Does ‘Grass-Fed’ & ‘Pastured’ Really Matter When It Comes To Your Food?
You will read, here and elsewhere, whenever we are talking about red meat it must be “grass-fed”, or even “grass fed and finished”. When talking about chickens the word used might be ‘pastured’, particularly in the US (not to be confused with ‘pasteurised’, which is a process of superheating and treating dairy which was made mandatory in the early 1900s as the bacterial content of cow’s dairy was so appalling).
These labels denote that the meat or poultry you are eating was fed on its natural food, the food it would find in the wild. It is supposedly more natural for the animals and as such produces a better quality, better tasting end product for the consumer.
But natural doesn’t always mean better. As in the case of the word ’Organic’, these expensive products have come under scrutiny for not actually being any healthier for humans.
What’s more, these meats and foul come with a hefty price tag. In a world where everything is getting more expensive, what is the value in making you spend more money on meat?
The terms ‘grass-fed’ or ‘pastured’ are more relevant when you understand that in modern, factory farming animals are fed on ‘feed’. This is the cereal you will see scattered into feeding troughs, from which animals are fed their required spectrum of nutrients from a grain-, corn- and seed-based type of animal muesli.
As with humans, everything that is eaten by animals goes towards making their flesh, muscles, fat and organs. “We are what we eat” is a phrase that is almost literal in the animal kingdom. In animals who have been fed on grains, including wheat, oats, rye, barley and corn, their meat is formed from their body’s metabolisation of these grains.
Those people who are very sensitive to grains sometimes report sensitivity and reactivity to animals fed on cereals and grains, in particular corn.
However, there are no studies demonstrating that the specific protein strands of corn and grain-feeds that (e.g.) cattle are fed upon actually cross intact into the flesh of the animal. If this happened it would be like cutting your arm open and finding your lunch sitting there. When we say ‘you are what you eat’ is almost literal, this is what we mean. In truth the formation of our bodily flesh from the foods that we eat is a process of breaking down and assimilating the amino acids and nutrients and then utilising these individualised building blocks in the production of our own tissue, with our own DNA.
The immune system reacts when it recognises strands or chains of molecules which it identifies as a threat or present danger. As the animal we are eating has already completely restructured the proteins in its grain feed, those who are reacting to grain-fed animals are seriously unlikely to be doing so because they are reacting to the grain feed of their protein sources directly. To do so would be kind of missing a step of basic biology.
We will still hear super-sensitive people swear that they are reacting to the grain-fed animals, however. And they may not be wrong. However, they are not reacting because of the grain protein itself.
Instead, they may be reactive to the grain-fed meat because when flesh is built out of grain (as opposed to the worms and slugs of natural chicken foraging or the grass-only munching of the four-stomached cow) it is actually different in structure and profile.
When nutritionists promote ‘nutrient-dense’ diets we do this because you are built from the nutrients which you take in. The higher quality of the food you eat, the easier it is for your body to assimilate and work with. The foods believed to be ‘optimal’ in terms of nutrient density are those that match the human digestive system and human biology.
The same is true for animal consumption. The foods which make the healthiest animals are the foods to which they are best suited. For cows, pigs and sheep this is milk of their mothers and then the grasslands upon which they graze, with some vegetable scraps and bugs thrown in for good measure. For chickens this is the worms and grubs they dig into the soil to find. The more these animals eat their ‘natural’ foods, the less stress there is on their body.
This affects the nutrient quality and density of the meat we receive as an end result. Grass-fed meat has been found to be both more nutritious per gram but also to contain less water – meaning that less meat goes further, is denser, tastier, more satisfying and more healthy for the humans who consume it.
I would link to studies here, but there are some manufacturers who claim that grass fed meat could be up to 50% lower in calories and 65% lower in fat… however, as we’re not interested in the lower calorie or fat content of meat (because actually the fat of grass-fed meat is very healthy for us), these statistics aren’t too impressive.
However, what is important to note is that the most cited reason for eating grass-fed meat is because of the fatty acid profile. When we recommend the consumption of meat it is never because we think the consumption of animals is great for the planet or our conscience (see my article on meat farming here). It is because the fatty acids and nutrients in good quality meat are perfectly matched to aid with human health: everything from B vitamins (notably B12, ONLY present in animal foods) and iron (the haem version of iron, again only found in red meat) and then a beautiful ratio of fatty acids, perfectly formed within the meats.
Here is where the separation between grass-fed and grain-fed really makes the difference.
If you have heard of Omega-3 and Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) the likelihood is that you know that the 3s are good and the 6s are bad (and if you’ve heard of 7 and 9 you’re already doing better than most).
However, the reality about Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 is a little more complex. A little bit of Omega-6 is necessary. It is called ‘pro-inflammatory’, whereas Omega-3 PUFAs are ‘anti-inflammatory’. These are broad generalisations, but they are largely accurate. However, eliminating all inflammation is a terrible concept, because some inflammation is a necessary part of protection, detoxification and general wellbeing. We all need all of the Omegas… but it is fundamentally important that our Omegas are in balance.
