When a scientist says something works, or is better, it’s based on what research has demonstrated, or at least what it has demonstrated up to that point in time. So when the Union of Concerned Scientists says that you can safely claim that grass-fed beef and milk is better than their conventionally raised counterparts, you can take that to the bank.
In a 2006 paper, the Union of Concerned Scientists shared the results of their exhaustive review of all the studies (in English) done on the differences between grass-fed and conventionally produced beef and milk. They found that grass-fed products have different types of fats and lower fat content, making them healthier for consumers.
Fats and What You Can Safely Say About Them
The review focused on information about these fats:
• total fat
• saturated fat
• the omega-3 fatty acids alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
• conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
Beyond their intrinsic value, the reviewers believed these fats were important to look at because “widespread interest in these substances among health-conscious consumers could help shift American agriculture from conventional to pasture-based feeding systems.”
Results of studies on animals and a few experimental studies show that EPA and DHA reduce the risk of heart attacks and ALA appears to reduce the risk of acute or fatal heart attacks, but other beneficial effects have yet to be shown conclusively. Animal research does show that CLA can have positive effects on heart disease, cancer and the immune system, but no duplicating human studies exist.
Based on the review then, you can safely claim these things about grass-fed beef and milk:
• Steak and ground beef from grass-fed cattle can be labeled “lean” or “extra lean.”
• Some steak from grass-fed cattle can be labeled “lower in total fat” than steak from conventionally raised cattle.
• Steak from grass-fed cattle can carry the health claim that foods low in total fat may reduce the risk of cancer.
• Steak and ground beef from grass-fed cattle can carry the “qualified” health claim that foods containing the omega-3 fatty acids EPA or DHA may reduce the risk of heart disease.
In the future, after further research, the Union notes that agrass-fed beef might be labeled as a good source of EPA/DHA. Grass-fed milk could be labeled as a good source of ALA.
The review also looked at the difference between environmental impacts of conventionally- and pasture-raised beef and milk. We’ll be sharing those results next week. Or, you can jump ahead and read the report on your own by downloading it. Or just check out the summary here.
There are some very recent studies comparing ground beef from grass- and grain-fed cattle, both for composition and effects on lipoprotein cholesterol metabolism in human subjects. These studies compare ground beef at the same fat levels to normalize the data, and grass-fed beef always contains more saturated fat (which may not be bad anyway…).
Also, there is virtually no difference in EPA and DHA between beef from grass-fed and grain-fed beef, and frequently there are only small differences in ALA. The actual report does a nice job describing the metabolism of omega-3 fatty acids, but this blog suggests that grass-fed beef is a good source of EPA/DHA. You’ll have to eat the right kind of fish or take supplements for those fatty acids.
Although I believe grass finished beef and milk are healthier for a number of reasons including their fat profiles I’m not sure I would rely on statements from an organization like UCS, which as ‘advocates’ sometimes seem to reach their conclusions first and then look for research to support those conclusions. I’m afraid this has become an endemic problem in science whichever side of an argument is represented.
More importantly I think that we grass fed producers need to stop using the low fat argument. If we can’t get a proper finish on our animals we should work on that, not use it as a selling point. After sixty years the lipid hypothesis is finally falling apart. The good new is that saturated fats are good for you and not the cause of either heat disease or cancer.
The nail in the coffin is the recently released book, The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz. She spent eight years interviewing most of the major scientists involved in the development of the lipid theory as well as those opposed and did a detailed review of the research. Her’s is a science based argument and I recommend it highly.
If this information can reach those vegetarians, vegans and other low fat eaters who are abstaining from saturated fat for health reasons we will be finding ourselves with more customers that we can serve.
Amen, Charles! There are so many grass fed beef producers that just stop feeding grain. They change nothing else. Their pastures are in terrible condition. They charge low prices and produce a “grass fed” product that is inferior (read: tough & dry) to well finished grass fed meats. And customers are getting a poor, low nutrient product.
I do wish there was research comparing nutrient levels in these two types of “grass fed/grass finished” products.
Dear Ms. Voth:
There is extensive data available with animal and human studies to show grass-fed beef has zero benefit to human health compared to traditional beef. For example, the CLA issue is nothing more than a hoax that has been used to market “better” beef with no justification. In nearly all the cases you presented from the UCS, if one studies the data it shows clearly the level of CLA or DHA or Omega-3 is so low in cooked grass-fed beef it is very hard to detect. In the case of CLA the original rat study by Ha in 1987 used 180,000 times as much CLA as found in a cooked serving of grass-fed beef. This is the study that started the whole CLA fairy tale since 4 of 20 rats with a carcinogenic challenge did not develop tumors after these huge doses of CLA-BUT what we have conveniently forgotten is that 16 of the rats DID get tumors even after having these huge doses. Very similar results are found for the other compounds you listed.
Dr. John Comerford
Penn State University
I think your stretching this article a little using data from a paper that is 8 years old. More recent studies conflict with these health claims and also need to be looked at from a carbon footprint standard as well.
Thanks for writing. This was meant to be a review of information out there, primarily this report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. We plan on addressing the carbon footprint in upcoming issues of On Pasture. If you have any more information on the topic, please let us know. We’re always interested in learning more!
Rachel and Kathy
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