Many of us have found inspiration in various Paleo and primal books from across the pond. They highlight the benefits of eating grass-fed meat over mass-produced grain-fed beef. In the UK, we don’t tend to see huge concentrated animal feed operations, but does this mean all our UK beef and lamb is 100% grass-fed? We’re going to talk you through the expectations of ‘grass-fed meat’ and what some supermarkets and farmers mean when they say ‘grass-fed’.
The taste and quality difference
The taste and quality difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meats could be endlessly debated. We tend to choose grass-fed meats for their health-boosting qualities, but how do they boost our health? They hold higher nutrient quality, higher omega-3 content, and healthier omega-3 to omega-6 ratios.
Studies show that grass finished meats can have 3-5 times as many omega-3 fatty acids as grain-fed meats, depending on various factors like the quality of the grazing pasture. Omega-3 has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, depression, dementia and arthritis.
100% grass-fed meat, therefore, has a much higher quality of nutrients, taste and even a better impact on the environment.
The problem with modern diets
Omega-6 is a fatty acid that is contained within both grain-fed and grass-fed meat in relatively similar quantities. In most modern diets, omega-6 is often eaten excessively. In healthy traditional cultures the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids would be 1:1 or 1:2, this ratio has been shown to have a health promoting effect on humans. (1)
Modern diets are high in vegetable oils, grains, and processed foods. These diets tend to create an omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio of up to 1:20. This is a serious problem, eating too many omega-6 fatty acids can reduce the benefits of omega-3. This occurs because the omegas compete for the enzymes and micronutrients in our bodies. This could mean that even though you are eating omega-3, your body may not be making use of it.
A key issue we face with modern diets is the imbalance between our intake of omega-3 and omega-6. By choosing 100% grass-fed meat over grain-fed or even grain-finished meats gives you the chance to increase your omega-3 consumption and balance out your overall intake to a healthier ratio of 1:2.
The Benefits of 100% Grass-fed meats
You can gain the most nutrients from animals who have been on an entirely pasture diet (grass and other plant species found in grasslands). When animals are reared for meat and have eaten a 100% grass-fed diet the concentration of the beneficial nutrients within the flesh of the animal are far higher. One of the fatty acids that is particularly desirable within the meat of grass finished animals is Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). CLA is a type of polyunsaturated fat and is found at levels 2-3 times higher in grass-fed meat than in grain-fed meat. CLA is thought to help protect against heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. (2, 3)
What animals can be ‘100% grass fed’?
The term grass-fed is only applicable to ruminant animals that would naturally have a pasture-based diet. Omnivores, like pigs, will eat grass and scratch around in pasture but it is unlikely they will be finished on just grass for the commercial market.
In the UK, we don’t see huge concentrated animal feeding operations like those in the USA, however most farms will use grains in one form or another to ‘finish’ their cattle, lambs and mutton ewes.
So, how do we identify ‘pasture for life’ and ‘100% grass-fed’ meats?
Meat from 100% grass-fed animals will contain carotenoids such as beta-carotene – these are the precursors to vitamin A. A good way to identify nutritious beef and lamb is to look at the fat on the meat; if it slightly yellow and cream coloured it means it is rich in carotenoids which are a good indication that the animal has had a grass finished diet (4).
Vitamin E is also crucial when analysing the quality and freshness of meat; it can help extend shelf life. Grass-fed meat, that is higher in vitamin E, will perform better in high temperature cooking over grain-fed meat. This means it is even more important to select grass-fed meat when selecting steak and burger cuts (5).
The UK is home to a wide diversity of livestock farms who have a range of rearing systems. To presume all UK meat is grass-fed would be misleading. What is important to know is that there are no specific labelling laws governing the term ‘grass-fed’; this means the term is used to cover a variety of animal rearing systems. ‘Grass-fed’ could cover animals who have had a short time on pasture and are then cereal fed until slaughter, it could also cover those animals who have been grazed naturally their whole lives. This means even if meat is labelled ‘grass-fed’ it doesn’t mean they haven’t had any grains.
There are a limited number of farmers, in the UK, finishing their animals exclusively on grass and nutrient dense pasture crops, like red clover and lucerne. There is only one recognised certification program for ‘100% grass-fed’ or ‘pasture-fed’ meat; the Pasture Fed Livestock Association are working hard to get more farmers to sell their meat under the PFLA certificate. The chances are if your meat is not certified by the PFLA then your farmer will probably be finishing their ‘local grass-fed meat’ on grains.
Don’t get caught out:
It’s important to know the crucial time for animals to be grass-fed is in the 80-90 days prior to slaughter, this falls within most UK livestock’s ‘finishing’ period. This is when farmers are fattening the animals to get a decent conformation of carcass and a good price. Most UK farms feed cereals in this period and many will bring the animals indoors to do this efficiently (6).
An Australian study into the ‘Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health’ (Ponnampalam, E.N., 2006), showed that all the omega-3 and CLA gained from grass-feeding was lost in just 80 days of grain feeding. Furthermore, it was lost to the degree that it was no longer qualified as being a meaningful dietary source by the New Zealand and Australian Food Standards Agency.
This doesn’t mean these farmers or supermarkets labelling this meat as ‘grass-fed’ are bad or that their produce is poor in quality or taste. Although, it does not guarantee that the nutrient density is what we expect from ‘100% grass-fed’ meat.
The term ‘grass-fed’ is meaningless unless you research further into the animals’ background. Unfortunately, the extensive use of the term ‘grass-fed’ has undermined the effort of those small local farms who are actively trying to produce 100% grass-fed meat. Rearing animals purely on pasture is a very sustainable way to produce meat but it does take a deep understanding of organic farming, eco-systems, and holistic animal health management. This knowledge and skill set take time to learn and emplace.
If you want to be certain of the nutrient quality of your meat then you should be looking for the ‘pasture for life’ certificate on your meat, or ask the following questions:
• Are the animals grazed outside on pasture?
• Do the animals receive any grains?
• What feed is used to ‘finish’ the livestock?
The answer to these questions should give you some insight into where, on the wide scale of nutrient quality, your ‘grass-fed meat’ may fall.
1: Dewailly E, Blanchet C, Lemieux S, et al.(2001). n−3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease risk factors among the Inuit of Nunavik. In Am J Clinical Nutrition 2001;74::464-73. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/74/4/464.full
2: Gunnars, K. (n.d.). Top 8 Reasons Not to Fear Saturated Fats. In Authority Nutrition. Retrieved from http://authoritynutrition.com/top-8-reasons-not-to-fear-saturated-fats/
3: Kresser, C. (2013, April). The Diet-Heart Myth: Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Are Not the Enemy. In Chris Kresser. Retrieved from http://chriskresser.com/the-diet-heart-myth-cholesterol-and-saturated-fat-are-not-the-enemy/
4: Kresser, C. (2013, March). Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed. In Chris Kresser. Retrieved from http://chriskresser.com/why-grass-fed-trumps-grain-fed/
5: Daley, C. A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P. S., Nader, G. A., & Larson, S. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. In Nutrition Journal, 9, 10. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/
6: Ponnampalam E.N., Mann, N.J., Sinclair, A.J. (2006). Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health. In Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006;15(1):21-9. Retrieved from http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/APJCN/15/1/21.pdf