The Benefits of Grass Fed Products
When you choose to eat grass fed animal products, you are making a lifestyle choice that is better for your mind and body, and for the animal population. Grass-feeding and pasture-raising allows us to feel closer to the foods we eat and their natural environment.
We generally choose to consume pasture-raised animal products, such as beef and dairy, for two main reasons. The first is ethical, as grass feeding increases the quality of life of the animals. The second is health-related, as consuming healthier animals is better for our bodies.
Grass feeding refers to allowing cattle and herd animals to eat from natural grasses in pastures, as opposed to eating processed feed and grains in feed lots. It should be especially noted that grass fed products can provide nutritional benefits for the people who consume them. For example, some grass fed animal products contain fatty acids and antioxidants which are particularly beneficial for heart health.
Grass feeding is not a new trend. It marks a reversion to the original management of animal diets. All cattle were pasture-raised before the increasing demand of the meat and dairy industries incentivized industrialized production and the use of feedlots.
However, for all the benefits of grass feeding, there are a few issues worth mentioning in regards to the production of grass fed products.
– The first is that reputable 100 percent grass fed meat and dairy products can be very hard to source through national chains. People will most likely need to purchase them from local farms, butchers, or markets that carry local agricultural products.
– The second is that grass fed animals prove to be no better for the environment than the rest of the meat industry, raising questions about sustainability.
What Does It Mean to Be Grass Fed
Grass fed animals have grazed in pastures for their food year-round, eating grasses and forage. The nutrients from natural grasses improve the quality of their meat and dairy products. The improvements are not all taste-related, either. On the whole, grass feeding allows animal products to have lower levels of fat and higher amounts of vitamins and antioxidants.
It is important to note that grass fed animal products are in a class of their own, and should not be confused with organic products. Certified organic animal products help lower the risk of contaminated feed by prohibiting the use of dangerous pesticides. They also usually have a higher nutrient count and nutrient quality because of the differences in organic ground cover.
But organic certification does not guarantee a natural lifestyle or diet for the animals involved. And vice versa, not all grass fed animals are raised on organic farms.
The Extent of Grass Feeding
When we talk about grass feeding, we are referring to a group of animals called ruminants. These are animals that naturally graze and browse, meaning they eat grasses and whatever twigs and leaves they find in a pasture setting.
Their quality of life and overall health depends on access to pasture, fresh air, and a high-quality diet of greens. Beef cattle and dairy cows make up the largest percentage of the ruminant population, but bison, sheep, and goats are also included.
Ruminants have four-chamber digestive systems that have evolved to process plants with high-fiber and low-starch plant content. Eating grains such as corn can cause them to be unhealthy.
Most of the animals on the conventional meat market are grain-finished, getting fed grain after a certain point in their development to hasten weight gain and increase milk production.
In addition, most of the animals raised for food are confined indoors or contained in crowded feedlots. About 80 percent of milk cows in the U.S. are kept indoors, and they eat primarily soy, corn, hay, and grain to increase milk production at the risk of their health.
Grass fed animals are less likely to suffer from gastrointestinal disorders, such as acidosis. They are also less likely to have liver abscesses. In fact, grain fed cattle are often given antibiotics to treat liver problems and heal liver damage caused by eating grain.
However, a grain-free, grass fed diet would prevent these liver problems in the first place.
The Nitty-Gritty of What Grass Fed Animals Eat
According to the AGA and similar certification providers, grass fed animals may eat:
– Both annual and perennial varieties of grass
– Forbs, which refers to herbaceous flowering plants, such as legumes and brassica
– Browse, in other words, leaves and twigs
– Certain cereal grain crops but only while they are still in their pre-grain, vegetative state
– Silage, which refers to grass and other greens that have been harvested, stored in an airtight container without drying, and fermented
– Hay, haylage, and baleage, or in other words the silage made from partially dried grasses
– Crop residue without grain, and other roughage sources
Grass fed animals may also receive routine vitamin and mineral supplementation.
How Do I Know It’s Really Grass Fed?
