When it comes to red meat, quality is crucial. In search of top notch beef, most health conscious consumers look for a "grass-fed" label. But to select the best burgers, steaks, and jerky, here's what you really need to know.
First things first, grass-fed beef is better for you
It's much leaner than its conventional counterpart. It's also higher in key nutrients, including antioxidants, vitamins, and a beneficial fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that's been tied to improved immunity and anti-inflammation benefits. Plus, grass-fed beef packs about 50% more omega-3 fatty acids than standard beef (although the amount is still far lower than the total omega-3s found in fatty fish like salmon). Grass-fed beef is also less likely to contain “superbugs”—bacteria that have become resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics—so it’s considered superior from a food safety perspective as well.
But "grass-fed" doesn’t have an official definition
There's no USDA marketing standard for grass-fed meat, and independent certifications have varying criteria. To true proponents of grass-fed meat, the label indicates that the cattle have only been fed their mother's milk and grass and other greens throughout their lives; and they've had access to pastures during the growing season. But because there's no standard, meat labeled as "grass-fed" could potentially be from cattle that only spent a relatively short time eating grass. When possible, look for a label that says “100% grass-fed.”
And grass-fed isn't the same as organic
The USDA standards for organic beef specify that the animals cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics; and that they must be given access to the outdoors, and organic, vegetarian feed. However, that feed can include grains, which aren't part of a cow's natural diet. It is possible to find beef that’s both grass-fed and organic. And while I don’t personally eat red meat, that is what I recommend to my clients who do. But it tends to be pricey, typically $8 to $12 per pound.
It's worth finding out how specific farms operate
For example, if you’re buying from a farmer’s market, ask if the cows are given any hormones or antibiotics, and if their grass or greens are organic. If you’re purchasing a particular brand in a store, pull out your phone and visit their website, which should provide the same kind of info.
There are healthier ways to eat red meat
Remember that moderation is important. Because of the link between red meat and colorectal cancer, the American Institute for Cancer Research suggests capping your weekly intake at 18 ounces. If you typically enjoy a three-ounce serving of cooked beef (about the size of a deck of cards), that means six servings a week. But keep in mind that half-pound burgers are eight ounces, and steaks are generally larger.
Finally, be sure to pair your red meat with nutrient-rich whole foods. So instead of piling cheese and bacon on your burger in a white flour bun, wrap the meat in romaine leaves, and top with tomato, red onion, and avocado. Then serve it with even more veggies (vinegar-based slaw, for example, or broccoli sautéed in EVOO) and a healthy starch, like a side of black beans or a baked sweet potato. These kinds of combos are the best way to enjoy grass-fed beef as part of an overall healthy eating pattern, which is key to disease prevention and wellness.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her newest book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.