Let me just start by saying that I am a believer. The research is out there and the results are in. Beef from grass-fed cows is a better nutritional choice than beef from grain-fed cows. But does anybody really know why? Well, of course, some people do, but not most. Let’s be honest, in today’s world of distraction marketing, BuzzFeed bloggers, and 140 character philosophers, the average person doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on research these days. That shouldn’t be an issue, assuming the average person has sources that they know and trust from which to get reliable information. Yet again, most people don’t. Here’s the problem with this, it creates a massive opportunity for shady practices in the marketplace. Clever salespeople can peddle products using trendy words and phrases that look good next to an Instagram hashtag. Enter, the almighty “#grass-fed.” Much like our old friend, #paleo, #grassfed has become a huge money maker in the land of milk and honey… your local grocery store. Once upon a time, some people who genuinely cared about the health and well-being of the masses coined the phrase, “The Paleo Diet.” They set out to help their fellow man achieve a better quality of life through proper nutrition. There was just no way they could have anticipated what they had started. An entire industry was built on the term in a short period of time. But again, here’s the problem, it’s 2016 and life is moving way too fast for us. It’s fair to say that most people just want the cliff notes. “Context? Who cares?” “Sources? Pssh, don’t waste my time!” That’s why the world of Paleo has become an endless sea of Memes and Infographics about Cavemen. (Read more about The Death of The Caveman Diet) These graphics have two columns, “Paleo Foods” and “ Not Paleo Foods.” Yet, no instruction on how much of these foods we should be eating. As long as it says, “Paleo,” it must be good for us! Manufacturers could get away with calling their product, “Paleo,” and then sneaking in 40 grams of “natural” sugars. In my opinion, making them no better than companies like Coca-Cola. It’s good old fashioned manipulation. All to make a quick buck. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the same precipice with the “grass-fed” label.
Before we proceed, I just want to be clear about something. All the beef I buy for personal consumption comes from a local grass-fed farm, just outside of Nashville. I believe grass-fed is the way to go, if (and only if) we are talking about beef straight off the butcher’s block. If you’re about to cut into a juicy, fat marbled rib-eye, you’re much better off if that sucker is 100% grass-fed! I’m not debating that. I’m specifically referring to all these companies manufacturing highly-processed, “grass-fed” products. The goal is to make you believe you are buying a higher quality product than you actually are.
To truly understand what we’re discussing here, we must explore the actual benefits of grass-fed beef. But first, we must clearly define the term “grass-fed.” Don’t worry, this won’t take long…
What is Grass-fed Beef?
In the past, for beef to be considered 100% grass-fed, it had to meet the following USDA standard: “This program requires that ruminant animals be fed only grass and forage, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. Animals certified under this program cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.” I say, “in the past,” because the USDA recently revoked this labeling standard altogether, making things even more confusing! You may also notice that this standard makes no mention of the animals living quarters. Under this broad USDA standard, it is entirely possible for a cow to be confined to a pen for a good portion of its life, fed hay, be treated with antibiotics and hormones and still carry the USDA label of “grass-fed.” Ouch! For this reason, if label claims are important to you, I suggest you rely on a company with strict grass-fed standards. Check out the American Grassfed Association (AGA).
What is Pasture-raised?
I also want to explore the term, “Pasture-raised.” A separate classification which means the animal has access to pasture but does not mean it is grass-fed. Many grain-fed cows are free to pasture, are raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones, and are fed organic hay and grains raised on the very same farm which they inhabit. The truth is, there are countless grain-fed cows who are treated ethically and live healthy lives. Pasture-raised cows have access to open pasture and will nibble on just about anything that looks like a plant. In fact, even many grass-fed cows are also “grain-finished” which means they are fed grains during just the last few weeks of their lives. This helps pack on some extra weight for aesthetic fat marbling.
What is a Feedlot?
And now for the absolute worst of the bunch, the feedlots. Industrial agriculture and the feedlot system is a huge problem in America. (Did somebody say, “McDonald’s?!”) These massive operations are commonly referred to as CAFOs. The cows are kept in horrible facilities, in abusively close quarters, standing in piles of their own feces. They are force-fed disgusting grain-based feeds. Often mixed with delicious ingredients like candy wrappers and city garbage… No, seriously. These animals are chronically ill, receive constant antibiotics and hormone treatments. These facilities pollute the surrounding water supply and air and cause a host of environmental issues. Honestly, I just can’t say enough bad things about them. These are not the cows we will be focusing on in this article.
