Grain-fed healthier than grass-fed? And a bit of a commentary

Sources for confusion are everywhere, and it’s especially true of the meat we eat.  We read about nitrites being bad then being good, about which names the same cuts can be called, and very popularly, grass-fed versus grain-fed and perceived “healthfulness.”

This is an especially fun topic for me, for many reasons.  I’ve been accused of being “against” grass-fed meats.  Not true whatsoever.  I’m all about using the resources you have available to you to raise cattle and produce beef.  Feed it if you got it.

Some ramblings about what I observe happening in the grass-fed vs. grain-fed realm:

The most prevalent of the health “claims” involve fats.  Some folks get happy about the “grass-fed is leaner” thing, which isn’t really true because you can slaughter a grain-fed animal at the same relative leanness or fatness as a any-other-way-you-feed-it animal.  Similarly, there’s the “a grass-fed burger is leaner than a grain-fed burger” thing, and for me that’s a bit looney considering the lean point of ground beef can be controlled (you can usually find 95/5, 90/10, 80/20, 73/27, etc. ground beef at the market – oh, and that’s %lean/%fat).  Now, stepping it up a bit further, we become jazzed about the fat in grass-fed meat being “healthier” than the fat in grain-fed meat.  OK, so… there’s less fat, yet that fat is the stuff that’s good for you?

If there’s a 1:1, head-to-head comparison of grass-fed and grain-fed meat of the same amount of fat, then yes, the raw grass-fed meat might have “significantly” more (and that could be 1%, 2%, 100% more) of the “better” fats.  Two things things to consider:  1) Beef itself is not a good source of CLA and other magic fats, and that’s true of pretty much all beef (rather, it’s a great source for protein, vitamins and minerals – regardless of how raised).  If you’re talking lean beef, then the argument loses even more water – after all, the fat has to be there in the first place.  If it’s the fats you’re after, find it in salmon or walnuts or something else that is comparatively “high” in the good stuff.  2) Ever have a grease fire?  What do you think’s going on there?  Fat has cooked out…  bye bye good fat? Sure, there will be some left in the meat and the proportions of individual fatty acids might not change within the meat, but it’s total fat is probably going to decrease (especially in ground meat).

This is where we’re at today on the fat issue.  The research will continue and I, for one, am looking forward to improving the way we raise cattle for food.  It’s anyone’s guess as to what direction that will take.

All that aside,  I think it’s completely acceptable to market products based on what’s true, and if a farmer or a butcher has a market for products that are pasture-raised or grass-fed, then go for it.  Maybe you have a customer that prefers the flavor of grass-fed meat.  Or maybe grass-fed meat appeals to a customer’s “food ethics.”  But I do have to wonder what the next big grass-fed is better because XYZ topic will be.

Study Shows Ground Beef From Grain-Fed Cattle Healthier Than Grass-Fed

COLLEGE STATION – Grass-fed beef may not have as many healthful traits as some perceive, according to results from a recent Texas AgriLife Research study.

Dr. Stephen Smith, an AgriLife Research meat scientist, and a team of researchers have found that contrary to popular perception, ground beef from pasture-fed cattle had no beneficial effects on plasma lipid.

However, high monounsaturated fat ground beef from grain-fed cattle increased HDL cholesterol, increased LDL particle diameters, and decreased insulin, suggesting that ground beef produced by intensive production practices provides “a healthful, high-quality source of protein.”

“We wanted to see from this study if product from pasture-fed and corn-fed cattle had different effects on LDL or HDL cholesterol,” Smith said. “We looked at the scientific literature and could not find any justifications for the statement that pasture-fed beef is better for you. All we found were rat studies in which they were fed omega-3 fatty acids, so we wanted to know if this applied to beef from grass-fed cattle.”

The study, funded by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, used Angus cattle raised at the McGregor AgriLife Research Center. One group of cattle was fed a pasture diet with supplement hay. The steers were kept on pasture until 20 months of age.

A second group of Angus steers was fed the same way a feedlot operator would and kept on a corn-based diet until 16 months of age, then reaching USDA Choice status.

A third group of Angus steers were fed the corn-based diet the longest, until reaching USDA Prime. The fat in cattle that are high in marbling is low in saturated and trans-fats, and higher in monounsaturated fats.

Beef cuts from the plate and flank taken from all three grades were made into a ground beef product, containing 24 percent fat.

Next, a group of 27 men completed a three-way crossover study. Each group rotated, consuming five 114-gram ground beef patties per week for six weeks from each of the three sets of cattle used in the study.

“There really were no negative effects of feeding ground beef from the pasture-fed cattle,” Smith said. “We did see many positive effects in men that consumed ground beef from corn-fed cattle. The ground beef from the USDA Prime cattle increased HDL cholesterol and LDL particle diameter. Both effects are protective against cardiovascular disease. The Prime ground beef also decreased insulin, so it may have some protective effect against type II diabetes.”

