The low carb and paleo world provides a wealth of information on the Internet, and sometimes the information gets amplified in a strange way. Somewhere on the road to decreasing carbs and increasing protein and dietary fat, cattle got caught in the cross-fire.
If you read most blogs, “grass fed” cattle are the only ones suitable for consumption. I have no problem with people choosing to eat beef from their local farmer, or deciding to buy the more expensive beef from the health food store. Many bloggers like the taste of the beef they are buying, and that’s certainly a valid reason to choose it.
But the cost of food is a significant barrier for people looking at changing their diet. Do they have to buy organic vegetables and grass fed beef? If so, they may miss out on some very important health benefits, thinking they may as well not go low carb / paleo if they can’t afford to buy grass fed beef.
Taste and personal preferences aside, the health benefits of grass fed beef are grossly overstated, if they exist at all. The myths surrounding regular, supermarket beef are many, and include:
- The cattle are fed only corn
- Corn fed beef has much higher Omega 6 oils
- Farmers feed cattle “corn silage” in the winter. More corn!
- Feedlots pump up the cattle with a lot of hormones
- Corn fed beef has a lot of estrogen you should avoid
- Cattle are raised in small pens, in inhumane conditions
While it is estimated that 75% of the beef you buy in supermarkets comes from cattle “in feedlots” where they have consumed corn, the majority are raised in pastures before they go to the feedlot. Pasturing cattle is less expensive than feeding them grain.
Donna Covey is my first cousin, and raises cattle on MDC Farms in northern Missouri. I have seen the heifers, cows, and bulls and they look pretty happy to me. She explains how they raise cattle:
Our cattle are mostly grass fed. The cows are given salt and mineral and eat mostly grass and legumes. The calves have mama’s milk, salt and mineral, grass and legumes and are given creep feed for two to four months to increase their rate of gain. (Feeders are placed in the pastures that allow the calves to eat the feed but the cows can’t get to the feed.)
We do not give antibiotics of any kind unless something is sick. Calves are given vaccines for black leg, red nose and other common cattle diseases. The calves are then weaned and sold to someone like Mike’s dad and brother who grass graze them from March/April to November. He gives a few pellets every day to keep them coming up so they’ll be easy to get in when time to sell. They are then sold to a feedlot where they think they’re in 7th heaven because they get all they can eat.
This is the typical way cattle are raised before heading to the feedlot.
Numerous taste tests have shown that people generally like the taste of beef they are used to, and Donna actually prefers the taste of grass fed, home butchered meat (she has eaten it all her life). But she recognizes that the market determines how cattle are fed prior to butchering:
Grass fed beef is leaner, but our cows also get FAT on nothing but legumes and grass. Leaner isn’t always good. Most anyone who raises beef will tell you that the beef will have much better flavor [to most people] if the animal is fed grain for at least four to six weeks before they’re butchered. If they’re fed too much grain, they get too fat and are not as good.
Cows on grass make profitable use of land that is not capable of raising crops and would otherwise be considered waste land.
Feedlots typically keep the animals from 3 weeks to 3 months. The incentive in the feedlot is to increase the meat on the animal in the most economical way, and a diet of up to 70% in grain is used to do this. Hay and silage make up the rest of the diet. The feedlot operators realize that the crowded conditions can work against them with increased injuries, infections and extra costs. They don’t want to keep the cattle any longer than they have to, as time is money.
What are the health differences between grass fed/grass finished beef and beef from cattle spending the last few weeks in a feedlot? As it turns out, not much.
Omega-3 and Omega-3 / Omega-6 Ratios
Modern Paleo blogger Diana Hsieh quotes Skyler Tanner on the amount of Omega-3 in grass fed or grain fed beef: grass fed beef has about 10mg more Omega-3 per ounce than grain fed beef. But at 25mg per ounce, even grass fed beef is not a significant source of Omega-3. Nevertheless, bloggers continue to tout grass fed beef as having “67% MORE Omega-3!” You would have to eat twelve pounds of grass fed beef per day to get your RDA of Omega-3. So while the ratio may be different, it’s a difference without a bit of a health benefit.
Is Omega-6 in beef high? Not at all; Diana points out that a half pound of either type of beef contains just 1.2 grams of polyunsaturated fat.
Recently, I read a blog post where shock and dismay was expressed when it was discovered that a local farmer fed his dairy cows “corn silage” in the winter. The assumption was that silage contributed a significant amount of corn kernels to the cow’s diet. I have seen corn cut for silage, and the corn kernels do not become a significant part of the total. Most of it is the stalk and leaves of the corn plant. As Donna explains:
Corn silage is made from the entire stalk and includes the ear. It is cut while the corn is still very green with the ideal moisture content of the kernels being between 30 and 40%. The ideal moisture for corn harvested after dry down is 16%. The entire stock is run through a silage chopper where it is cut into smaller pieces, then it is packed in a pit or above ground and covered and allowed to ferment before it’s fed. It actually gets hot during this process.
