If you are trying to follow a healthier diet, you may have considered giving up beef because of its high saturated fat content and its reputed contamination with steroids and antibiotics. But if you are a devout carnivore, take heart. Grass-fed beef offers a healthier, lower-fat alternative to standard corn-fed fare.
Grass-fed cattle, referred to in the cattle industry as "grass-finished," are cattle that have been allowed to graze on pasture grasses their entire lives. Prior to World War II, all beef cattle in America were grass-fed, according to a report by PBS "Frontline." Today, however, most cattle spend their first six to 12 months grazing and their latter 60 to 120 days in feedlots, where they are fattened with grain, primarily corn. Because of the relatively short growing season in North America, most of the grass-fed beef consumed in the United States is imported from Australia or New Zealand, according to the Cattlemen's Beef Board.
Grass vs. Corn
The practice of feeding corn to cattle in the weeks before slaughter is economically motivated. Lot-fed cattle mature more quickly than pasture cattle, particularly when treated with antibiotics and hormones. While grass-fed animals are subject to seasonal growth patterns, lot-fed animals can be brought to maturity all year long, making corn-fed beef more cost-effective to produce and thereby less expensive for consumers. Over 50 percent of the corn grown in the United States is fed to livestock, according to a March 2006 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Grass-Fed Nutritional Advantages
Grass-fed beef has been shown to have nutritional advantages over corn-fed. A study published in the March 2010 issue of "Nutrition Journal" showed grass-fed beef to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid, vitamins A and E and cancer-fighting antioxidants than corn-fed beef. The researchers suggested grain-fed beef could serve as a viable substitute for fish or skinless chicken to reduce serum cholesterol. Grass-fed beef has one-half to one-third less fat, and is thereby lower in calories than corn-fed beef.
Other Health Factors
Besides being higher in total saturated fat and calories, corn-fed beef may have other detrimental health effects. To speed growth, lot-fed beef are often given anabolic steroids, the same hormone drugs bodybuilders and athletes use illegally to increase muscle size. Lot-fed animals are more likely to become diseased from crowded feed-lot conditions, and are more likely to be treated with antibiotics before slaughter. Traces of antibiotics often remain in the meat you consume, and could make you more resistant to antibiotic treatment when sick. Steroids in meat can upset your hormonal balance, and can trigger premature sexual development in children.
- Union of Concerned Scientists; Greener Pastures: How Grass-Fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating; Kate Clancey, March 2006
- Nutrition Journal; A Review of Fatty-Acid Profiles and Antioxidant Content in Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef; Cynthia A. Daley, et.al., March 2010
- Cattlemen's Beef Board: Fact Sheet: Grass-Finished Beef
- PBS.org; Frontline; Know Your Meat
- Low Density Lifestyle; The Meat You Eat: Steroid Use in Livestock; Michael Wayne, PhD, September 2009