Greener Pastures: When It Comes to Beef, Is Grass-Fed Better?(Printer-Friendly Version) | Eating Well

Greener Pastures: When It Comes to Beef, Is Grass-Fed Better?

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By Patsy Jamieson, "Greener Pastures,"March/April 2008

Cresting a steep, rutted dirt road that runs through the hills of Huntington, Vermont, I’m greeted by the sight of vigorously churning wind turbines and a dozen black cows lazily grazing on the rolling pasture. In an effort to eat locally and more sustainably, I’ve driven the 25 miles from my home in Burlington to Maple Wind Farm to pick up an order of grass-fed beef, assured by the farmers that the cows had spent their entire lives consuming only their mother’s milk and grass.

Young and energetic, farmers Bruce Hennessey and Beth Whiting manage this diversified livestock and vegetable operation. A former teacher and mountain guide, Bruce got into farming serendipitously. In 1999 he and Beth bought this beautiful patch of the Green Mountains and an old dairy farm that had lain fallow for several years. It was an impulse purchase that changed their lives.

After a discouraging attempt to clear the overgrown brush from the land, the couple started grazing 13 cows. That herd has grown to about 90 Angus-Devon-Hereford-cross cattle, which share the pastures with sheep, pigs, chickens and turkeys.

Ironically, as a young man Bruce had been a vegetarian for seven years. He had elected to give up meat because of his concerns about the unsustainable land and energy resources cattle farming required and the negative health effects of fatty meat. “But the more I read about grass-fed beef and learned about the benefits—both environmental and health—of cattle raised on carefully managed pastures, I realized that this is something I could eat,” he explains. “Now we produce meat for recovering vegetarians.”

The grazing land at Maple Wind Farm is divided into a number of large paddocks, each contained by an electric fence (partially powered by those wind turbines). During the grazing season, the cows are moved to fresh pastures every day, following an agricultural system called Management Intensive Grazing. The model for this practice are wild buffalo, which roam in close groupings and are pressured into moving on to fresh grazing land by predators. After a paddock has been used for grazing, it is allowed to recover for two to four weeks, thus restoring the grass and eliminating erosion through a cycle of fertilization (manure) and recovery. This rotational grazing protects the roots of the grass and boosts fertility of the soil.

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It takes commitment to choose grass-fed beef from a local farm over what you conveniently pick up in the supermarket meat case. Cuts of Maple Wind Farm beef are instead sold at local farmers’ markets, natural-foodsstores and restaurants. The beef is also sold in bulk and included in community supported agriculture shares. And it is expensive. A pound of ground beef costs more than twice as much as its conventional counterpart at my nearby supermarket. So, why would I go out of my way to pay more for local grass-fed beef?

My primary concern is finding an alternative to conventional beef, which is finished (i.e., fattened) on grain, primarily corn, at off-site, specialized feedlots. Industrial feedlots deposit high concentrations of manure onto the land, polluting the air and nearby water sources. At many feedlots, cattle are given growth-promoting hormones to stimulate muscle development and antibiotics to prevent diseases caused by crowding and an unnatural diet of grain. Cattle that eat grass their entire lives are generally healthier and have no need for drugs.

The typically lower fat and calorie content of grass-fed beef is another compelling reason to choose it. As a mother of two young children, Beth takes pleasure in the fact that the meat she feeds her kids is produced on her own farm and is as good for them as possible. “I know that the ground beef I use in my spaghetti sauce is just a much healthier product,” she says. “I know the value of the grass-fed diet and that my children are not exposed to antibiotics from grain-fed cattle.”

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Healthier How?

Grass-fed beef advocates—like Ridge Shinn, founder of Hardwick Beef, a distributor of grass-fed beef produced by a small group of New England farms—will also tell you about grass-fed beef’s nutritional boons. Ridge points out that grass-fed beef is richer in beneficial fatty acids. While it does not compare with the omega-3 content of wild salmon, some research suggests that grass-fed beef has more omega-3s—according to some studies, significantly more—than conventional beef.

