Grain-free meat: Why you should care what UK farm animals are eating.
We have all read the fantastic Paleo and primal books from across the pond, they talk a lot about the benefits of eating grass-fed meat over mainstream grain-fed beef from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). In the lush pastures of the UK we don’t see the huge concentrated animal feed operations, but is all UK beef and lamb actually grass-fed? To answer that question we need decide what people expect from ‘grass-fed meat’ and why they may be asking for a label such as grass-fed in the first place.
When animals that are being reared for meat have eaten a 100% grass-fed diet the concentration of the beneficial nutrients within the flesh of the animal are far higher.
The taste and quality difference between grass-fed and grain-fed meats could be debated until the cows come home, but the main reason we chose grass-fed meats is for their potential to improve our health. They do this for three main reasons; higher nutrient quality, higher omega-3 content, and healthier omega-3 to omega-6 ratios.
All meat contains a powerhouse of nutrients and humans are genetically designed to effectively digest and absorb the nutrients within meat. In fact meat contains everything humans need to survive. Some native cultures even thrive whilst eating a predominantly meat diet – although I wouldn’t recommend it due to the current issues with sustainability, not to mention the lack of beneficial nutrients that would come from eating vegetables. The Masai and Inuit hunter-gatherer populations are exceptionally heart healthy on a diet very high in meat and fat!1, 2, 3, 4
Red meat is high in the vitamins B12, B3, and B6, and is rich in highly bioavailable forms of iron, zinc, selenium, sodium, phosphorus, and potassium.5 Where you really start to make big gains, is when the meat you eat has come from animals who have eaten an entirely pasture (grass and other plant species found in grasslands) diet. When animals that are being reared for meat have eaten a 100% grass-fed diet the concentration of the beneficial nutrients within the flesh of the animal are far higher.
Grass-fed meat that is higher in vitamin E will stand up to the assault of high temperature cooking better than grain-fed meat…
Meat from 100% grass-fed animals will contain carotenoids such as beta-carotene – these are the precursors to vitamin A. We all know that we should eat our greens but our animals need to eat theirs too! A helpful way to identify nutritious beef and lamb is to look at the fat on meat; if it slightly yellow and cream coloured it is rich in carotenoids and that is a good indication that the animal has had a grass finished diet.6 Grass finished meats also contain higher levels of the antioxidants vitamin E, glutathione (the master antioxidant), superoxide dismutase, and catalase. All of these hugely healthy antioxidants help to protect our cells from oxidation.7 Vitamin E is also incredibly important for the actual quality and freshness of the meat you buy and can help extend the shelf life. Grass-fed meat that is higher in vitamin E will stand up to the assault of high temperature cooking better than grain-fed meat, so it is even more important to select grass-fed meat when you are buying cuts like steaks and burgers etc.7
The overall ratio of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats will stay pretty similar between grass and grain-fed meats but one of the HUGE benefits of grass finished over grain finished meat is in the fatty acid profile.7 As most of us now understand, saturated fats are not the health villains that we had been led to believe, however the different types of saturated fatty acids do have a significance, grass finished meats contain higher levels of stearic acid which does not elevate blood cholesterol levels and contains less palmitic and myristic acid which are more likely to do so.8, 9
One of the fatty acids that is particularly desirable within the meat of grass finished animals is Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA). CLA is a type of polyunsaturated fat and is found at levels 2-3 times higher in grass-fed meat than in grain-fed meat. CLA is thought to help protect against heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. Of course the fatty acid that we are most familiar with as being desirable, is the polyunsaturated fat omega-3 which has well-known anti-inflammatory properties.8, 9
In healthy traditional cultures the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids would be 1:1 or 1:2, this ratio has been shown to have a health promoting effect on humans.
Grass finished meats have 3-5 times as many omega-3 fatty acids as grain-fed meats depending upon factors such as the quality of the grazing pasture and the season the animals are finished. Omega-6 is a fatty acid that is contained within both grain-fed and grass-fed meat in relatively similar quantities. Omega-6 is generally eaten in far too high quantities in most modern Western diets. In healthy traditional cultures the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids would be 1:1 or 1:2, this ratio has been shown to have a health promoting effect on humans.
Modern diets are high in vegetable oils, grains, and processed foods and create a diet with an omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio of up to 1:20. The problem with eating too many omega-6 fatty acids is that they compete for the same biochemical processes as omega-3. The more dominant will grab all of the enzymes and micronutrients. This could mean that even though you are eating omega-3, your body may not be making use of it or benefiting from its anti-inflammatory advantages.
Ok, so it’s obvious that grass-fed meat is better, but how do we know if it has been grass-fed?
In the UK we have a wide diversity of livestock farms who have a wide range of rearing systems. To say that all UK meat is grass-fed is a bit like saying ‘all people in the UK live in pretty white cottages in the country!’. There are no specific labelling laws governing the term grass-fed so the term is widely used to cover a broad spectrum of possible animal rearing systems. ‘Grass-fed’ could cover animals who have had a very short time on pasture and are then cereal fed until slaughter, right through to those who are fortunate enough to graze naturally for the whole of their lives.