Type “ideal Omega 3:6 ratio” into Google and you’ll get a ton of opinion and precious little agreed upon scientific fact. Studying fats like this is actually quite hard and the rules of where things are ‘optimal’ have been written and re-written countless times in the communities of those who focus on these sorts of things.
However, there is consensus on what is ‘unhealthy’. Most experts put the optimal ranges of 3:6 at anywhere between 1:1 to 1:4, with 1:4 being the more balanced, realistic perspective and 1:1 being the proposed view of those who think any reduction in pro-inflammatory intake is absolutely necessary.
Please note, this has nothing to do with the quantity of these fats in your diet at this stage – all we are talking about are ratios. That is because, as with many things in human health, these two PUFAs seem to balance a see-saw and offset one another (hence the 1:1 hypothesis).
When we look at the modern, western diet most people are consuming a ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 in the range of 1:20, i.e very pro-inflammatory. This is not about single foods, but about the spectrum of consumption. Most people who are consuming refined and processed foods are, in so doing, consuming rather a lot of processed vegetable oils which are high in Omega-6 fatty acids. However, even so-called ‘healthy’ diets, free from processed foods, can resort a little too much to mainlining nuts and/or oils which are very Omega-6 heavy.
Which brings us back to meat – which is providing us with some of the PUFAs in our diets.
When we look at grass-fed meat in comparison to grain-fed meat, the grass-fed always has a lower quantity of Omega-6 fatty acids, thereby reducing the Omega-3:6 ratio. Typically grass-fed meat has a ratio of 1:3, which is within the optimal ranges suggested above. Grain fed meat has been measured at anywhere between 1:4 (which is OK) and 1:20 – which is the ratio deemed to be very pro-inflammatory.
But the benefits of grass-fed don’t actually stop with understanding that their balance of fatty acids is more optimal.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (or CLA) has been shown to be beneficial for numerous health conditions and it has also been shown to modulate the action and content of certain immune cells. These health benefits of CLA are only seen when dietary sources are consumed – NOT when supplements are taken (so ignore those attractive sounding supplement websites). The dietary source of CLA is meat and dairy products – and yet CLA is also mostly found in the butter of grass-fed cows and has either been found in much lower concentrations, or not found at all, in the meat or dairy of grain-fed cows. This means that the “grass-fed” recommendation really does extend to cow dairy – including butter (which is mostly dairy fat).
Then remember Omega-9 which I briefly mentioned? This is found to be high in products like Olive Oil – that staple of the Mediterranean diet which is linked to longevity and better health outcomes across the board. Oleic Acid is the Omega-9 fatty acid in Olive Oil which is charged with having anti-inflammatory health benefits – and Oleic Acid is also found in much higher concentrations in grass-fed animals than in their grain-fed equivalents.
But What About The Poultry?
So far, most of the points have been referring to data on cows. What about the poultry that has become the dietary staple for many a Western household?
Poultry is slightly different, simply because Omega-3 and 6 ratios in chicken is actually higher to begin with. When tested, even the most ‘natural’ and ‘pastured’ of chickens, fed on only grasshoppers and worms from the ground (i.e. no cereals), averaged an approximate 1:7 Omega-3:6 ratio. This was a big improvement on factory, grain-fed chickens (averaging around 1:23), but still not as ‘optimal’ as in other meat sources as discussed above.
This isn’t to caution you against eating poultry, because as we have said, Omega-6 fatty acids are actually essential to consume. However, it may make you question whether relying on poultry because you think red meat is ‘more unhealthy’ is actually the correct way to view meat consumption.
However, you may think that a better option would be to consume chickens (and the eggs of chickens) that have had their diet ‘supplemented’ with Omega-3-rich flaxseed. It is absolutely true that these chickens do achieve a more ‘perfect’ ratio of 1:1 with Omega-3:6 (with some variation, though not much) there is a slight snag: the type of fatty acid found in chickens with ‘supplemented’ diets was actually Alpha Linoleic Acid.
To circumvent going too deep into the complicated science of this, the simple explanation is that all Omega-3s are great, but some are more great than others. Oversimplifying, ALA is not directly ‘useable’ by the body, instead it must be converted into DHA and EPA in order to be utilised by our cells and tissues. This conversion is hideously inefficient. When trying to get enough Omega-3s you will hear of ‘fish oil’, which contains direct versions of DHA and EPA. This is why obtaining sufficient fatty acids on a vegetarian diet is so difficult – even when using funny marine algae-type supplements. You simply need impossibly huge quantities of ALA to get the levels of DHA or EPA required. Same with the chicken fed on supplemented feed… this is one example of a ‘fortification’ that is definitely not worth paying all the extra money for.