A Little Backstory
In January of 2012, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revoked the grass fed label standards that had been in place since 2006, despite widespread consumer and farmer support for the standards. Prior to 2012, the national standards required 99 percent of ruminants’ diets to consist of grass, forbs, and forage. The standards were revoked because of the possibility that farms that passed the AMS standards could then, in some cases, fail inspection by their partner organization the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).
In response, the American Grassfed AGA expressed concern that “grassfed will become just another feel-good marketing ploy used by the major meatpackers to dupe consumers into buying mass-produced, grain-fed, feedlot meat.”
This lack of national standardization has created a space and need for private organizations to institute standards and certifications for grass fed animal products. Some of these certifications are reputable, but they exist alongside untrustworthy labeling about grass feeding.
Beware False Claims
So what does that mean for you? Grass fed animal products are a niche market without a lot of industry standardization for labeling. You can’t rely on the USDA Process Verified labeling, because at this point it allows farmers to create their own claims.
This means that it only really verifies the standards that farmers choose to set for themselves. Self-report standards make it possible for 25 percent grass fed beef and 100 percent grass fed beef to be packaged under the same label and sold at higher prices without distinction.
In addition, the USDA-verified process is only concerned with what animals eat and does not ask whether they have access to pastures and grazing. Animals under this certification may still be confined indoors or in small spaces.
The best case scenario for buying true grass fed beef is to know your farmer. So when you have the opportunity, try to get to know the people producing your food. Some local farms welcome visitors or mention on their website what farmers’ markets they will attend. Ask them whether they use antibiotics, whether they feed with grain or grass, and whether they allow their cows access to pastureland.
Look for These Labels
As mentioned above, the overturning of the USDA grass fed standards has led to the development of private standards and certification among agricultural groups that wish to impose strict standards to the raising and selling of grass fed animals. Here are some labels that you can rely on:
PCO Certified 100% Grassfed: This seal means that the animal in question was raised on a certified organic farm and ate grass and forage without any grain. The certified organic regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics, hormones, and other supplements intended to promote growth. The pasture was not treated with synthetic herbicides, GMOs, including alfalfa and more. The PCO certification requires an on-farm inspection.
American Grassfed (AGA): This certification requires that the animal in question be fed only grass and forage from weaning. It was raised on a pasture without confinement or feedlots. It was never treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. Farms are audited annually by independent third parties to ensure that standards are met.
Certified Grassfed by AGW: A Greener World certification requires environmental sustainability. Under this certification, animals producing meat or dairy consumed 100 percent grass and forage-based diets. Certification is only obtained along with an Animal Welfare Approved label and requires on-farm inspection.
NOFA-NY Certified 100% Grass Fed: The Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York certifies that the animal in question was raised on a certified organic farm and has not eaten any grain throughout their life. The pasture could not have been treated with synthetic herbicides, GMOs, including alfalfa among others. Organic regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics, hormones, and growth supplements. This seal requires on-farm inspection.
These certifications are most prevalent in beef sales. The FDA, which oversees the labeling of dairy products, does not set a standard for products that make a grass fed claim on their labels. Many of the above organizations, such as the AGW, PCO, and the AGA, also certify dairy. Nonetheless, if a dairy label does not certify 100 percent grass fed, then the diet of the cows that produced those dairy products could have been somewhat or primarily grain-based. Such claims are only substantiated by certifications like the ones above.
The Price Margin on Grass Fed Products
You may notice that grass fed beef is more expensive than other beef on the market. There are many reasons for this due to the sustainable nature of grass feeding. When you buy certified grass fed beef, you’re not just paying for a label, nor are you simply paying more for health benefits. The higher cost of grass-feeding means higher production costs for the farmers.
It can take a farmer up to a year longer to grow grass fed cattle to maturity than the conventional two years for a grain-finished cow. This is because the conventionally-raised cattle are given growth hormones and grain to make them grow more quickly and to larger sizes. Grass fed cattle cost a farmer one extra year of food, care, and labor. Additionally, grass fed farms generally raise fewer cattle to allow for room for roaming, and grass fed cattle tend to be smaller when it comes time to slaughter, meaning less meat to sell per head.
