spite of the potential benefits.”[iv]  – USDA scientists

Even though grass-fed beef has less E. coli, it is still advisable to follow safe handling and cooking practices with all beef, particularly ground.

Environmental Issues
A major downside of conventional feedlot operations is waste management. It is common for manure from these massive operations to contaminate rivers and ground water. Grass-fed cattle typically do not create a waste problem; their manure does not accumulate but is dispersed and the nutrients it contains help grasslands stay healthy.

Cost
There is no dispute that grass-fed beef costs more than supermarket beef, but I was very surprised by how small the difference actually is when I made the side-by-side comparison (see chart below). As discussed, grain-fed cows (particularly when the feed is supplemented with rendered protein) grow bigger and faster, making it far more economical; but the meat is not as healthy.

 

 Grain-fed supermarket beef

 Natural Food Store Beef
Partially grain-fed

Grass-fed beef

NY Strip Steak

$10.99

$11.99

$11.99

Choice Sirloin

$6.99

$8.99

$6.99 to $8.99

Ground Beef

$2.99

$3.99

$4.25

Finding Grass-Fed Beef
If you can find a local supplier (see Eat Wild link), you will avoid shipping charges. However, there’s a good chance that your natural foods store does NOT carry 100% grass-fed beef. Try your local farmer’s market or search online. A few links to explore:
http://www.eatwild.com/products/index.html
http://www.thenewfarm.org/farmlocator/index.php

An excellent resource for grass-fed beef and other natural farm products for those living in North Carolina can be found at:
http://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/consumers/index.html (click on Consumer Guide to Locally Produced Livestock Products in Central NC)

Taste
Grass-fed beef tastes different than grain-fed beef, sometimes being described as having more of a “gamey” flavor. It may depend on the supplier and the cut. I recently tried a piece of NY Strip raised just outside of Asheville by Spring House Meats and – without any marinade or seasonings added – thought it tasted exceptionally good.

Cooking Grass-Fed Beef
Grass-fed beef contains less fat than grain-fed beef and cooks up to 20% faster. To keep grass-fed beef tender, cook at a lower heat and for shorter periods on the grill (medium to medium rare is recommended) and baste your meat to preserve moisture. Cover beef when pan-frying and avoid over-cooking.

Hippie Wisdom
When researchers analyzed the diet of those inhabiting the island of Crete in the 1960s (and later declared the Mediterranean diet to be the world’s healthiest), they made a startling discovery: The average American was eating a combined 69 ounces of beef, poultry, and fish each week while the Cretans were eating only 10 ounces per week! If you’re a regular red meat eater, consider buying better quality beef and eating smaller portions.

Grass has been the natural diet of cows for several thousand years. Knowing this, you’d expect that the grass-fed approach is not only healthier for you but also for the cows and for the environment. The beef in supermarkets today comes from cows that often are sick. Many are routinely given antibiotics or antacids to manage acidosis caused by eating a grain heavy diet.  Most are given hormones and are fed diets that include by-products of animal including poultry litter. Choosing organic beef (fed mostly grass but still finished on grains) is a major improvement. Ask questions at the meat counter – at a minimum, look for meat from cows that are not fed animal by-products, hormones, or antibiotics. Choosing organic 100% grass-fed, though harder to come by, is the healthiest beef available today.

Homework assignment this month for those that eat red meat: Find a source of grass-fed beef near you (see link below), give it a try, and let me know what you think (greg@bestnaturalfoods.com).

Learn why it’s important to buy other quality animal products (if you eat animal foods), including organic chicken and omega-3 eggs in The Best Natural Foods on the Market Today: A Yuppie’s Guide to Hippie Food.  

Grass-fed beef near you: http://www.eatwild.com/products/index.html

- Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD


[i] Noci F, et al. The fatty acid composition of muscle fat and subcutaneous adipose tissue of pasture-fed beef heifers: influence of the duration of grazing. J Anim Sci. 2005 May;83(5):1167-78.
[ii]Callaway, TR, et al. Forage feeding to reduce preharvest Escherichia coli populations in cattle, a review. J Dairy Sci. 2004 Jun;87(6):1579.
[iii] Russel JB, et al. Potential effect of cattle diets on the transmission of pathogenic Escherichia coli to humans. Microbes Infect. 2000 Jan;2(1):45-53.
[iv] Callaway, TR, et al. Forage feeding to reduce preharvest Escherichia coli populations in cattle, a review. J Dairy Sci. 2004 Jun;87(6):1579.

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