Last Updated November 3rd, 2022
The type of food an animal is fed can make a lot of difference in its physical structure. This, in turn, affects the health of individuals in one way or the other when the meat of the animal is consumed. While a large segment of cattle in the present-day farms are grain-fed, its grass, that has been the natural diet of animals like cows through the ages. The two types of diet fed to the animals can change the overall nutrient content of the meat in many ways. The environmental scientists and a large section of the population are aware of the overall impact of the raising process of animals on a farm and hence, pasture-raised animals are becoming a healthier alternative in terms of food. The grass-fed animals that are brought up in an organic setup are also a sustainable option in the long run.
With the sale of grass-fed and organic beef rising at a rapid pace, there are quite a few farms in the USA that are adopting such methods. It is to be noted that to actually produce grass-fed meat, the animal must be fed a grass diet that is totally free of grains, for their entire lives. In many cases, the manufacturers can feed the cattle with grass at some stages in their lives and label the meat as “Grass-fed”. Since grass-fed meat is not regulated by the FDA, such deceptive practices can take place. In such cases, the meat should be labelled as “grass-fed and grain-finished”. But even this type of meat is more potent in terms of health benefits than conventionally-raised meat. The difference between the meat generated from grass-fed and grain-fed cows has been a subject of discussion among experts for some time. In this article, we look into the various aspects of the issue.
Human health and diet components
A major impact of the type of food that an animal consumes is on the fatty acid profile of its body. Generally, there is less total fat in grass-fed beef than grain-fed beef. This also leads to the fact that the former contains lesser calories than the latter. The composition of fatty acids for the two types of diet is also different. There is less monounsaturated fat in grass-fed beef than grain-fed beef. While both types contain similar levels of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, grass-fed beef contains almost five times higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, grass-fed beef also contains about twice as much conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) as grain-fed beef. There are also higher proportions of stearic acid and lower proportions of palmitic and myristic acid in grass-fed meat. This helps in keeping the blood cholesterol levels steady.
A typical diet that contains processed and packaged food items are already rich in omega-6 fats and in such cases, consumption of grass-fed meat or dairy can help in maintaining the right balance. A biochemically-rich diet can provide the body with various secondary compounds that can have multiple positive health benefits. The human stomach cannot break down the rougher, denser vegetation such as grass to obtain nutrition but the stomach of a cow can perform this task. Hence many experts put forth the idea that we can get the benefits offered by these plant sources by consuming grass-fed meat. While beef is rich in various nutrients, grass-fed beef contains more vitamin A and vitamin E. Looking back at human history as hunter-gatherers, it can be noted that their food contained more fibre, micronutrients, and phytochemicals. This is often shown as the major reason behind the fact that they did not suffer from heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
In most farms in the USA, the calves that are born are allowed to drink milk from their mothers and then fed with grass and other edible plants. After about eight to nine months, these cows are moved to feedlots which are also termed as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. The animals are kept confined in the stalls and are fattened with grain-based feeds. These mainly contain a mixture of grains and items like corn, straw, alfalfa, soy, and fruit. After some months in the feedlot, the cows are brought to the slaughterhouse. Even though this is the basic process, there is a lot of variation in the feeding practices followed by various farms. In many cases, the animals are also given antibiotics and growth hormones to stimulate growth. For this reason, the FDA passed new legislation in 2017 that states that antibiotics that are used in human medicine need to be administered to animals under the oversight of a licensed veterinarian. Such antibiotics cannot be used for growth promotion in animals.
The basic target of the CAFOs is to deliver more meat per unit area of land used. The rapid growth in the human population and the demand for meat have led to this type of economical process that has not paid attention to factors like health and environment. The use of antibiotics has also given rise to antibiotic resistance, which is a major challenge for doctors across the world. The available data from research suggests that the phytochemical richness of herbivore diets is directly proportional to the biochemical richness of meat and dairy. Since the people in the U.S. consume meat and dairy at a rate that is nearly three times the global average, a shift towards grass-fed meat can lead to many health benefits. However, the present research has not established any direct link between grass-fed meat and human health, and hence most of the developments in the field are based on circumstantial evidence.
