Monday, August 23, 2010

The Value of Grass-Fed Beef

By Diana Hsieh

Richard Nikoley pens a nice rant on the non-importance of grass-fed beef when eating paleo:

As you probably know, I'm no snob when it comes to grassfed beef. Sure, I love it, use it a lot, but there's just something about the "grassfed" culture in the Paleo movement that rubs me the wrong way, just a tad.

There's no question it's the better choice on a number of levels, but to my mind goes far beyond any 80/20 consideration. Someone eating nothing but supermarket meat and veggies, no junk food or cheats, is well above 90%, even 95% Paleo compliance and eating healthy! I'm not knocking grassfed meat at all, but I also don't want to discourage someone from the Paleo scene because they feel they don't measure up if all they can reasonably source is grain finished meat due to budget or other considerations. Or, maybe they just don't want to bother. Their choice, and I'm perfectly fine with it. On top of that, frankly, is that concerns over the environment and sustainability simply fail to keep me from losing a microsecond of sleep. I'll leave the hand wringing to others. Hopefully, it never gets this bad.

That said, I encourage the preference for grassfed, when you're ready (it took me a while), for two reasons primarily: it's probably slightly healthier (and most find it tastier) but more importantly, the animals are respected for their natures. Even so, there are some operations such as Prather Ranch that take great care to raise their stock humanely but finish them -- in addition to chopped forage -- with some organic barley & rice. Accordingly, it's not "grassfed" that's the end all, be all, but that the livestock are properly attended to.
Personally, I've not bothered with grass-fed beef, mostly because I've been so happy with the 1/4 cows I've ordered from Colorado's Best Beef. It's Charolais -- and undoubtedly the best beef I've ever eaten. It's also humanely-treated, not given routine antibiotics and hormones, pasture-raised and then corn-finished for a few weeks. Sure, I could opt for grass-fed, and I might do that next time. But for now, it's not been worth it.

The standard claim in favor of grass-fed beef is that it has a better omega-3 to omega-6 ratio than corn-finished beef. That's true, but the difference is so minuscule -- because beef contains so little polyunsaturated fat -- that it's not even worth mentioning. Here's the relevant data on that from Skyler Tanner:
Beef is a rubbish source of omega 3, period. Using the 6:3 ratio as some sort of amazing data point to say "SEE! THIS IS WHY YOU DON'T EAT GRAIN FED MEAT!" won't convince anyone who has access to the actual amounts in the respective beefs:

Grass fed beef: 25mg omega-3/ounce
Grain fed beef: 15mg omega-3/ounce

(This of course varies due to cow, environment, etc.)

It's easier to say it has 67% more omega-3 than grain; it certainly sounds impressive but it's still a paltry amount. Salmon has 10 times the amount of omega 3 per ounce compared to grass fed cows. Even with that, 12 ounces of salmon is 3 grams of omega 3; personally I'd rather get the best quality beef I can find at a reasonable price at take my very inexpensive by comparison fish oil daily.

To quote Coach Hale (with research):
"For instance, to achieve Recommended Daily Allowances and/or daily chemoprotective dietary levels of omega-3 fatty acids a person would have to eat at least 12 pounds of grass-fed beef
(Rule et al., 002; Martz et al., 2004; Guiffrida de Mendoza et al ., 2005; Daley et al., 2005; Smith et al., 2005). "

I love beef but not that much.
Oh, and here's another useful comparison: each of the omega-3-enhanced NestFresh eggs that I buy has 225 mg of Omega-3 in it. So I get 625 mg of omega-3 with the three eggs that I usually eat for breakfast. In contrast, the 1/2 pound hamburger that I often eat for dinner would only contain 200 mg omega-3, even if it was grass-fed.

Of course, fully grass-fed beef might have other benefits, like more CLA. But at this point, I don't see a reason to regard the fantastically delicious corn-finished beef that I have down in my freezer as less than just fine and dandy from a health perspective.

Update: I didn't address one issue in here that I should have, namely whether grain-fed beef has more total omega-6 than does grass-fed. It doesn't. The total amount of polyunsaturated fat in beef is so low that the total amount of omega-6 in beef -- whether grain-fed or grass-fed -- also must be measured in milligrams. According to the USDA food database, a half pound of grain-fed or grass-fed beef has a total of 1.2 grams of polyunsaturated fat. If you eat just two whole walnuts, you'll get more polyunsaturated fat than that!

The only reasonable conclusion, I think, is that the polyunsaturated fat in grass-fed versus grain-fed beef is just not worth a moment's thought. Grass-fed might have other benefits, but better omegas is just not one of them.

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