Smith said the study results surprised many. “As we talked to some user groups and told them that we had found pasture-fed beef is higher in saturated trans-fat, they were shocked.”

Smith presented the findings to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association last year and is now sharing among consumers and producers. He recently gave a presentation at the Texas Human Nutrition Conference in College Station. Smith said he did receive some initial negative feedback from ranchers in the grass-fed beef business, but he isn’t telling them that what they are doing is wrong.

“I know that cattle are adapted to growing on high-roughage, pasture diets, but my focus is the beef product,” he said. “A lot of producers are receptive. What I’m trying to show them is that the longer cattle are fed a corn or grain-based diet, the healthier the product will be.”

“I realize cost is involved – feeding corn is expensive. But, if you want a healthier product, you need more marbling. Time on feed is a big factor.”

The study team included Dr. Rosemary Walzem, AgriLife Research poultry scientist, and Dr. Stephen Crouse, researcher from Texas A&M University’s health and kinesiology department.

Source: AgriLife Communications, Texas A&M University

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4 thoughts on “Grain-fed healthier than grass-fed? And a bit of a commentary

  1. Kuddos! Ditto!….and all that jazz.

    Same here, been accused of being a “hater” and that’s just not the case.

    Eat it cuz you like it.
    Eat it cuz the farmer that grows it is cool.
    Eat it cuz the butcher that sells it is a rockstar.

    I don’t care why you eat it or why you sell it just stop with the Omega 3 CLA jargon. Its nonsense.

  2. In the test the grass fed animals were given pasture and fortified with hay. Could the type of pasture make a difference in the overall fat type. Texas grass is different than Kentucky grass, especially at certain times of the year. It would be interesting to do a longer term study on a variety of grass fed. Maybe include something about seasonality.
    Beef is not a good source of Omega 3, that is fact, whether grass or grain fed. But this test is a little uneven. The pasture raised is 20 months, the regular choice is 16 months, but it doesn’t say how old the Prime is. I’m not suggesting the information is false or advocating grass fed simply on the fat issue. I love a Prime steak and I would like to see the test done on that as opposed to a 114 gram dinky burger. It also doesn’t state what other foods were consumed during the test. It also is looking at fat only and no other nutrients which grass fed might exceed corn fed. Research is expensive and Texas A +M is well funded, I wish they would do some more research in this area.

  3. This may not be much of a really “scientific” study, as reported above. I’d love to read the actual study, to see materials, methods, etc. Fair is fair. Some questions come to mind…

    Why was a 24% fat burger used, and not 10%, 15% or at most 20%? 24% is too fatty. I like a 20% burger (“fat is flavor”), and many people consider 20% too fatty.

    Which fat was used to make the burgers up to 24%? Was the same fat site used in the different meats? Different fat sites may have different components. Kidney fat differs from back fat, and from belly fat.

    This does not indicate if it’s an honest, double blinded study. Bias can easily favor one over the other.

    What else were the men eating in a week, besides these little burgers? Did some have 16 oz prime sirloins while on the grass fed diet, and just lean meats when on the grain fed beef? Did some eat pizzas also, for a few weeks? What medications were they on? Were some diabetic? Was there a control group of non-burger eaters?

    What exactly were the changes in each man’s HDL cholesterol? Were there other unfavorable changes that the study accidentally ignored? Were the chemistry changes even statistically significant? What statistical methods were used?

    It says ” The Prime ground beef also decreased insulin, so it may have some protective effect against type II diabetes.” —Could other factors have decreased insulin? When was the insulin test done, relative to the meal time? Couldn’t other factors have affected the insulin level? It’s a bold leap of faith (or bull) to suggest a tiny ‘blip” decrease can alter type II diabetes, from this poorly controlled “study”.

    If you read studies, you realize that this study, as reported, is “loosey-goosey.'”

    Any conclusions without stating the methods are not worth much.
    This teenage-level study is perhaps fine for a high school studen’ts presentation. Not fine for a scientific, valid presentation. Who is funding it, anyhow? What budget? Could the study personel be receiving other grants from the Cattlemen? Could they lose funding if they reported findings that didn’t please the Cattleman’s Association?

    BTW, I eat grass fed and grain fed beef, animal crackers too, and and I have no “beef ” either way.

  4. Apparently, this study was way too “loosey goosey” as one of the comments said. It was rejected by all three journals that it was submitted to. In scientific terms, it’s just not valid. It laymen’s terms, it’s bogus.

    Another study comparing grass-fed beef to grain fed beef, that was actually published in a credible scientific journal, did show a significant benefit to eating grass-fed beef. The study, from the UK, showed elevated levels of Omega 3 and decreased levels of Omega 6, after eating grass-fed beef for 4 weeks. Whereas the opposite occurred in the grain-fed beef group. A summary of the study is on http://www.eatwild.com

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