Advantages of grass-fed meat
While a grain-fed cow develops well-marbled meat, this is a type of saturated fat that cannot be removed. The grass-fed meat has less marbling and hence it contains lesser amounts of fat. The colour of the meat is also more yellow and that indicates that it is rich in carotenoids. Apart from more vitamins and more omega 3 fatty acids, grass-fed meat also has a better saturated fatty acid lipid profile. It also resembles the wild game meat that our bodies are more suited for. This meat is also a richer source of protein and the specific amino acids are more bioavailable than other natural protein sources. The antioxidants in grass-fed meat include superoxide dismutase and catalase that is very helpful in preventing cell damage from oxidation. Apart from the nutritional benefits, it is also said that plants and microorganisms have established a symbiotic relationship with grazing animals for thousands of years. The production of grain-fed meat also mimics this natural process which is good for the ecosystem.
The meat from grain-fed cattle also makes organisms like E. coli resistant to the acidic environment in the stomach and hence they can cause more harm when they enter the human system. This is also true for other pathogenic strains. Since corn is not their staple diet, a diet of corn can lead to liver abscesses in cattle and hence they are given a steady dose of antibiotics to prevent that. In the case of grass-fed meat, there are no such issues involved. Since grass-fed cattle grow naturally, they are also free from growth hormones. In addition, the livestock raised in pastures plays a vital role in promoting soil health. This helps in the regeneration of the entire ecosystem and restores the microbial diversity in the soil.
Grass-fed meat and the environment
The modern style of agriculture has led to conditions like eroded soil and polluted water that can have disastrous effects in the future. However, comparing the environmental impacts of grass and grain-fed meat is not an easy process. The scientific method of study consists of a step-by-step analysis of the resources and energy use at all stages and the process is termed as life cycle assessment or LCA. Some studies have pointed out that the feedlot system results in lesser greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the grass-fed cattle take more time to grow and this longer lifespan results in higher levels of methane production. In these studies, the larger the animal and shorter its lifespan, the less amount of environmental footprint it generates. However, modern studies have taken into consideration other factors that are equally important and these include soil health, carbon, and landscape health. Scientists are now trying to incorporate these factors into the LCA study of the farming processes. Even as the popularity of grass-fed meat is on the rise, its present production rate is not sufficient enough to meet the overall demands.
A current LCA study conducted on a 3,200-acre farm showed that it stored enough carbon in its grasses to offset all of the methane emissions from its grass-fed cattle. In addition, it could also offset much of the farm’s total emissions. Some scientists point out that there is not enough evidence that proves that the grass-fed system is a better choice. It is mentioned that such a system can work best in a country like Australia that has a temperate climate and large belts of grasslands with no corn production. However, in a country like the USA that has a colder climate and a large corn belt, the grain-fed method is more effective. In general, a grass-fed cow uses 35 percent more water and 30 percent more land than its grain-fed counterpart. This makes grain-fed cows a better option when it comes to optimized use of natural resources.
The role of methane
Methane is the second-largest polluting gas in the world next to carbon dioxide and it is 24 times more potent than a greenhouse gas. One of the main reasons behind the increase in the atmospheric quantity of methane is cattle grazing. The methane also plays an important role in acidifying soils, reducing biodiversity, and shrinking Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer. It has been estimated that cattle grazing in Brazil has resulted in 80% of Amazonian deforestation. In addition, a lot of wild animals lose their lives every year in order to protect livestock. So, while grass-fed meat is healthier than the grain-fed variety when it comes to the environment, it is not so easy to choose one over the other.
The taste factor
The differences in fatty acid composition and higher levels of omega-3 levels make the taste of grass-fed meat much different than that of grain-fed ones. It is due to this reason that the flavours generated by grass-fed meat are not preferred by some people. Some taste-panel participants have described the taste as something that contains “off-flavours including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour.” For countries raised on grain or corn-fed beef, grass-fed beef can be a less popular choice from the taste perspective. At the same time, the grass-fed meat does not have the softness that grain-fed ones have. This is due to the fact that animals that move around in the pastures have better muscle tone and hence the meat can have more fibre that making it somewhat chewy.
While meat is a staple diet in the world, evidence points out that consuming lesser amounts of it will definitely make the world a greener and healthier place. Even as the popularity of grass-fed meat is on the rise, its present production rate is not sufficient enough to meet the overall demands. In addition, the cruelty that the cattle are subjected to in the slaughterhouse remains the same no matter how the animals are raised. While the pastoral image of a cow is a much soothing one, the realities behind the image cannot be ignored. It has been estimated that a 20 percent reduction in beef consumption in America will result in a significant drop in the generation of greenhouse gases. The excess consumption of red meat and processed meat has also been linked with ailments like cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. In the end, the choice depends on individual preferences and values. It is best to try both forms of meat and see what suits your palate in the best possible manner.
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