Beef, grass-fed

Grass feeding is a practice not yet familiar to all consumers. 100% grass-fed beef comes from cows who have grazed in pasture year-round rather than being fed a processed diet for much of their life. Grass feeding improves the quality of beef, and makes the beef richer in omega-3 fats, vitamin E, beta-carotene, and CLA (a beneficial fatty acid named conjugated linoleic acid. (For more detailed information about grass feeding, please click here.) Just how important is grass feeding for beef quality? As you will see in the chart below, we have included grass-feeding as one of our top-level recommendations for anyone who plans to include beef in their meal plan:

Shopping for Beef
Stick with organic Organic standards help lower risk of contaminated feed and organic beef usually has higher nutrient quality. However, remember that organic by itself does not guarantee a natural lifestyle for the beef cows.
Ask for 100% grass-fed Go beyond organic by asking for 100% grass-fed. Don't get sidetracked by the confusing array of labeling terms like natural" or "pasture-raised." Labeling laws allow products to display these terms even if cows spend little or no time outdoors in a pasture setting. Unfortunately, even the term "grass-fed" is not sufficient since grass-fed cows may have spent a relatively small amount of time grass feeding. The standard to look for on the label is "100% grass-fed." Talk to your grocer or the cow farmer and find out how the animals were actually raised. In addition, if you would like more information about the practice of grass-feeding, please click here.
Consider local farmsOrganic, 100% grass-fed beef may be available from local farms with small flocks, which provide a natural lifestyle for their cows. Two websites that can help you find small local farms in your area are www.localharvest.org and www.eatwild.com. Both sites are searchable by zip code.

One thing you'll notice about the chart above is an absence of recommendations about specific cuts of beef. In general, we recommend sticking with lower fat cuts of beef if you decide to include this food in your meal plan. Lower fat cuts include top round, bottom round, eye of round, flank, and strip. Health organizations have traditionally recommended avoidance of higher fat cuts like tenderloin, ribeye, or porterhouse because it can be difficult to make room for the amount of total fat, saturated fat, and calories they contain. Since too much total fat, too much saturated fat, and too many calories in a daily meal plan can raise the risk of certain health problems, this approach makes sense to us, particularly in light of the fact that lower fat beef cut can still provide you with the nutritional benefits of 100% grass-fed beef in terms of omega-3s, CLA, beta-carotene, and vitamin E.

What's New and Beneficial About Grass-Fed Beef

Beef, grass-fed, strip steak, cooked
4.00 oz
(113.40 grams)
Calories: 175
GI: very low

NutrientDRI/DV

 vitamin B1260%

 protein52%

 vitamin B348%

 omega-3 fats46%

 vitamin B644%

 selenium44%

 zinc37%

 phosphorus34%

 choline17%

 pantothenic acid15%

Health Benefits

Broad-Based Nutrient Support

A recent study of children and teens in the U.S. has shown that individuals in these age groups depend on their intake of beef for the following key nutrients and in the following amounts.

Additionally, beef is an important source of potassium, phosphorus, and protein to these age groups in the U.S. population. Very few U.S. children and teenagers—and equally few U.S. adults—consume grass-fed versus conventionally fed beef. For this reason, we do not have data showing the potential contribution of grass-fed beef to other categories of nutrient consumption. However, we do have research evidence about the average composition of grass-fed versus conventionally fed beef, and this research evidence points to significant differences for the following key nutrients.

When combined with the B vitamins and minerals listed above, these additional nutrients specifically associated with grass-feeding of beef—including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and omega-3s—make grass-fed beef unusually diverse in terms of its potential for nutrient support of health. Our food rating system also ranks grass-fed beef as a very good source of the antioxidant mineral selenium and a good source of the B-vitamin choline.

Conjugated Linoleic Acid CLA and Vaccenic Acid

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a fatty acid made from linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid commonly found in food. However, linoleic acid is not commonly converted into CLA in significant amounts, making CLA much more rare in food. The unique structure of CLA is associated with an increasing list of health benefits, including immune and inflammatory system support, improved bone mass, improved blood sugar regulation, reduced body fat, and maintenance of lean body mass.

You'll find yourself getting 500-800 milligrams of CLA from a 4-ounce serving of grass-fed beef. This amount is approximately two to three times greater than the amount found in non grass-fed beef.

In addition to CLA, you will also find yourself getting a fatty acid called vaccenic acid from grass-fed beef. (Grass-fed beef contains greater amounts of vaccenic acid than conventionally fed beef.) Since various bacteria in our digestive tract can convert vaccenic acid into CLA once grass-fed beef has been consumed, this vaccenic acid supplied by grass-fed beef can further increase the practical amount of CLA that we receive from grass-fed animals.

