Things seem greener on the grass-fed side

Posted on Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Written by Megan Scarth, AHN Student

In recent years, there seems to be much more of an emphasis on eating more naturally-produced foods. One type of more “natural” food that has been getting more hype lately is grass-fed beef. But just what exactly is “grass-fed”, and is it actually healthier than conventional varieties?

In our modern industrial farming system, “grass-fed” is not the norm. Instead, cows are fed a conventional diet consisting of two main parts: total mixed rations (TMR) and concentrates. Concentrates supply nutrients and proteins that the cows need for growth and development, and often include similar ingredients found in TMRs. Total mixed rations are usually made of grains, grain silages (grains that have been stored and fermented), hays, haylages (like alfalfa and clover), and soymeal. In a conventional industrial diet, farmers will also sometimes include food production by-products in the rations that would normally be discarded, to lower the overall cost of the feed. These are usually energy-dense, carbohydrate-heavy substances such as potato wastes.

In contrast, cows that are grass-fed eat a diet that is much more typical of what they would consume in the wild. The term “grass-fed” doesn’t refer to cows that have only \eaten grass, however — cows that are grass-fed will likely have eaten a wide variety of other plants, such as alfalfa, vetch, and clovers. Additionally, cows will often eat a variety of different grasses, such as bluegrass, ryegrass, and foxtail.

But nutritionally, is grass-fed beef actually better for you? Research indicates that this does seem to be the case — the improved diet of grass-fed animals leads to healthier animals overall, and the benefits are then passed onto the eventual consumer. Grass-fed beef has higher levels of antioxidant vitamins such as vitamin A and E, for example, as well as the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin. It also has higher levels of the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium, and lower in cholesterol. It’s lower in total fat, saturated fats, has a better ratio of omega-3s to omega-6 fatty acids, and has greater amounts of conjuguated linoleic acid, which is a type of fat that has been linked to lower rates of cancer and heart disease.

Unfortunately, grass-fed beef isn’t sold at all grocery stores, but there are still several places you can purchase it here in Guelph. Market Fresh sells grass-fed products year-round, for example, and you can ask local farmers at the Guelph Farmer’s Market whether their products are grass-fed. You can also use websites such as eatwild.com to find farms selling grass-fed products all across Canada.

Pay attention to labels, however: “pasture-raised” and “natural” is not the same as “grass-fed". And food companies can still legally label beef as “grass-fed” even if the cow only spent a small portion of its life eating grass, so “100% grass-fed” is your surest bet. 

Things really do seem to be greener on the grass-fed side, so give grass-fed beef a shot if you don’t already include it in your diet.

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