(Speaking of which, that yellowed ‘corn-fed’ chicken that they charge the earth for… NO idea where the idea that this was ‘good for you’ came from… don’t bother with the bump in price.)
Grass Fed Tends to Mean More than Just Grass-Fed
Over and above all of the reasons mentioned above, there are the other, more ‘subtle’ reasons why grass-fed is likely to be better for you.
Any farmer who is producing grass-fed/pastured animals is likely to be doing so for a reason – and their reason is more than likely to be associated with a care for animal husbandry and farming ethically, along with a desire to produce good quality meat. For that reason, on top of the feed preference, these farmers are more than likely to run mostly organic farms (even without having acquired the expensive, official classifications), they are also likely to shun the use (or overuse) of antibiotics in their animals. The less of the artificial chemicals in meat, the better – for all concerned.
Then the husbandry practices when it comes to slaughter are, more often than not, more humane – and quicker. Grass-fed or pastured animals seems to be prone to less oxidation in processing and storage. Whether this is something to do with the meat’s chemical composition, or the rate at which the processing of these animals occurs is sometimes questioned. That said, there does seem to be higher quantities of antioxidants in the grass-fed meat itself (things like Vitamin A and beta-carotene). This means that the oxidisation reaction is actually delayed (because the very presence of antioxidants will slow this reaction). This gives meat less discolouration and a longer shelf life.
And lastly, when it comes to eating grass-fed cows the hippy version is that animals roaming free are both more naturally muscular (because they use their muscles) and they have less intramuscular marbling and lower concentrations of fat. Yes, that’s right – that ‘marbling’ that you’re sold as being ‘healthier’, it’s actually evidence that the animal hasn’t used those muscles particularly in living its daily life. Intramuscular marbling is a classic sign of an intensively-reared animal. Grass-fed animals are left to use their bodies – the bodies that we then will eat – in the ways in which nature intended, thereby producing a better balanced meat, lower intramuscular fat and actually lower concentrations of fat overall. The fat that is there is, as mentioned above, much lower in toxins and higher in quality nutrition. (And it is possible that ‘happy animals’ taste better… but I’ll just stick to the science for now…)
So What Of Those With Sensitivities?
For someone who deals daily with super-sensitive individuals I know better than to question the validity of the reactions of those who claim to be sensitive to animals fed on grains. But, in truth, I highly doubt that it is the grain feed which is producing the reactivity. Instead, it must be understood that our food chain is a complicated and mirky business, both highly regulated and also disturbingly under wraps. When a meat comes from a source that is not ‘natural’ there is world of processes, additives and ‘stuff’ that is – legally and legitimately – allowed to come into contact with the meat.
I don’t doubt that those who are super-sensitive are reacting to something within those meats of lower quality. And I do think that – unlike the label ‘natural’, which doesn’t mean too much – this is one occasion where the ‘grass-fed’ bit really does make a demonstrable and noticeable difference. And no, this does not have to mean organic – for reasons I’ll explain.
The best meat I have ever found has come from small farmers at farmers markets who raised, slaughtered and butchered the meat themselves and/or within a 5 mile radius. Or I once ate deer from a place which literally raised the deer in the back of a country park/estate. Were either of these producers organic? Not in labelling, but definitely in their farming practices.
The way to buy really good quality meat – if you’ve been following this series, with Part One here and Part Two here – begins with making friends with your suppliers. They are the ones who can tell you what’s tasty – and what to do with it.
A Last Word on Fake Meat
There is something that is hugely intriguing me – on top of all of these factoids about meat being good for your health, not damaging to the planet, healthy when in the right balanced diet etc.
This is not Quorn, or mushroom substitute or yakky vegetarian pulverised rubbish… Nor is this 3D printed meat. No, this is chemically identical to meat, not-meat. No, I’m not really sure either – but it is a blend of proteins (which include wheat which makes me very not-a-fan, but they are working on a gluten-free version) which end up looking, smelling, cooking – and most importantly tasting like meat. It’s meat-free, but it even contains haem iron – one of the sticking points for me with vegetarianism because this is literally ONLY found in red meat… Until now.
This, in my eyes, is exciting. If you read my blog on genetic editing you will know that I am a fan of technological advances. I only advocate eating meat because of the nutritional profile. If I am absolutely truthful, I am currently not eating red meat at all because I’m finding that I’m struggling with it, digestively. This is a huge shame because I know that I ultimately need all of the nutrients within it.
It would be AMAZING if we found a way to consume red meat, just not from a cow. It would be sensational if food science could morph from creating what have been deemed “Franken-foods” (i.e highly processed, refined, fake foods filled with additives, preservatives, sweeteners and chemicals) into producing chemically-identical, non-toxic foods. Economically and hypoallergenically. We may be a ways off this hope – so for now, grass-fed meat is the way to go.
But for the future… maybe the ethical Vegans and the Paleo people will finally have nothing to argue about when our ‘meat’ has all the goodness of an animal but is actually a plant…