Nutritional Benefits of Grass-fed vs Pasture-raised:
Moving forward, let’s explore the nutritional differences between grass-fed beef and pasture-raised beef. First, the beef’s fatty acid profile. You will find differences when comparing the fatty acid profile of grass-fed beef to that of grain-fed. Grass-fed is:
- Higher in Omega 3 Fatty Acids
- Lower in Omega 6 Fatty Acids
- Higher in Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA, another healthy fat)
You may also find a higher concentration of certain vitamins in grass-fed beef. Most notably:
- Beta Carotene
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- *Note: These are all fat soluble vitamins, meaning that they can build up in the fat of the animal over time.
On paper, grass-fed appears to be a clear-cut winner. But the truth is, there are times when the animals food source is completely irrelevant. Which brings me to the entire point of this article, “Grass-Fed Protein Powders.” They are popping up everywhere, in every form imaginable. Grass-fed collagen, grass-fed beef enzymes, grass-fed collagen peptides, grass-fed beef gelatin. You name it, they’re selling it. My personal favorite has to be Grass-fed Whey Protein marketed as Paleo Protein! Paleo-friendly, highly-processed dairy, you say?! Hmmm. I must have been busy with more important things when that rule went into effect. Like training for my rocks, paper, scissors league… I’m sorry, am I being facetious? Ok, you got me. But both statements are equally ridiculous.
Let me explain why I am so vehemently opposed to these grass-fed powders. Take a look at all the benefits I’ve listed above. They all rely on one thing… FAT. The nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef exist in its fatty acid profile. Here’s the big secret. In grass-fed powders, the fatty acids are completely removed from the final product! Gone. Vanished. Stripped. Vaporized. Done-zo. The question becomes, why the heck would you pay extra for something that doesn’t exist?!
Grass-fed protein powder is identical to pasture raised, grain-fed protein powder. The protein content and amino acid profile, the whole reason you’re buying the product to begin with, is identical. Yet, some companies are charging more the double the price for their grass-fed powders. That’s right, you are paying an astronomically higher price for a product with no added benefit. Skeptical? Don’t take my word for it. The summarization of multiple studies in the U.S. clearly states that “Animal production factors such as nutrition and genetics have no influence on the protein content or amino acid profile of beef.” (Source: Meat Science)
Please, don’t shoot the messenger here. I know it is super hip and trendy to eat nothing but grass-fed. Believe me, I make that personal choice each and every day. (Check out my good friends at Tennessee Grass-Fed) But we have to stop buying into the ridiculous hype of certain trends. I will always tell my clients to choose grass-fed beef, whenever possible. Steaks, ground beef, ribs, roasts, whatever it may be. If we’re talking about ACTUAL beef in its whole food form, grass-fed is always the way to go. But in the case of protein powders, the so-called benefits are extremely exaggerated.
The only reasonable argument that could be made in favor of grass-fed protein powders is the ethical treatment of the animal. That’s why I’m being careful and clear that I am talking about ethically raised cattle. I suppose the argument could be made that any cow that is not 100% grass-fed is being abused, but that argument is debatable, at best. I’ve personally been on pasture-raised cattle farms and the cows were free to roam and looked pretty happy to me. The grain they were fed was supplemental. Then again, I’m no livestock expert. Besides, as I mentioned earlier, the grass-fed seal itself may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Your absolute best option is to find a local farm that allows you to tour their facilities and witness their process from start to finish. Until then, you really just have no way of knowing the true quality of the meat you are buying.
So, let’s summarize everything we’ve touched upon here. There are a couple of simple rules to follow when it comes to beef and processed animal products:
- If you are eating unprocessed red meat, in its whole food form, try to buy 100% grass-fed whenever possible. If it’s not in your budget or is difficult to find in your location, pasture-raised is a perfectly acceptable choice!
- If you are searching for a protein powder, don’t be afraid to contact the company and ask them about their sources. If their products is sourced from pasture-raised cattle free of antibiotics and hormones, you will be getting a product that is identical to grass-fed, without the ridiculous markup in price! Just go ahead and ditch the grass-fed powders altogether. Unless, of course, you have money to burn! But that’s none of my business…