Immune and Inflammatory Support

We have yet to see large-scale human studies showing decreased risk of chronic immune and inflammatory health problems following routine intake of grass-fed beef. Future results along these lines would not surprise us, since grass-fed beef can provide substantial amounts of the antioxidant vitamins E and beta-carotene, the antioxidant minerals selenium and zinc, and the anti-inflammatory fatty acid CLA. (For the cows themselves, research studies have already shown greater antioxidant capacity in their cells brought about by grass-feeding, as well as stronger performance of antioxidant enzymes like superoxide dismutase. In fact, grass feeding of cows has been shown to do a better job of increasing their antioxidant capacity than supplying them with antioxidant supplements.) Exactly how much these results will extend to humans will most likely depend on the role played by grass-fed beef in the overall diet. While rich in the potential for anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory support, grass-fed beef also harbors the potential for excessive intake of nutrients like saturated fat and cholesterol when consumed in excessive amounts. It's exactly for this reason that we've recommended avoidance of large portions of grass-fed beef in your everyday meal (along the lines of a 12-ounce steak in the center of your plate that would be providing over half of the calories in your meal). Instead, we recommend an average serving size for grass-fed beef of approximately 4 ounces, whether added to a salad, stir-fry, sauce or other recipe.

Description

Beef is a general term used to describe the flesh derived from animals belonging to the Bovidae family of animals, and more specifically, to the genus called Bos. This Bos category includes the species Bos Taurus and Bos indicus. While people commonly use the word "cow" to refer to this group of animals as a whole (a practice that we have also adopted throughout our website), the word "cow" is used in a more much specific way within the beef industry. Within this industry, "cow beef" is just one type of beef. Here are the four basic types of beef found in today's marketplace.

Not typically found in the marketplace is "stag beef" (beef obtained from a mature male who had been castrated after the ability to reproduce).

There are over 800 different breeds of beef cows. Some of the most common are Angus, Aberdeen Angus, Beefmaster, Brahman (Zebu), Hereford, (Whiteface), Jersey, Santa Gertrudis, Shortghorn, and Texas Longhorn.

Among all 97.8 million cows in the U.S., about 9.3 million are dairy cows. The total cow population also includes 30.5 million beef cows (in the strict sense of mature females who have calved), 14 million beef steers (mature males castrated before the ability to reproduce), 15.7 million beef heifers (mature females who have never calved), and 26.5 million calves.

Beef is available in a wide variety of cuts that can fulfill many different recipe needs. The different cuts range in texture and tenderness as well as in fat content. The leanest cuts of beef are taken from the back leg bone, called the round bone. These include eye of round, top round, and bottom round. These cuts are the leanest (most muscular) because the cow uses its back legs as its primary means of movement. The underbelly, including rib, ribeye, spare rib, and brisket, is the site of the fattiest cuts.

The term "grass-fed" was only officially applied to beef by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) in 2007. Producers of grass-fed beef are not required to comply with the USDA standards, unless they want to display the USDA grass-fed shield on their product labeling.

Standards for displaying the USDA's grass-fed shield have been controversial. In order to qualify for the shield, producers of grass-fed beef only need to make continuous access to pasture available during the growing season (the period of time between average final frost and the average subsequent first frost). This guideline allows for potential confinement of grass-fed cows during the rest of the year. Producers of grass-fed beef may also display the shield while allowing their cows to consume corn, wheat, and other grains, but only if those grains are foraged and/or harvested for silage in their vegetative state before they have reached the mature seed stage of growth. Many different types of forage are permitted under the USDA labeling guidelines, including annual grasses, perennial grasses, legumes, Brassica vegetables, "browse" (the leaves of woody plants like shrubs) and seeds (except for the seeds of grains).

The American Grassfed Association (AGA) and The American Food Alliance (AFA) are organizations that offer alternative certification for grass-fed beef. AFA and AGA requirements for use of grass-fed labeling are stricter than USDA requirements. In particular, they require a much smaller period of confinement not to exceed 30 days per calendar year. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA honors both AGA and AFA grass-fed labels and automatically allows beef producers who have qualified for the AGA/AFA labels to display the USDA shield. So when you see the AGA or AFA certifications, you can also be sure that your beef meets the USDA grass-fed standards.

This is what the American Grassfed Association label looks like:

This is what the American Food Alliance label looks like:

As presented as a "BEST CHOICE" recommendation in our chart at the beginning of this food profile, we recommend that you purchase grass-fed beef that displays the USDA shield, the AGA label, the AFA label, or another grass-fed label issued by a certifying agency with similar standards for the grass-feeding of cows. One of our main reasons for this recommendation involves "finishing." We have seen many beef products that use the words "grass-fed" even though the cows involved were only "finished" on pasture. "Finished" is the term used by the beef industry for the feeding of cows during the last 2-3 months prior to slaughter. This period of time has no legal definition and can sometimes vary more widely. Prior to "finishing," a cow may have experienced little or no pasture feeding. When not at pasture, cows are typically confined to feedlots and fed a mixture of concentrates, protein supplements, silages and forages, often combined together in products called total mixed rations (TMRs). "Concentrates" are nutrient-dense composite feeds, often containing corn meal, corn gluten, barley, molasses, citrus pulp, soy protein, urea, and other components.

