One of the most common reasons that consumers spend the extra money to buy grassfed meat is because they believe it is higher quality and has more nutritional value than conventional grainfed meat. While you probably assume that healthier animals will produce meats with better taste, texture, and nutrition, you might be wondering what exactly is different about the grassfed meats you are buying.
The total fat content, fatty acids, and omega fat ratios of grassfed beef are different from conventional. The results of the available research and their health implications don’t entirely fit into the black and white view of saturated vs. unsaturated fats, so get ready to dive a little deeper.
Higher in Healthy Fats
First, grassfed meat usually contains less fat overall. The cattle themselves are leaner because they are never fed grain, which is used to fatten them up. The result is healthier animals with leaner cuts of meat.
Dietary fats are made up of smaller particles called fatty acids. There are many different fatty acids, and they can be categorized as either saturated or unsaturated. Currently, the official dietary guidelines recommend decreasing saturated fat consumption because of the cited correlation with elevated LDL cholesterol levels and heart disease. However, labeling saturated fat as a universally “unhealthy” fat may be misleading because the individual fatty acids that it contains can still vary. Saturated fat is also needed to form vital structures in the body such as cell membranes and hormones, and it contains important fat-soluble vitamins. The effects of grassfed saturated fats and grain-fed saturated fats on heart disease have not been studied separately, so the research can’t tell us yet whether grassfed beef has the same effects on cholesterol levels, heart disease, or overall health as grain-fed beef.
Because beef fat contains mostly saturated fatty acids it is commonly referred to as saturated fat, but it has unsaturated fatty acids too. The fats in grassfed and grain-fed meats contain similar ratios of saturated to unsaturated fatty acids, but that’s not the whole story. When researchers took a closer look at the individual fatty acids, they found that grassfed beef usually had less of the saturated fatty acids that are believed to be most harmful. It also had higher percentages of stearic acid, which is the saturated fatty acid that is known to have no effect on cholesterol levels. The authors of this study described it as a “more favorable saturated fatty acid composition.” Since grassfed beef has more of the fatty acids that have neutral effects on cholesterol levels, it may have a different effect on heart health than other saturated fats.
You’ve probably heard of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Both of these are groups of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids, which means that they are unsaturated fats that your body can’t make on its own.
Ideal Ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods like fish, pastured eggs, nuts, and seeds. Foods high in omega-6 fats are vegetable oils, soy, nuts, and seeds. While you need to eat plenty of both, modern diets usually have too much omega-6 fat and too little omega-3, creating an unbalanced ratio. Public health recommendations have encouraged using cheap vegetable oils instead of animal products, and processed foods almost always contain corn and soy. All of these are high in omega-6 fatty acids. With these widespread changes in our food supply, it’s no wonder that Americans consume too many omega-6 fats, and not enough omega-3s. This is where grassfed beef comes in.
Research has shown that conventional beef has a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, around 7 omega-6 for every 1 omega-3 (a 7:1 ratio). Grassfed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids, a ratio of 2:1. If you don’t eat much seafood, which is the best source of omega-3 fats, grassfed beef could be an especially important source of this essential nutrient. At the same time, choosing grassfed beef can help to improve the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in your diet.
When a team of researchers created a model to show whether eating grassfed beef would change fat consumption, they determined that it would “improve [the] dietary fat quality” of a population (2). They concluded that replacing conventional beef with grassfed alternatives would be beneficial for public health (2). This study is significant because it showed that switching to grassfed beef can have a substantial effect on many people’s diets and health.
CLA – Conjugated Linoleic Acid
Grassfed beef contains 2-4x the Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) compared to grainfed beef. CLA is an essential fatty acid that has powerful anti-cancer and anti-obesity properties. For athletes, it is a critical fatty acid for the promotion of muscle gain and fat loss. Other benefits of CLA include improvement in strength, promotion of strong bones, improved growth and development, and it aids in digestion.
Linolenic acid is 10x higher in grassfed beef when tested against grainfed beef. This particular omega-3 fatty acid is concentrated in plants and associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and important for brain health.
Grassfed beef has been known for centuries to be a deeply nourishing food. When raised traditionally, in the way nature intended, it’s a vital part of a healthy diet. Raising grassfed beef through each fickle Texas season isn’t the easy path to take. It’s different. For all the right reasons.