What’s Wrong with American Beef

While on a sustainable farming trip at the picturesque Gravity Hills Farm in Titusville, New Jersey, I was intrigued by a local beef farmer’s comment about the Mediterranean diet. It’s known to be healthier than the standard American diet, including less red meat and more fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and fish. But the farmer mentioned another difference that has rarely been mentioned in articles and papers touting the diet: Animals are raised differently in Europe than in the United States.

So what? It’s the same species, ergo the same meat, right? And don’t people who follow the Mediterranean diet consume less red meat anyways? Isn’t that why they are healthier?

We like to think in terms of quantifiable amounts. More calories, more fats, and more sugars lead to disease. But does simply eating more red meat make you worse off, or does eating meat produced in a particular way affect your health?

In both Europe and the United States, for the first year of their lives, all cows have access to pasture. But their fates diverge soon afterwards. About 75% of the cows raised in the United States are shipped to resource-efficient feedlots and fed grain, typically corn, for the last four to six months before slaughter. This high-carb diet, along with antibiotics and growth hormones, produces the conventional beef that makes up the familiar, well-marbled cuts that stock our grocery stores. This standard is not the only option on the market, however. Farmers whose beef is labeled “USDA Grass-fed,” “grass-finished”, “pasture-raised”, or “free-range” have never fed grain to their livestock. However, while we tend to imagine grass-fed cows spending their entire lives on green pastures, they may still be kept in confinement and fed dry forage instead of fresh grass. Organically-raised cows, on the other hand, are brought up without any drugs or feed containing pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, or animal by-products. They can, however, still be fed organic grains and kept in feedlots.

“Does simply eating more red meat make you worse off, or does eating meat produced in a particular way affect your health?”

Of course, the only sure way to test the health effects of pasture-raised versus conventional meat would be to take two groups of statistically similar people and randomly assign them to one diet or another. Needless to say, such a study would be both ethically immoral and practically impossible. Nevertheless, the tale of two meats has inspired some preliminary research on potential health differences.

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Cows being fed a high-carb diet in feedlots.

Bacteria

Consumer Reports tested 300 brands of ground beef from conventionally raised, organic, antibiotic-free, and pasture-raised sources. All samples tested were contaminated with cow fecal bacteria, but conventional beef was twice as likely to contain antibiotic-resistant superbugs as all other beef, and three times as likely as grass-fed beef, in particular.

According to the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), a high-grain diet is easier to digest because conventionally-raised cows produce less methane. However, some research shows that a high-grain, low-fiber diet is difficult for cows’ grass-adapted digestive system to process. Bacteria ferment the undigested starches, producing fermentation acids that help E. coli bacteria survive the cow’s stomach acids. As a result, these cows have as much as one thousand times more E. coli than cows fed hay, which contains carbohydrates that are less prone to fermentation. The byproducts of fermentation also lead to bloating, gas, and abdominal discomfort — the same symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome. Although pasture-raised cows may have problems with bloat as well, these symptoms are associated not with grass forage, but with a high intake of legumes such as white clover instead of crude fiber.graincow

Antibiotics

Antibiotics serve a double purpose: to prevent diseases easily communicable in the crowded, stagnant feedlot environment, and to make cattle gain weight. Antibiotics gear a cow’s gut flora towards fat storage, and by the same mechanism could cause weight gain in humans. Thus, the animals we are eating could be considered overweight, or even obese.

“Antibiotics gear a cow’s gut flora towards fat storage, and by the same mechanism can cause weight gain in humans.”

A New View of Fats

Grass-fed meat contains more conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), a fatty acid produced by bacteria who favor the less acidic stomachs of grass-fed cows. CLAs have been evaluated for potential anti-cancer activity, and some studies suggest that they have a positive effect on body fat in humans. However, research on CLAs is still limited and their health benefits are uncertain — one source claims that cooking meat renders the difference in CLA content negligible.

Other lipids point to a more promising health difference. Grass-finished beef, when compared to conventional beef, contains 15 milligrams more per serving of omega-3 fatty acids, which are health-promoting, anti-inflammatory lipids. Some groups, however, deny any benefits on the basis that beef is not a significant source of these lipids—salmon has 35 times more, and one person would have to eat 4.5 pounds of grass-fed beef to meet the daily recommended amount. However, the issue is not simply the quantity of omega-3s, but rather the ratio between omega-3s and omega-6s, another type of polyunsaturated fat common in vegetable oils and meats. The optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is 4 to 1 or lower—anything more than that puts you at greater risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Among several studies, the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio for grass-fed beef ranged from 1.4 to 3.7. Meanwhile, the ratio for conventional beef ranged from 3.0 to a hefty 13.6. To put this in context, overall, Americans consume an unhealthy 11 to 30 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. The average U.S. inhabitant also consumes over 50 pounds of beef a year, and the difference adds up (you might consider rethinking farmed salmon too; it has its own issues with contaminants and high-carb feed).backcow1

NAMI justifies a grain-based diet as energy-rich and economical, allowing farmers to raise beef year round, since fresh grass is only available seasonally. Moreover, grass-fed beef tends to have a different taste from the grain-fed, highly marbled steaks that Americans are accustomed to.

Whether you decide to go grain-fed or grass-fed, know that there are many other reasons why Europeans tend to be healthier than Americans outside of what type of meat they eat. Still, you might find yourself shocked and more mindful when you consider what the food on your plate ate as well.

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