There is yet another reason why we recommend certified versus non-certified grass-fed beef. From our perspective, grass feeding is not simply a question of what a cow puts into his or her mouth. It's more a question about the lifestyle that is natural for cows, involving exercise and fresh air and plant food that would naturally be available in their environment. Grass-fed certifying organizations have often paid attention to these factors and have established standards that attempt address these factors in varying degrees.

History

Cows may have first been domesticated as early as 7000-8000 BC, beginning in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers which eventually came to be known as Mesopotamia. Several thousand years later, there is evidence of domestication in China, Korea, and Mongolia, as well as northern Africa. It was not only the meat, milk, and blood of cows that cultures found valuable but also their ability to serve as draft animals which could help with plowing, trampling grain, powering grind wheels, pulling logs, and transporting carts and wagons. Today, the word "oxen" is typically used to refer to castrated male cows that are used for work purposes.

Columbus brought cattle on his second voyage to North America in 1493, and it's clear that when Columbus helped found Spanish colonies in Hispaniola in the Caribbean that expanded over the next decades, cattle herds played a key role in the viability of the colonies. Cows were present in the colony of Jamestown by 1611, and many European colonists came to own cows over the course of the 17th century.

As mentioned previously, the present-day size of the cow population in the U.S. is close to 100 million, including some 60 million cows being raised for beef. Annual per person beef consumption in the U.S. peaked at 184 pounds per person (almost exactly 1/2 pound per day) in 2004 and now averages approximately 166 pounds, or about 10% less over a period of about 10 years.

How to Select and Store

When you are at the grocery store, purchase raw meats last. Since raw meats may contaminate other grocery items, keep fresh meats apart from other items. Put raw meat packages in a plastic bag, so juices won't drip onto other foods. If it will take you more than an hour to get home, pack raw meats in an ice chest, and keep the ice chest in the passenger area of the car during warm weather. Take meats straight home to the refrigerator or freezer.

There are a few clues you can look for that will help you choose fresher quality beef. Always examine the sell-by date on the label and choose the beef with the latest date. The muscle portion of the meat should be a red or purplish color and not brown, which is a signal that the meat has been excessively exposed to oxygen and is spoiled. Purchase beef that has the least amount of fat. As previously explained, the leanest cuts of beef are taken from the back leg bone, called the round bone. These include eye of round, top round, and bottom round. These cuts are the leanest (most muscular) because the cow uses its back legs as its primary means of movement. The round is your best cut for lean, low-fat beef. Other lean cuts of beef include strip steak and flank steak. While some website include sirloin and T-bone in the lean cut category, these cuts are usually about 30-50% higher in total fat.

If you are purchasing ground beef, you are most likely to find labeling that reads, "Fat not to exceed 15%" or a similar statement with a different percentage, for example "12%" or "10%" or in some rare cases "5%." Percent fat labels are both confusing and misleading, because these percentages do not refer to percent of calories but to percent of the product by weight.

Ground beef that is 15% fat by weight is actually 55% fat in terms of calories, and ground beef that is 10% fat by weight gets 44% of its calories from fat. Both types of ground beef exceed the fat content that we recommend. Please note that 5% ground beef brings the percent fat from calories down to approximately 25%, and that's a level makes sense to us.

Unfortunately, however, we almost never see ground beef in groceries that is labeled "Fat not to exceed 5%." For this reason, we recommend taking a lean cut of pre-packaged beef with the amount you wish to purchase from the meat section, bringing it to the in-store butcher, and requesting that it be ground for you. (Remember that lean cuts include top round, bottom round, eye of round, strip, and flank.) Alternatively, you could ask an in-store butcher to grind up whatever amount of lean beef you want from beef that has yet to be packaged and displayed for purchase.

Whenever possible, we recommend that you purchase not only certified grass-fed beef, but also certified organic beef. Certified organic beef is much less likely to expose you to unwanted pesticide, antibiotic, or hormone residues and it is also illegal for certified organic beef to have been genetically modified or irradiated.

Since beef is highly perishable, it should always be kept at cold temperatures, either refrigerated or frozen. Refrigerate the beef in the original store packaging, if it is still intact and secure, as this will reduce the amount of handling involved. Length of storage varies with the cut of beef as larger pieces will have a longer shelf life than pieces with increased surface area. Ground beef will keep for about one to two days, steaks for two to three days, and roasts for three to four days.

