The Irrelevance of Grass-Fed Beef (Ancestral Health Symposium 2013)

Grass-fed beef is better than ordinary (grain-fed) beef because it has a better omega-3/omega-6 ratio. I’ve heard this a thousand times. It’s true. Grass has more omega-3 than grain, which is high in omega-6. But it is misleading. For practical purposes, grass-fed and grain-fed beef are the same in terms of omega-3 and omega-6. 

Peter Ballerstedt made this point in his talk at the recent Ancestral Health Symposium. He showed this slide, based on research by Susan Burkett.omega3omega6

This shows the amount of omega-3 and omega-6 in one serving of various foods. The amounts in grass- and grain-fed beef are small relative to other foods most people eat. People who have said eat grass-fed beef, such as Michael Pollan, should have been saying eat less chicken. When I started eating grass-fed instead of grain-fed beef, I noticed no differences, which agrees with this analysis.

17 Responses to “The Irrelevance of Grass-Fed Beef (Ancestral Health Symposium 2013)”

  1. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    Good thing I eat grass-fed beef (at least some of the time) because it tastes better.

    Seth: I agree, it tastes better.

  2. Beth@WeightMaven Says:

    I don’t know that I would have called grass-fed beef “irrelevant” because the absolute amount of o3 is small. Eating grass-fed beef for o3 or because of the o3/o6 ratio is not useful, as you point out above. But eating grass-fed beef for other reasons can be downright relevant. For example, grass-fed cows aren’t typically given the hormones or antibiotics given to feedlot cows. That matters to me!

    Seth: I am unsure why I should care about the hormones or the antibiotics. I’m not saying you’re wrong, just that the evidence behind your view is unclear.

  3. rif Says:

    I am confused. Surely, a rib-eye steak is a kind of beef?

  4. Joe Says:

    Why no comparison of grass-fed rib-eye to grain-fed rib-eye? Hmmmmm.

  5. Joe Says:

    Why no comparison of grass-fed rib-eye to grain-fed rib-eye? Or to strip steak, etc?

    What’s so different about ground beef???

  6. Justin Irving Says:

    Wow. This is news to me. Thanks for sharing, raises many questions. I was under the impression that grass fed *and finished* beef was fairly comparable to wild salmon in O3. I wonder if the data in this chart are for store bought GFB (usually grain finished) or if it was fully grass finished (usually only available through order or local markets).

    The other advantage of grass fed beef is alleged fat soluble vitamins, which are presumably good. As far as Beth’s comment above, my fear is that antibiotics and the estrogen used to fatten cows bioaccumulates and then jacks the human endocrine system and gut bacteria when eaten.

    I look forward to hearing what the GFB people have to say.

  7. Michael George Says:

    It looks to me like this is playing with statistics again, and I’m surprised you fell for it, Seth. Is this chart comparing the fat? Or the meat? If I take a ounce of fish fat and an ounce of beef fat — the amount of omega-3′s should be comparable, right? The problem, in my mind, is that today people aren’t eating the fat with their beef. You can’t even buy a cut of beef with the fat still all around it. When I was a kid eating at grandma’s and we got a steak or pork chop, there was a ring of fat around it. It was so good! And I’m believing that when our ancestors ate their beef, it had a bunch of fat hanging off it. But today, I don’t see people eating the fat with their beef. In fact, I have to buy beef fat separately to add to my meals. Now, I’m under the impression that if I eat the fat with the lean meat, that I’m getting the omega-3′s that are necessary. What do you think?

  8. Angelyne Says:

    I would say that the omega-6/omega-3 content of grass fed beef is irrelevant to the decision to buy grass-fed beef. Ruminants haven’t evolved to eat massive quantities of grains, it makes them sick. You end up eating meat from what is essentially a sick cow.

    But even more important, If you eat a grass fed cow, you are are eating meat produced from animals that exist within their natural context, or as close as you can get with agriculture and husbandry. When properly managed, the animal is outside, in the sunshine, eating what it evolved to eat. The animal/grass coexist and need each other. As apex predators we feed on the cow, which is also part of the circle. When you take a cow to a feeding lot, you break that circle. You feed them something they aren’t designed to eat, something that is grown elsewhere at great environmental cost. The manure they produce no longer feeds the soil, but now becomes a pollutant. The water must be piped in from elsewhere, depleting water tables. The cow is now yet another environmental burden in an unsustainable system.

    That’s why I eat grass-fed meat.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/meat/interviews/pollan.html

  9. Bert Says:

    From where I come from, grass-fed is typically cheaper. O3/6 content not withstanding, I guess, if I’m to eat what I should, then the stuff that I eat should eat what it’s supposed to, too. :)

  10. Antonio Says:

    “I would say that the omega-6/omega-3 content of grass fed beef is irrelevant to the decision to buy grass-fed beef” I could not agree more. omega6/omega3 ratios is not the only think that matter for our health …

  11. Tom Says:

    Thanks for this post, Seth. With all the hype that has grown up around the grassfed beef industry, that chart is nothing short of shocking.

    Talking about higher Omega 3s lets ranchers benefit from healthfulness perceptions without actually making any health claims. There’s no FDA litigation risk if the healthfulness is merely presumed by starry-eyed consumers.

    I do wish there were an entry on that chart for so-called “Omega 3″ eggs. I imagine it would reveal a similar scam.

  12. Kim Øyhus, physicist Says:

    There are real differences, because when I eat farmed fish, I get rashes or something similar, and after eating wild fish, it disappears. The difference is quite large.

    Seth: Interesting. I avoid farmed salmon, try to always eat wild salmon.

  13. Kyle Says:

    It would be nice to compare a grass-fed ribeye to grainfed. Also it would be very interesting to look at the ratio in grain fed dairy verse grass-fed (particularly butter).

  14. David Johnston Says:

    For me, the grass fed thing was always more about the cow than the O3/O6 ratio.

  15. JohnG Says:

    The old government nutrition database site would give omega 3 and omega 6 numbers on quite a few items. If I remember correctly, the ribeye numbers were similar between grainfed and grassfed beef with the grassfed ribeye numbers being lower overall for both omega 6 and omega 3. The ratios weren’t that much different for any cut of meat I checked. For some cuts, grassfed faired better on the ratio number; and in other cuts it was the other way around.

    You can look at Loren Cordain’s own numbers (http://thepaleodiet.com/published-research-about-the-paleo-diet/) and see for yourself that the argument for eating grassfed because it has a better ratio is meaningless.

    This doesn’t negate the possibility, which Angelyne brought up, that there’s something else in play when animals are fed outside their normal diet (such as the fact that the ratio of palmitic saturated fatty acid goes up in comparison to stearic acid in grainfed beef and what significance that may hold).

  16. Ed Says:

    Grass fed vs Grain fed. Grain fed is akin to fattening the cattle up. Literally. The higher fat content of grain fed cattle would be concentrated with omega 6 as opposed to omega 3. Not too mention that cattle have evolved to consume grass, not grain.

    As far as the increased hormones and its effect on livestock. There have been scientific studies that show a correlation between the hormones and increased negative health effects in humans. A quick Google search will turn up some scientific articles.

  17. sharon Says:

    Grass fed is kinder to cows.