Another type of “good” fat found in meat and dairy products from ruminant animals is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Research on the benefits of CLA to humans is in the early stages, but a few animal studies have shown a relationship between CLA and an improved immune system, as well as a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. CLA is present in all beef, but one 1999 study in the Journal of Dairy Science found that grass-fed beef had 500 percent more CLA than cows fed a conventional grain-based diet.

Another type of “good” fat found in meat and dairy products from ruminant animals is conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Research on the benefits of CLA to humans is in the early stages, but a few animal studies have shown a relationship between CLA and an improved immune system, as well as a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. CLA is present in all beef, but one 1999 study in the Journal of Dairy Science found that grass-fed beef had 500 percent more CLA than cows fed a conventional grain-based diet.

Take note that the nutrition advantages of grass-fed beef diminish when grain is introduced to the diet. Ridge likens it to being “a little bit pregnant.” He says, “It is 100 percent grass-fed or it is not. Any time spent in a feedlot negates the added benefits of grass-fed.” Look for the label “100% grass-fed and finished” or ask the farmer or rancher who raised the animal how the beef was finished.

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As I write, there is yet another ground beef recall in the news. So it is reassuring to learn that grass-fed beef provides a “cleaner” alternative to its industrially produced counterpart. Levels of E. coli have been found to be significantly lower in grass-fed than in grain-finished beef. The grain-based feedlot diet creates an environment favorable to the growth of acid-resistant E. coli (the kind that makes you sick). In contrast, the E. coli found in cattle that have been fed grass or hay is acid-sensitive and therefore unlikely to survive the acidic environment of the human stomach. Ground meat is the most susceptible to bacterial contamination. That said, it’s still important to exercise all the same food-safety precautions with grass-fed beef as you would with conventional beef.

But however significant the health advantages of grass-fed beef may turn out to be (currently, research on this topic is still too sparse to say), they are not an excuse to load up on red meat, which is a major source of saturated fat in Americans’ diets. For Kate Clancy, Ph.D., a food system consultant and author of “Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating,” a report of the nonprofit environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists, the main reasons for choosing grass-fed beef are “the environmental benefits and the lack of antibiotics.”

Presently, grass-fed beef comprises a tiny proportion of overall beef consumption in the U.S. But what if conventional production were to shift toward raising cattle entirely on pastures? Wouldn’t this lead to overgrazing, which could contribute to soil erosion and water-quality problems? Dr. Clancy acknowledges that badly managed grazing has created significant ecological damage, particularly in the arid West. However, she explains that “the key to sustainable beef production would be to use rotational grazing methods. Well-managed grazing actually improves the quality of the soil because the manure going into the soil acts as a fertilizer. The cattle don’t damage the soil, because they are rotated.” Rotational grazing can also play a role in fighting climate change. Healthy grass in well-managed pastures absorbs carbon and helps offset fossil-fuel emissions. Clancy also notes, “When cattle graze on pasture, rather than standing on a feedlot, significantly more methane can be absorbed into the soil.

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A Matter of Taste

But what about taste? The feedlot system has succeeded in producing tender, succulent beef that consumers love. Grass-fed beef is definitely a different product. I found adapting ground beef recipes like my mother-in-law’s meatballs and my healthy hamburgers to grass-fed beef to be a pretty seamless transition. I also had success with beef stews and braises. Simmering a grass-fed brisket in a heady chile sauce resulted in tender, succulent meat that tasted great, especially shredded and mixed with pinto beans.

As long as I took care not to overcook high-end grass-fed steaks like New York strip and tenderloin, the result was excellent. However, when I first attempted to cook some of the more economical steaks like flat-iron, London broil and round, the results were tough. My son commented that he needed to develop Paleolithic incisors to get through dinner. To adapt Grilled Steaks Balsamico to grass-fed beef, I used the slightly more expensive cut of sirloin and marinated it for at least 6 hours.

Now that I have mastered the basics of grass-fed-beef cookery, I’ve decided the trip to Maple Wind Farm is worth it.

—Contributing editor Patsy Jamieson is a cookbook author, recipe developer, food stylist and former food editor of EatingWell.