Grass-fed cows, does this make beef and dairy healthier?

What does grass-fed beef or fairy mean?

In short, grass-fed means that the animals are only fed hay and/or grass for the production of milk or meat. Grazers (which cows are) in nature survive by eating mainly grass. With the rise of intensive agriculture, people were looking for ways to get cows to produce more milk and meat. People have succeeded in this by using raw materials that contain more energy, such as barley and corn, but also sugars and oils.

Not to mention synthetic growth promoters (steroids) or antibiotics that can be used to promote growth. Fortunately, this is forbidden in Europe for meat production, but it still occurs regularly in America. So be careful where you source your organ meat supplements.

There are many strategies how you can feed cows, grass-fed is considered to be the most natural. When farmers use a only grass-fed diet, the use of antibiotics drop but also the growth rate. A hybrid strategy is often seen as well. Example, cows are on the pastures in the spring and summer and in the barn during autumn and winter. This does not mean you can raise cows 100% grass-fed. If the cows are fed barley, maize or alfalfa in addition to hay, you can no longer call this grass-fed.

Fatty acids

Saturated or unsaturated fat, omega 3 and omega 6, trans fats and cardiovascular disease. In the last 100 years a lot of research has been done on cardiovascular disease and our diet. A link was discovered between over-consumption of fat and cardiovascular disease.

Eating red meat and animal fat is according to many the biggest culprit. This is not entirely true, I myself see a strong connection between the rise of cheap vegetable oils in the middle of the last century. These fats are widely used in manufactured food but are also used to feed animals to produce cheap meat and milk.

Saturated or unsaturated

In short, saturated fat is solid and unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature. If you asked people about this, most would say that saturated fat is bad for you and unsaturated fat is not. This is certainly not the case, because there are many different types of saturated and unsaturated fat that can be healthy or unhealthy.

Trans Fat (Hard fat)

Everyone knows saturated and unsaturated, trans fat is a lot less known. Manufacturers do not have to put this on the packaging either. More and more research shows that trans fat increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Trans fat is difficult to digest and increases LDL cholesterol levels.

In the past, trans fat was strongly present in hard fat products such as margarine / low-fat margarine and solid frying fat. Trans fat increases shelf life, does not lose shape and is cheap.

Omega 6 and 3 ratio

Omega 3 is an unsaturated fatty acid commonly found in fish and shellfish. Plankton contains a lot of omega 3, which is food for many fish and shellfish. As a vegetable source, flaxseed is by far the highest in omega 3 fatty acids.

The omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid is found in vegetable oils such as sunflower oil, corn oil and soybean oil, but also in margarine, low-fat margarine and baking and frying fats.

Both omega 3 and 6 are essential fatty acids. This means that our body cannot produce them on its own. So we depend on our food to get them. Both lower the risk of cardiovascular disease if they are in our diet in the right proportion.

Ratio of omega 6 : 3 is used to see if the intake of both fatty acids is in proportion. A high omega 3 and 6 ratio increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune disorders.

In a western diet the ratio is on average 14 : 1, which is too high. This is mainly due to processed foods, which generally only contains omega 6.

There is still a lot of discussion about the correct ratio, but most agree that 14 : 1 is too high. Our ancestors would have eaten a ratio of about 1:1, my advice is to aim for at least a 4:1 ratio.

In short, try to avoid trans fat as much as possible and make sure that the omega 6 : 3 ratio is not too high. Saturated or unsaturated fat are outdated terms and cause more confusion than clarity.

In addition, nowadays there are also intensive industrial processes that can get unsaturated fats into solid forms without the help of trans fat. My advice is to stay away from this. First, we are naturally not evolved to eat high concentrations of vegetable fat. Second, we still know too little about the long-term influence on our body.

These types of products are marketed as “good for the heart and blood vessels” because they contain only vegetable fat and no saturated fats. My advice is to stay away from it. In the middle of the last century, we saw an extreme increase in problems with the heart and blood vessels. This increase coincides suspiciously with the introduction of the first industrial margarine / low-fat margarine. More research is needed into this connection, but it is clear that Unilever changed its formula at the end of the last century. In the past, there was clearly more trans fat in margarine than there is now. What long term effects do the “new industrially manufactured fats” have on our body.