Environmental Response to Grass Fed Production
Environmental concerns about grass feeding in the beef industry tend to go in many directions. Those that are for grass feeding find ample environmental justification for it. That being said, those that are against grass feeding also have support from scientific studies.
This is because none of the studies are definitive on the issue, and not enough research has been done for there to be a consensus.
The Water Footprint of Pasture-Raising
In general, beef has the highest water footprint of agricultural products. The amount can be astonishing when we consider that agriculture accounts for 92 percent of the freshwater footprint of humanity. The beef industry alone uses 1800 gallons of water per pound of beef produced.
While even pasture-raised animals have a high water footprint, it can mostly be classified as a green water footprint, indicating that it comes from rainwater. When it comes to a water footprint, pasture-raising can be greener and better for the environment than conventional cattle raising methods. Pastures get most of their water from natural rain, with surface and groundwater only making up a small portion during drought times. They also have little pollution from runoff and pesticides. Additionally, few cattle populate the roaming area, so manure is better able to fertilize the ground rather than pollute the soil.
The industry predicts an increased demand for beef in the coming decades. Due to this, agricultural scientists are invested in finding technologies to increase beef production and improve nutrient digestion systems. Ideally, these advances would give beef the health and flavor properties of grass fed beef while still allowing the industry to move towards environmental sustainability.
Nonetheless, beef is not environmentally friendly in general, whether we’re talking about cattle raised on grains or grass.
Some aspects of grass feeding may be better for the environment. In many cases, grass fed ruminants use less energy and spread manure more evenly than those that are grain-fed. This means that grass feeding helps to conserve soil from the effects of erosion and to preserve biodiversity in pastures.
Organic cattle farms also reduce the amount of fertilizer and pesticide runoff into waterways. In some cases, the use of composting, cover-cropping, and rotational grazing can have a part in building soil that traps water more efficiently. Certain grazing patterns and pasture management may also help carbon sequestration, a natural process by which the pasture itself draws greenhouse gases from the air and stores them in the soil.
Ultimately, grass fed beef, due to its inability to create the necessary supply for the increasing demand, is no better for the environment than the conventional meat industry.
Cattle continue to produce methane emissions. This means that individual grass fed farms might produce fewer emissions, but the demand is not limited to the production of those individual farms. Since grass fed farms do not produce fewer emissions per cow, they cannot be considered eco-friendly.
One study even shows that beef that has been raised using feedlots and growth hormones has a lower carbon footprint than grass fed beef. Due to their longer life-spans, the average grass fed cow has a larger carbon footprint than the average grain-fed cow.
What Are the Benefits of Grass Fed Products?
Products from grass fed animals tend to be leaner with less fat content. Nutritionists will be the first to tell you that not all fats are bad for you. There are some fats that the body needs and even craves. Fortunately, grass fed animals are more plentiful in many of the best fats for your body. These dairy and meat products also to be richer in omega-3 fats, beta-carotene, and CLA. Here’s what we mean by all that:
– CLA is short for conjugated linoleic acid, a fat associated with many positive health benefits. The amount of CLA available in grass fed products increases based on the cow’s consumption of fresh grasses. CLA offers immune and inflammatory support, improved bone mass, improved blood sugar regulation, reduced body fat, efficient muscle storage, reduced risk of heart attack, and the maintenance of lean body mass. Researchers are also beginning to look into CLA as a reducer of cancer and tumor risk.
– Omega-3 fatty acids, such as ALA, EPA, and DHA, are polyunsaturated fats that the body needs by cannot produce and therefore needs to obtain through eating. These essential nutrients prevent and manage heart disease. Our body uses ALA for energy and the other two Omega-3s EPA and DHA. EPA makes sure that our inflammatory system functions properly by allowing the cells to signal and communicate, and it can reduce the risk of excessive inflammation. DHA ensures that our nervous system functions well.
– Beta-carotene is an antioxidant that protects the cells from free radical damage to DNA. Beta-carotene is being studied and researched as a potential cancer prevention aid. When paired with vitamin E, beta-carotene can become a powerful cancer fighter.