It also worth noting that the term grass-fed is really only relevant to ruminant animals that would naturally have a pasture based diet. Omnivores such as fowl and pigs can eat some grass, and love to scratch and root in pasture, however it is very unlikely to be able to commercially finish these animals on just grass. In the UK we may not see the huge concentrated animal feeding operations of the USA, however the vast majority of farms do use grains in one form another to ‘finish’ their cattle, lambs, and mutton ewes. Many beef and sheep finishing farms, including one that I worked on, actually rear their beef from weaned calves exclusively on grains.
An Australian study… showed that all the previously gained omega-3 and CLA of grass-fed beef was destroyed in just 80 days of grain feeding to the degree that it no longer qualified as being a meaningful dietary source…
There are very few farmers in the UK finishing their animals exclusively on grass and nutrient dense pasture crops like red clover and lucerne. The only recognised certification program for ‘grass-fed’ or ‘pasture-fed’ meat is operated by the Pasture Fed Livestock Association and they are working hard to get more farmers on board to sell under their label ‘pasture for life’. The chances are if it is not certified your local farmer will in fact be finishing his ‘local grass-fed meat’ on grains!
Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean these farmers are ‘bad’, or even that the taste or texture of the meat they are producing is poor, but, it certainly does not guarantee that the nutrient density is what we expect from ‘grass-fed’ meat.
It seems that the critical period for the animals to be grass-fed is in the 80-90 days prior to slaughter which would fall within most UK livestock’s ‘finishing’ period – when farmers are fattening the animals in order to get a good conformation of carcass and a favourable price. The majority of UK farms will feed cereals for this period, and many will bring the animals indoors in order to do this efficiently.12
An Australian study into the ‘Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health’ (Ponnampalam, E.N., 2006), showed that all of the previously gained omega-3 and CLA of grass-fed beef was destroyed in just 80 days of grain feeding to the degree that it no longer qualified as being a meaningful dietary source by the New Zealand and Australian Food Standards Agency.
So really the term ‘grass-fed’ is pretty meaningless unless you dig a bit deeper – unfortunately the widespread use of the term ‘grass-fed’ also undermines the efforts of those trying to encourage more farmers to exclusively grass feed. Rearing animals purely on pasture is an incredibly sustainable way to produce meat but it takes a deep understanding of organic farming, eco-systems, and holistic animal health management.
If you want to be sure of the potential nutrient quality of the meat you are buying then you need to buy ‘pasture for life’ certified meat, or ask the following questions:
- Are the animals grazed outside on pasture?
- Do the animals receive ANY grains?
- What feed is used to ‘finish’ the livestock?
The answer to these questions should give you some insight into where, on the wide scale of nutrient quality, your ‘grass-fed meat’ may fall.
- Dewailly E, Blanchet C, Lemieux S, et al.(2001). n−3 fatty acids and cardiovascular disease risk factors among the Inuit of Nunavik. In Am J Clinical Nutrition 2001;74::464-73. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/74/4/464.full
- Mann, G.V., Shaffer, R.D., Anderson, R.S., Sandstead, H.H. (1964, July). Cardiovascular disease in the Masai. In Journal of Atherosclerosis Research (Vol. 4, Issue 4, pp. 289–312).
- Domínguez-Rodrigo, M., Pickering, T. R., Diez-Martín, F., et al. (2012). Earliest Porotic Hyperostosis on a 1.5-Million-Year-Old Hominin, Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. PLoS ONE, 7(10), e46414. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046414. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3463614/
- M. Henneberg, V. Sarafis, K. Mathers. (1998, December). Human adaptations to meat eating. In Human Evolution (Vol. 13, Issue 3-4, pp. 229-234).
- Gunnars, K. (n.d.). Is Red Meat Bad For You, or Good? An Objective Look. In Authority Nutrition. Retrieved from http://authoritynutrition.com/is-red-meat-bad-for-you-or-good/
- Kresser, C. (2013, March). Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed. In Chris Kresser. Retrieved from http://chriskresser.com/why-grass-fed-trumps-grain-fed/
- Daley, C. A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P. S., Nader, G. A., & Larson, S. (2010). A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. In Nutrition Journal, 9, 10. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10. Retrieved from www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/
- Gunnars, K. (n.d.). Top 8 Reasons Not to Fear Saturated Fats. In Authority Nutrition. Retrieved from http://authoritynutrition.com/top-8-reasons-not-to-fear-saturated-fats/
- Kresser, C. (2013, April). The Diet-Heart Myth: Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Are Not the Enemy. In Chris Kresser. Retrieved from http://chriskresser.com/the-diet-heart-myth-cholesterol-and-saturated-fat-are-not-the-enemy/
- A. J. McAfee, E. M. McSorley, G. J. Cuskelly, A. M. Fearon, et al.(2011). Red meat from animals offered a grass diet increases plasma and platelet n-3 PUFA in healthy consumers. In British Journal of Nutrition, 105, pp 80-89. doi:10.1017/S0007114510003090.
- Sisson, M. (2011, April). The Differences Between Grass-Fed Beef and Grain-Fed Beef. In Mark’s Daily Apple. Retrieved from http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-differences-between-grass-fed-beef-and-grain-fed-beef/#ixzz3dRavxc9C
- Ponnampalam E.N., Mann, N.J., Sinclair, A.J. (2006). Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health. In Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006;15(1):21-9. Retrieved from http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/APJCN/15/1/21.pdf