You may get confused about what you’re buying when you read food labels on beef products. Organic and grass-fed beef products usually come with a heftier price tag, but are they worth the cost for you and your family? Take a look at the differences between conventional, organic, and grass-fed beef to get a better picture of what you’re paying for.
Conventional beef, or feedlot beef, is the product of what the regulated food industry refers to as Animal Feeding Operations (AFO) or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). Conventional beef cows consume a diet that ranges from high quality cereal grains such as corn or soybeans, to high and low quality fibrous feeds such as legume hays; grass hays and mixtures of legumes and grasses; and other food byproducts that may include mammalian or poultry by-products. They don’t necessarily have access to pasture, but may have had access during grazing season depending on the producer.
Organic beef differs from conventional beef cows in diet, access to pasture during grazing season, and the nature of pasture land. The National Organic Program allows organic cows to consume 100% organic plant-based feed including corn, hay, grass, and the like. Organic beef cows graze on pastures that have not been treated with pesticides. Additionally, organic beef cows receive no antibiotics, hormones, or animal by-products in their feed.
100% Grass-fed cows are treated much like organic beef cows, but they only eat grass and forage. The USDA grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticide use on pastureland. Cows have continuous access to pasture during the growing season and routine mineral and vitamin supplementation is also included. There is no regulation against confinement during “finishing.” Grass-fed beef bearing the American Grass fed Association (AGA) label has stricter guidelines. You may also see beef labeled as organic grass-fed. These products align with the rules of both organic and grass-fed regulations. So you know, free-range, pasture-raised, humane, and other labels are not regulated by the USDA.
A 3-oz. cooked serving of conventional 90% lean beef is just 184 calories, over 22 grams of protein, and a great source of vitamin B12, zinc, and iron. Yet, when it comes to grass-fed and organic beef, these options are a bit more nutritious-emphasis on “a bit.” Grass-fed and organic beef is known to be higher in “good” fats like Omega-3, lower in “bad” fats and higher in vitamins and antioxidants. This is partially due to the different diets they are fed. That is, the more grain fed the cow, the less Omega-3, Vitamin E and Beta-carotene in its meat. The vitamin and mineral supplementation that some organic and grass-fed beef are fed may also be a boost to the meat’s nutritional value.
The biggest difference in nutritional value is found in the amount of Conjugated Lineolic Acid (CLA) which is naturally found in whole dairy and beef products. CLA has been linked to anti-cancer and fat-fighting properties in animal testing. Multiple studies have found inconsistent results in humans, but more of this healthy fat can’t hurt, of course as long as calories are kept in check. Conventional beef provides about 10% of the recommended daily value, while grass-fed beef comes in at around 25% of the daily value.
The Bottom Line
Whether you choose conventional, grass-fed, or organic is a personal choice based on ethical, environmental, financial, and other concerns. No matter which you choose, the best beef from a calorie counting perspective comes down to going lean. To cut down on total, saturated fat, and calories, choose 90% to 95% lean. It may be hard to find and quite expensive to buy organic, 100% grass-fed, extra lean beef, so make compromises based on what is realistic for you and your budget.