Benefits of Grass Fed Beef
Grass fed beef is not only better for the body, but studies show that higher concentrations of naturally occurring chemical compounds called diterpenoids and chlorophyll derivatives have enhanced flavor and aroma profiles. In other words, the meat of cattle that eat fresh greens tends to have a stronger aroma and flavor. Some people call it a gamey flavor, while others find it to be enjoyable and perfect for the grill.
Leaner Than Conventional Beef
Grass fed beef is rich in improved fatty acids (such as Omega-3) and antioxidants. Most cuts of grass fed beef can offer 500 to 800 milligrams of CLA per four ounces. It also has nutrients such as Vitamin E, which is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and cancer, and may have anti-aging properties. It also contains beta-carotene, as well as Vitamins B and B12.
In addition to better fats, the fat content of grass fed beef is altogether lower than that of conventional grain-fed cattle, therefore lowering its caloric content as well. It is estimated that someone switching from conventional beef to grass fed beef will experience a 22 to 39 percent decrease in cholesterol.
Benefits of Grass Fed Milk and Dairy
Most of the data that is available on grass fed versus grain-fed products is based on data from cows’ milk, which can differ widely from other ruminants. Since grass fed dairy products are made from grass fed milk, it can be helpful to evaluate the potential benefits of products such as yogurt, butter, and cheese by looking at the fat content of grass fed-milk.
The certification processes of grass fed dairy cows are more recently developed than those of beef cattle. Grass fed dairy cows are not given the hormones that are prevalent in the conventional dairy industry. This decreases their potential milk output. The diets of dairy cows are strategically managed for them to be able to produce milk 80 percent of the year for 6-10 years. Certification providers, such as the AGA, conduct farm visits to ensure that dairy cows are 100 percent grass fed. These visits also ensure that the cows are humanely treated.
Breakdown of Fat Content in Grass Fed Cow’s Milk
In grass fed cow’s milk, you can expect about eight grams of fat per eight ounces of whole milk. Most farmers of grass fed products recommend consuming whole milk since it is the least processed form of milk with the most omega-3s and key nutrients.
Two grams of that fat (about 25 percent) are from monounsaturated fat contained in oleic acid. This is the same fatty acid primarily found in olive oil. When oleic acid replaces other forms of fat, it can be linked to reductions in high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
About 4.5 grams of fat (or about 56 percent) come from saturated fats. While many of us have been trained to worry about our saturated fat intake, this number shouldn’t make you panic. About half of these are short-chain saturated fats which can have probiotic benefits. The other half are medium-chain, like those you might find in coconut oil. These are easy for the body to digest and metabolize.
Only 20-30 percent of these fats are palmitic acid, which are the fats that are associated with heart disease in large quantities.
Cow’s Milk and Healthy Fats
The amount of Omega-3s in grass fed cow’s milk depends on the amount of forage crops that are in the pasture. These forage crops may grow naturally in the pastures, or farmers may purposely plant them for their nutritional value. This means that a dairy cow’s milk’s Omega-3 content depends on the seasonal plant cycle of the pastures. During the winter, even grass fed dairy cows primarily eat silage, meaning that milk which is harvested during this time may have decreased levels of Omega-3s.
The Omega-3 content of a cow’s milk is also determined by the age, breed, and health of the cow in question. Fortunately, grass fed cows tend to be healthier than conventionally fed animals, since they consume no grains, and therefore maintain healthier digestive systems. On the lower end of the spectrum, you can expect grass fed cow’s milk to contain 60-65 mg of ALA per eight ounces of milk. On the higher end of the spectrum, expect 120-150 mg per eight ounces. Depending on a herd’s resource of fresh grasses, you can also count on about 75 mg of CLA per eight ounces of grass fed cow’s milk.
Additionally, grass fed cow’s milk contains lower ratios of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats. This means you could get two or three Omega-6 fats to every one Omega-3 fat instead of the eight Omega-6 to every Omega-3 you would get from conventionally fed cows. Omega-6 fatty acids are essential to health, but eating too many Omega-6 fatty acids increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, inflammatory disease, and cancer. Omega-6 fatty acids are most abundant in animals fed high-grain diets and vegetable oils.
