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Is eating grass-fed, certified organic meat healthier?
By Thomas M. Campbell, MD, Executive Director,
T. Colin Campbell
Remember that the health benefits or dangers of these foods goes way beyond the fat content. I am left with serious concerns about protein content, cholesterol, lack of fiber and lack of vitamins and minerals even in the best organic, grass-fed meat because, ultimately, it remains an animal food package with a relatively poor nutrient profile when compared to whole plants.
This is a great question, as this topic has become such a hot-button issue in the past couple years. Grass-fed, organic beef and other meats have become much more appealing and popular over the past several years, especially as the ‘locavore’, or ‘farm-to-table’, movement has gained momentum in the United States. Part of their popularity stems from the idea that there are likely to be health benefits to eating this type of meat; and for social and environmental reasons, it just feels better to support this type of meat production. Overall, grass-fed, organic meat just seems much more natural, and therefore, it must be better! Right? Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple.
Meat may only be labeled organic if it is produced using the following guidelines: the animal must have had access to the outdoors; it must have been raised without antibiotics, growth hormones, slaughter byproducts or genetically modified organisms (GMOs); the animal must have been fed 100% organic feed; then, it must have been processed without GMOs, irradiation or other ‘non-organic’ contamination. 1 These rules do not dictate the type of feed used, other than it be organic, but we often hear specifically that grass-fed has a better nutrient content. So, there end up being two possible health benefits to eating grass-fed, organic meat: first, it may be lower in contaminants and second, at least in the case of beef, it may have a better nutrient profile.
Unfortunately, the differences in contamination are less impressive than you might hope. One of the most comprehensive reviews2 found that there was no difference in the likelihood of bacterial contamination between organic and conventional meat. Regardless of farming method, about two thirds of all chicken had Campylobacter, and one third had Salmonella. Up to two thirds of pork had E. coli, and both the organic and non-organic meat was equally contaminated with Salmonella and Listeria. There were, however, some data to show that these bacteria were less likely to be resistant to multiple antibiotics in the organic meat.
In addition, there are unlikely to be major nutrient differences between organic and non-organic meat just by virtue of the organic label. On the other hand, if the meat is grass-fed instead of grain-fed, there are likely to be significant differences in the fatty acids present in the meat. A review3 specifically comparing grass-fed and grain-fed beef found that there is less overall fat, more omega-3 fats, and possibly more antioxidants in grass-fed beef. In addition, the omega-3 fats are in a much more favorable ratio with the omega-6 fats3. But how much of a difference does this make in our health? The truth is we don’t know for sure because we don’t have enough evidence comparing the consumption of grass-fed versus grain-fed meat and how it affects our health over a long period of time; however, I am seriously doubtful that this is the health revelation that some make it out to be.
Certainly, some of these nutrient differences in meat have been used to advocate for grass-fed, organic meat. The public is happy to buy this story if they like to eat meat, but the reality is that when the total nutrients of the food are considered, these trumpeted nutrient differences are likely to be relatively insignificant in the grander scheme of things. The table below is a comparison from the USDA Nutrient Database of 100 calories each of different samples of grass-fed ground beef, grain-fed ground beef, and broccoli. You can see that any nutrient differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef are insignificant compared to the differences between the beef and the broccoli.
Comparative Nutrient Content of 100 Calories Each of Grass-Fed, Raw Ground Beef, USDA Commodity Raw Ground Beef*, and Raw Broccoli (USDA nutrient database)
* It is presumed that this entry in the USDA nutrient database represents grain-fed beef, since grass-fed is specified separately, but this is not delineated.
Clearly, if nutrients have anything to do with health and disease (and of course we know they do), the significant choice for health is between plant and animal, not between grain-fed and grass-fed. As you can see, these two types of beef are still composed of animal protein, fat, cholesterol, and small amounts of several vitamins and minerals. The change in fat composition does not alter the basic nutrient content. The broccoli on the other hand, has plenty of protein, and a more healthful type of protein at that, less fat, a substantial amount of fiber, no cholesterol, and abundant vitamins and minerals, all of which are health-promoting.
Another way to think of this is to realize that regardless of what the animal eats, the particular flesh of the animal serves the same function. Muscle tissue must move bones, and muscle tissue in a grass-fed animal is the same as muscle tissue in a grain-fed animal. Both are made of the same basic muscle cell units performing the same basic functions. There may be different fat content throughout the muscle tissue, but there are only so many ways to make muscle, so you can certainly appreciate that the basic nutrients from eating a group of muscle cells is going to be similar irrespective of the animal’s diet.
The belief and discussion around the possible health benefits of eating animals grown in a more sustainable way is a good example of a lot of news generated about details out of context. There is a healthier fat profile and there may be tiny differences in absolute antioxidant content in grass-fed meat (these benefits don’t apply to the organic label alone – only to grass fed). For these reasons, if you must have meat, consuming grass-fed, organic meat or wild game instead of factory farm, grain-fed meat would be best; but remember that the health benefits or dangers of these foods goes way beyond the fat content. I am left with serious concerns about protein content, cholesterol, lack of fiber and lack of vitamins and minerals even in the best organic, grass-fed meat because, ultimately, it remains an animal food package with a relatively poor nutrient profile when compared to whole plants.
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