Who doesn't love a good steak? There is just something about biting into a large chunk of red meat that resonates with our ancestry and makes our salivary glands overflow with drool with the mere anticipation of devouring it. That little crunch as you bite into nicely seared crust on the outside, followed by a mouthful of moist and tender meat on the inside could be classified as pure bliss. I eat a lot of chicken. In fact I have been known to clear out the entire poultry section at the grocery store in one swipe to get my protein for the week, and people give me funny looks like I belong on that hoarders show on A & E when I arrive at the checkout with carts overflowing with frozen chicken breasts. "2012" I say with a straight face which normally sees them pull their children closer and run off leaving their change behind. But sometimes, chicken just aint gonna cut it, and I like to throw a nice piece of juicy red meat in my cart to grill up one or twice a week. But what if I told you that the red meat you buy at the supermarket, or order at your local restaurant, could be giving you a range of health benefits, or causing you a myriad of diseases and illnesses as well as making you fat, depending on what the cow was fed? It can, so lets find out why.
A few months back I wrote a post about a documentary I watched called It was an incredibly eye opening insight into the food industry about practices that we had always suspected or heard wives tales about, such as how some food manufacturing farms cut off chicken's beaks, that ended up being true. If you watch it, it will change the way you look at, and think of food. I highly recommend it. One of the sections of the film talks about cows, how they are raised and slaughtered, and what processing happens to the meat before it arrives in that pretty plastic packaging in your grocery store. There is so much that I could talk about on this topic, but today we are going to focus on how the cows are raised, specifically whether they are grass fed or grain fed, what the difference is between the two, and what it means to you...
The definition of grass fed beef is pretty straight forward. It's when the cows are allowed to roam freely and have a diet of grass and foliage, the way nature intended it. Grain fed beef, also known as Feedlot Beef, is where cows are cooped up in feeding lots and force fed grains, such as corn, soy and other by products. Why do food some manufactures grain feed their cattle? Because it is cheaper, and they can force the cow to grow faster by throwing in artificial chemicals and hormones which spurs them to maturity faster, and into your grocery store quicker than if they were fed a grass based diet. There used to be a time when cows would reach the ages of five years old before they were slaughtered for their meat but now food manufactures are growing them so fast that they are slaughtered at the age of one. Back in the 70's, processing plants used to slaughter around 170 cows per hour, where as today this number has ballooned to around 400 per hour to keep up with demand.
So what's wrong with feeding a cow corn, soy and other grains? I mean they are natural products and we eat them with no problems? Well cows weren't meant nor designed to eat and digest corn or other grains. In fact when some cows are switched from an all grass fed to diet to a grain fed diet, their digestive systems fail and develop what's known in the farming community as Feedlot bloat. It's a condition where a part of the stomach inflates due to a build up of gas that can kill the cow suddenly via suffocation due to the stomach pressing against the lungs and respiratory system. In addition to this, the corn and soy that cows are fed are genetically modified, adding further stress to their digestive systems.
But that's not where the problems end. Because of these artificial diets they are being forced to eat, as well of being in cramped in cages and standing in their own manure, their immune systems are suppressed which make them susceptible to a variety of diseases such Polio (specifically known as Feedlot Polio), but more severely, E.Coli. I'm sure you have heard of that one before. Ever switch on the news to hear that certain beef and beef products have been recalled from the supermarket shelves because of an E.Coli breakout? Well this is where it comes from. And if you don't cook that hamburger enough, or like your steak a little rare, and the meat is contaminated, then you are in for some nasty consequences.
The Food Poison Journal states that back in October 31st, 2009 the FSIS issued a notice about a recall of over 500,000 pounds of beef products from Fairbank Farms that may have been contaminated with E.Coli. 26 persons from 11 States were infected, and while that may not seem like a lot of people to some, it can cause anything from severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, to seizers, stroke, comas and death. One of those of 26 people infected died because of E.Coli infection. Ground meat, such as the one you buy in the grocery store, and the kind that makes up hamburger patties, are the most highly contaminated beef products in the United States.
So what do food manufacturers do to combat these diseases and illnesses? No, they don't do the logical thing and put the cows back to pasture on a grass fed diet, that would be too expensive and time consuming silly. They feed the cows antibiotics. Antibiotics that are so overused to combat these illnesses that the bugs that cause them are becoming resistant. Think that doesn't concern you? Well in Europe and other parts of the world, but not here in the US, they have completely banned the use of antibiotics and growth hormone in livestock because studies have shown that residue from these chemicals remain in the meat that ends up on your dinner plate. Yum!
But the risk of diseases and illnesses aren't the only things that set grass fed and grain fed beef apart, and if the above information wasn't enough to convince you, maybe this will. Turns out grain fed beef will actually make you fatter. Yes, you heard me. Fatter. Like bigger belly and thicker thighs fat. When a cow is fed a grain fed diet of corn, they grow faster and put on a lot more fat, and a grain fed steak will have more than double the amount of saturated fat marbled throughout it than a grass fed steak. Lets take a look at a few other grass fed benefits
1. Grass fed beef has less calories than grain fed beef
2. Higher amounts of naturally occurring Omega 3s
3. Higher amounts of CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid) which has been shown to promote fat loss in humans
4. Higher amounts of naturally occurring Vitamin C and E
5. Grass fed cattle has less impact on, and is more beneficial to, the environment.
Now before you go running off to the store to buy grass fed beef, there are a few things you need to be aware of when making your purchase. Not all grass fed beef are the same. Make sure you are purchasing grass fed, organic beef. This ensures that the grass the animal fed on was not fertilized with chemical pesticides. Unfortunately, just because it's grass fed does not mean it hasn't been exposed to these chemicals. On the flip side, if you beef says "organic" that doesn't mean it was grass fed, and most probably were still fed in feedlots. So choose your products wisely and always ask the butcher behind the meat section at the store who are normally more than happy to help.
Grass fed beef also isn't for everyone, as some people are so used to the high fat marbling content of grain fed beef that they find it a little chewy. The other downside is that because the public is only slowly coming around to grass fed beef and therefore the demand isn't all that high yet, it is slightly more expensive. In fact I couldn't find it at my local grocery store, and had to head to Whole Foods where I was blown away be the price, but would prefer to pay a little extra knowing it was better for me.
So before you go chowing down into that burger next time you are wanting a meat fix, or before you order your steak at a restaurant, spend some time to think about where that beef actually came from and how it was fed. Ask your server if it was grass fed, and if not, ask them if they can supply grass fed cuts of beef in the future. Your body, your environment, and maybe even a few four legged friends will thank you for it.