Vitamins and Minerals in Grass Fed Cow’s Milk
Some of the prevalent vitamins and minerals found in grass fed cow’s milk include vitamins B2 and B12 (riboflavin), iodine, phosphorus, calcium, protein, antioxidants. These nutrients help to support strong bodies through aiding cell regeneration and providing cardiovascular support. Beta-carotene is also found in grass fed cows milk. Grass feeding and grass silage has been measured to increase the beta-carotene content of cow’s milk to about 40 micrograms per eight ounces. While this may seem minuscule, it is actually four times the amount found in conventional cow’s milk.
Benefits of Grass Fed Butter
Butter is full of saturated fats, and no amount of grass feeding will change that. While we can look at grass fed beef as leaner than its grain fed equivalent, grass fed butter is almost pure dairy fat, so grass feeding does not lower the fat or caloric content. What grass feeding does do for butter is make it richer and more nutritious.
Grass fed butter is richer in fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins, such as:
– Vitamin A, which strengthens the teeth, skeleton mucus membranes, and skin. This leads to good vision, including low-light vision, and increased endocrine system function.
– Vitamin E, which acts as an antioxidant to protect the cells from free radical damage.
– Vitamin K2, which improves heart health by keeping calcium out of the arteries.
– Butyric acid, which is an anti-inflammatory fatty acid that can help with heart health.
– Arachidonic Acids (ARA), which aid cell signaling function to help increase immune responses in the body.
Like many grass fed products, grass fed butter is higher in CLA than its conventional alternative, especially when it comes from animals that have access to fresh grasses in the pasture.
Benefits of Grass Fed Yogurt
For many people, yogurt is the healthiest choice that grass fed dairy offers. This is because yogurts, such as probiotic yogurts and Greek-style yogurts, are already bursting with digestive benefits, including increased metabolic efficiency. It’s great for people who are looking for more energy or stability in their diet.
These yogurts can also decrease your total blood cholesterol while increasing HDL, commonly known as “good cholesterol.” Additionally, probiotic yogurts contain sphingolipids, a fat that plays an important part in cell signaling to promote overall healing and cardiovascular health.
Grass fed yogurt is likely to have even more CLA content than grass fed milk since the lactic acid bacteria which ferment the milk into yogurt also convert some of the milk’s fatty acids into CLA. This is particularly true of whole milk yogurt since lower fat yogurts can’t promise the same increased CLA content.
Grass fed probiotic yogurt can provide powerful benefits to those who are prediabetic by offering protein balances to help to slow the absorption of blood sugar. A daily intake of at least three ounces per day of grass fed yogurt can help decrease the risk of type two diabetes through improved digestive function and through introducing healthy bacteria into the gut which can help to increase someone’s metabolism. Additionally, two cups per week of yogurt can help to increase bone health and, more specifically, protect from hip fractures.
Combining grass fed dairy products with the control of an at-home yogurt making machine is a winning combination!
Summary: Pro and Cons of Eating Grass Fed Products
The pros and cons of eating grass fed products have hard hitters on both sides. Grass fed animal products are undeniably better for you. They contain increased amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids, CLAs, and Beta-carotenes. They also provide vitamins and nutrients that generally come from eating greens. By most reports, grass fed cattle and dairy cows are also considered to be happier, since they do not suffer the diseases that come from grain-feeding and they are allowed room to roam as nature intended.
The major drawback of eating grass fed cattle is the same issue that plagues the beef industry as a whole. Methane emissions from cattle are classified as greenhouse gases that are hurting the environment and contributing to climate change. And the demand for beef outweighs the production ability of pasture-raising farms.
Reputable certifications have allowed us to be confident when buying 100 percent grass fed products. But it can be hard to track these down, and the knock-offs aren’t worth the cost.
Eating grass fed animal products is a great choice for someone who buys at a farmers’ market or who can talk to local farmers about how they raise their animals. Though others might need to seek out certified grass fed products at specialty stores, the health benefits still allow this to be a satisfying lifestyle choice.
The Groom+Style Team hope that you have learned something from our investigations and that you will make the right decision for you and your family as to whether to seek out grass fed products in the future. Do you have any questions? If so, please leave a comment below. If you are interested in learned more about animal and environmentally friendly products, consider taking a look at our green cleaning infographic and article.