MDC Farms does not produce silage, and feeds their cows hay during the winter. But silage is about as natural a food for cattle as hay or other grasses. It is easily digested and nutritionally appropriate.
Cattle are full of hormones. Every plant and animal we eat contains them. But many people have concerns that cattle are “pumped up with hormones”, by which they mean they have an unnaturally high level of them and the meat is affected. But as UPMC, affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Health Services, notes, the levels in beef are very low:
While taking steroid hormones at high doses, such as in hormonal replacement therapy, has been shown to increase risk for some cancers, the amount present in meat products is very small by comparison. The FDA argues that residues of additives in beef are negligible in comparison to levels that occur naturally both in cows and humans.
Authorities also point out that steroid hormone levels in beef, whether from treated animals or not, are far lower than those found in eggs or milk. Additionally, these levels are dwarfed by high levels of plant estrogens—or “phytoestrogens”—present in soybeans, wheat germ, cabbage, broccoli, and many other vegetables. Phytoestrogens have also been shown to be hormonally active in people.
How are hormones administered to cattle? Images of corporate farmer villains toting huge hypodermics of hormone soup to inject into cows come to mind, but the reality is that the normal hormone dosage is quite different. A small pellet of hormone, usually estrogen, is inserted below the skin behind the ear, and provides a slow release of estrogen. In the resulting meat, how much estrogen can be measured?
The different levels of estrogen found in beef from cattle raised with or without growth promotants is miniscule.
Note: 3-ounce serving of beef from a steer treated with growth promotants contains 1.9 nanograms of estrogen.
Note: 3-ounce serving of beef from a steer raised without growth promotants, such as certified organic beef contains 1.3 nanograms of estrogen.
A nanogram is one billionth of a gram. For comparison purposes, a 3-ounce serving of potato has 225 nanograms of estrogen.
So even if the farmer uses growth promotant hormones, the rise in estrogen you consume is six tenths of a billionth of a gram.
Cattle are killed so we can eat them. Some people have a moral issue with that, and they are certainly entitled to their opinion. Extremists equate animal life with human life, and you can’t reason with these folks. But most of the rest of us share at least one thing with them: we do not want animals to suffer unnecessarily.
Some animal rights organizations would have you believe that slaughter houses take delight in torturing animals. But a steer or heifer represents a significant investment, and unnecessary trauma before death is avoided. The profit motive ensures this, as bruised meat cannot be sold.
But the ethical dilemma remains for some people. There is no doubt that cattle, like all the animals we eat, feel pain. And it is also true that all animals will die even if we do not eat them.
While its certainly a deeper issue than I intend to deal with here, there is a philosophical idea that animals don’t need to “feel Pain”. I have capitalized “Pain” here to separate it from the mere sensation of pain that animals obviously feel. It is not the unavoidable pain at death that is at issue, but whether the animal is self-aware enough to have mental trauma that death is coming. The “human monster” that tortures an animal creates that mental trauma in the animal, and is not acting like a human would, which is to say he is not acting in a humane way. Instead, he is acting like a cat does with its prey, playing for its own amusement, ignorant or uncaring of the suffering of the animal.
The closer to nature you are, the more you realize that pain is a part of daily life. Things live, and they die. Bones break, infections start, and animals … and their masters … feel pain. It would be nice to think of all animals in nature dying in their sleep peaceably, but the reality is that most wild animals die while being eaten alive in relatively slow process. And that is usually a process with physical pain and the Pain of knowing that death is coming.
The slaughter house is designed to be more humane than that. The videos of animals being slaughtered can seem cruel and pain-filled, but we have done our best to keep the animal ignorant of impending death. And then death comes quickly, with the least amount of time possible before realization that it is imminent. That’s unlike nature, where they are often being ripped apart by a predator or dying a fevered death from infection.
I certainly don’t intend to dissuade people from eating grass fed, grass finished beef they obtain from their health food store or local farmer. The personal preference is all you need to continue doing so, whether its because of taste, or six tenths of a billionth of a gram of Omega-3.
But it is my intention to dispel some of the hype and myths that might prevent someone eating the standard American diet from adopting a low carb / paleo lifestyle. If you are on the fence and fear the cost of grass fed beef will be too much, consider the information above. You do not have to worry about limited supply, or extra cost to eat more animal protein, as the beef in your supermarket is perfectly fine, and healthy.