If you have more beef than you can use within this period of time, you can freeze it in a cold temperature freezer. Using freezer paper, wrap the beef carefully so that it is as tightly packaged as possible. Ground beef should be able to keep for two to three months, while steaks should keep for about six months.

How to Enjoy

A Few Quick Serving Ideas

Safety

Risk of Contamination

Over the past 15 years, over 250 million pounds of beef have been recalled for contamination reasons by food companies and meat packers across the United States. The largest single recall affected more than 10,000 supermarkets, restaurants, retailers, school districts, and other establishments. Well-known companies like ConAgra have been involved in some of the largest recalls. Several hundred cases of illness and seven deaths were documented over this time period in association with contaminated beef.

By far the most problematic of the beef contaminants has been the bacterium E. coli 0157:H7. Seven different strains of E.coli have been involved in contamination problems (including EPEC, ETEC, EIEC, EAEC, VTEC, DAEC, and NTEC). Contamination has been detected in a variety of different settings, including pre-slaughter, processing and packing, distribution, retail handling, retail cooking, and home storage. One recent study has predicted that over 99% of all beef contamination could be prevented by a combination of comprehensive and aggressive sanitation steps during all stages of the beef production process. These sanitation steps would include more effective use of vaccines, antibiotics, and probiotics prior to slaughter; more consistent use of carcass washes, acid spray chill, and steam pasteurization during processing; improved freezing and chilling during packing and distribution; improved consumer handling and storing post-purchase; and better cooking temperature control in homes and restaurants. However, these pre-processing, processing, and post-processing steps do not adequately address contamination problems in the minds of many experts familiar with beef industry practices. In their view, contamination with micro-organisms like E. coli is inextricably tied to the unnatural habitat and lifestyle in which beef cattle are required to participate.

Irradiation of Beef

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved irradiation of beef in December 1997 following problematic recall of 25 million pounds of beef processed through the Columbus, Nebraska beef packing plant owned by the Hudson Foods Company in Rogers, Arkansas. The beef had become contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. (The Nebraska packing plant had originally been established to supply beef exclusively for Burger King restaurants beginning in 1995.) Irradiation of beef effectively kills micro-organisms (including E. coli 0157:H7) that may be present in the beef. Raw beef is typically passed along a conveyor belt and very briefly exposed to gamma irradiation from in the range of 4.5-7.0kGy. While radioactive isotopes of cobalt-60 or cesium-137 have traditionally been used as sources of irradiation, electron beam irradiation and x-ray irradiation are also possible. In practice, few facilities in the U.S. commonly irradiate large amounts of beef, and approximately 5-10% of all U.S. beef is currently irradiated. When prepackaged and sold by retail groceries, irradiated beef is required by the FDA to carry a label that includes this radura symbol.

Like contamination with micro-organisms like E. coli , many experts who are knowledgeable about the beef industry question the appropriateness of irradiation from radioactive isotopes, electron beams or x-rays as a solution to problems with beef contamination problems. In their view, potentially contaminated beef should be removed from the marketplace rather than irradiated for future consumption.

Excessive Greenhouse Gases Released During Beef Production

The potential contribution of commercial beef production to global warming is a further concern for many individuals who try to evaluate the appropriateness of beef in their diet. Manure from commercial beef feedlots is a primary contributor to release of methane gas into the atmosphere from the agricultural sector of the U.S. economy, and along with carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, methane gas is one of the primary problematic greenhouse gases (GHGs) that has been increasing at an unhealthy rate in the earth's atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is a second GHG that has been tracked to commercial beef production due to heavy use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers used in the production of feedstuffs for beef cattle. One of the reasons we recommend grass-fed beef involves the ability of grass feeding to help offset GHG release by reducing atmosphere carbon dioxide. (When pastures are filled with green plants, these plants can take in significant amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide and help lower the level of this GHG in the environment.)

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. Read detailed information on our
Food and Recipe Rating System.

Beef, grass-fed, strip steak, cooked
4.00 oz
113.40 grams
Calories: 175
GI: very low
NutrientAmountDRI/DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
vitamin B121.44 mcg606.2very good
protein26.16 g525.4very good
vitamin B37.60 mg484.9very good
omega-3 fats1.10 g464.7very good
vitamin B60.74 mg444.5very good
selenium23.93 mcg444.5very good
zinc4.09 mg373.8very good
phosphorus240.40 mg343.5very good
choline73.82 mg171.8good
pantothenic acid0.77 mg151.6good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DRI/DV>=75% OR
Density>=7.6 AND DRI/DV>=10%
very good DRI/DV>=50% OR
Density>=3.4 AND DRI/DV>=5%
good DRI/DV>=25% OR
Density>=1.5 AND DRI/DV>=2.5%

References

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