Cows are what they eat

Grass contains more omega 3 than corn or grains. As a result, we also see a difference in the fatty acid content of milk and meat when cows are only fed grass.

In 2009 a study was published in the Journal of Animal Science on grass-fed and grain-fed cattle. The benefits of grass-fed meat for humans:

  • The meat contains less fat (so you can eat more 😉)
  • Beta – Carotene Content is higher
  • Higher in vitamins E and B
  • More minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium
  • More omega 3 and less omega 6 fatty acids

The omega 3 and 6 ratio in grass-fed cattle is between 1:1 and 2:1, grain fed has a ratio of 14: 1. This is a big difference, in this American study the two extremes were compared.

My expectation is that general Dutch beef is lower than 14:1. Since a large part of the ration here consists of grass anyway because this is the cheapest feed. 

What is the disadvantage of grass fed?

Grass-fed meats will generally be a little tougher. This is mainly due to the lower fat content, so meat will always taste slightly drier, a good cook can work around this.

In addition, the costs are higher, it takes longer to produce meat that is only grass-fed. Genuine 100% grass-fed cattle are often kept raised on pastures year round. The climate must therefore be suitable for this. This also costs a lot of land to ensure that there is sufficient grass (land).

You can easily find grass-fed dairy products in the Netherlands in the spring. In the spring and summer many of our Dutch cows graze on our meadow. If you look a little more critically, you will be able to make healthier choices.

Why don’t all farmers reduce the omega 6 : 3 ratio in the meat or dairy if this is healthier?

The simplest answer is the market is to small. This makes it difficult to recoup the extra costs. If the higher costs in production also bring more returns, plenty of farmers will make to shift to increase total return.

One idea to increase the demand is making it mandatory to list the omega 6 : 3 ratio on food products. Then the added value of the piece of meat can be perceived by the consumer. Then they can decide for themselves whether they want to spend more money for a healthier piece of meat.

Pigmeat with increase omega 3 content

My personal experience on this subject is in pig farming, here I did a research on finishing pigs. The idea was to increase the omega 3 content in pork through feed.

This was successful, we had shown that we had influenced the fatty acid content through feed. We achieved quite easily an omega 6 : 3 ratio of 1 : 4. By comparison, this is on average 1 : 8 for pork.

The additional costs were barely 0.03 € cents per kg of meat higher.

The biggest challenge was to sell the meat. We were not allowed to claim that the meat was enriched with omega 3, the increase in the total omega 3 was not high enough according to European guidelines. As a result, we where not allowed to claim extra omega 3, while the fatty acid ratio was indeed healthier for humans.

In addition, the fat of the meat was more rancid, healthier fat is generally weaker and looks less attractive. After the trial, nothing further was done with the research, it may come in handy in the future.

Our advice

Grass-fed animals have a healthier fatty acid pattern than animals that are only fed concentrated feeds.

It is not easy to consciously choose this as a consumer. Look in your area at farm shops / organic butchers and ask them about their products. Here they can often better inform you about the origin than they can in big box shops.

It is also wise to get no more than 40% of your calories from fat. Make sure you alternate between fat sources; Meat, fish, dairy, nuts and seeds. Opt for natural sources that are pressed and avoid industrially manufactured fats of which we do not know the effects.

Try to achieve a healthier omega 6 : 3 ratio for yourself. This can be done by making healthier choices, but also by taking extra omega 3. This can have a positive effect, especially if you suffer from inflammatory conditions (eg osteoarthritis). My advice is to choose a product made from green-lipped mussel or fish oil.

These are excellent absorb able sources of omega 3 in combination with a number of good natural antioxidants.

I also choose carefully where I buy the organs for my freeze-dried organ capsules. The liver is a high-fat product, so I want to at least make sure it consists of healthy fats. To the shop!


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