What the hay? Let’s talk beef…

When it comes to nutrition, what may be better for one individual might not be the ideal avenue for someone else. So when delivering nutrition advice it is very important to acknowledge all sides because while sometimes answers to health questions are ‘black and white’, often times we must venture into the ‘grey’ areas for deeper clarity and understanding.

One of my favourite pastimes is researching current health trends and the most talked about food-related topics. A big topic of conversation in the media right now is anything and everything ‘organic’. In this post I have chosen to dive into the subject matter of organic beef and conclude whether or not you should be purchasing organic beef for yourself and/or your family.

There is an abundance of information at your fingertips with a quick Google search, in fast food restaurants’ marketing tactics, or even on supermarket deli packaging. This makes it quite easy for good evidence-based facts to get muddled and become quite confusing, so let’s break it down…

What is organic beef?
First, let’s define what the term ‘organic’ means. For a food to be considered organic it “avoids the use of man-made fertilizers, pesticides; growth regulators and livestock feed additives.Irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or products produced from or by GMOs are generally prohibited by organic legislation.”(1)

In conjunction, you have probably also heard the terms “grass-fed” and “grain-fed” used commonly when discussing meat. To simplify, all cattle start out on grass. Grass-fed cattle remain on a diet of grass for their entire lifetime. Whereas, grain-fed cattle are “finished” on a concentrated grain diet (usually corn) in effort to fatten them up quickly for market.”(2)

It is important to note that just because beef is organic it is not necessarily grass-fed, which is a common assumption.
 Organic grass-fed cattle are given access to pasture; while organic grain-finished cattle are “given organic feed that is free of antibiotics, hormones, synthetic pesticides and herbicides and genetically modified ingredients”.(2) Products sold in Canada are required to be properly labelled. Next time you are at the grocery store be sure to look for these labels.

So is organic beef considered healthier?
By eating organic beef you are theoretically lowering the amount of chemicals you ingest through your diet. A research study conducted in Spain tested the pollutant levels in both organic and non-organic meat. While the organic samples were lower in contaminants, the actual difference was numerically very minimal.(3)

There are definitely some nutrient value advantages in organic grass-fed beef when compared to grain-fed. University of Toronto Nutritional Sciences professor Dr. Richard Bazinet compared the fatty acids in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Turns out that grass-fed beef is higher in ALA and CLA content. However, when beef is cooked this value difference becomes insignificant since the omega-3 fatty acids (ALA and CLA) are found in the fat of the meat.

Final verdict
It can get tricky to decipher the best/better option. It truly comes down to personal choice. Now your choice may be influenced by several factors or it could be primarily one. Factors which play into consumer choice include economic situation, ethical feelings towards animal treatment, environmental impact, and nutrition.

It is believed by health professionals such as Registered Dietician Kerri Glassman, that “meat from cows that graze freely on grass for their entire lives is the best for your health, thanks to a healthier fat profile and more antioxidants. Most (not all) grass-fed beef is also organic, which is even better, since you know the cattle are eating pure, pesticide-free grass.”(5) Though in reality the production timeline for grass-fed beef is much longer (approximately six to 12 months longer)(2) and requires extra labor which is why these cuts of meat are pricier than grain-fed beef. In our fast-paced world of over 7.5 billion people(6); while organic grass-fed beef might be the most environmentally sustainable option it is most definitely not the most economical or efficient method for keeping up with human demand.

If the environmental practices and humane treatment of the cattle is important and the higher prices are a non-factor than the organic path is best for you. But high-quality grain-fed beef is still an excellent choice as well.

From a nutrition standpoint there is evidence to show that organic grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3’s and the antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamin E.  As well as overall lower in fat content and calories. Yet, researchers are still unsure if these amounts are significant enough to say which is ‘better’. “Beef is an exceptional source of protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc. That doesn’t change, whether it comes from grass-fed or grain-fed cows”.(2) Most people who eat a well-balanced whole foods diet are likely already consuming an adequate amount of these nutrients. Health Canada recommends choosing lean cuts of beef, limiting overall red meat consumption, and opting for plant-based protein sources more often. This will “reduce your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer and osteoporosis”(7).

We are fortunate to live in a province where there are countless options to suit what quality and type of beef you are looking for. Take the time to talk to your local butcher and explore the options available in the farmer’s markets in your communities.

1. BBC Good Food: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/organic
2. Globe and Mail article “Is Grass-fed Beef more Nutritious than Regular Beef?”: https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/is-grass-fed-beef-more-nutritious-than-regular-beef/article28948990/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com& 
3. MindBodyGreen article “Is Organic Meat Really Better For You?”: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-26043/is-organic-meat-really-better-for-you.html 
4. Keri Glassman, Nutritious Life blog: http://nutritiouslife.com/grass-fed-beef-organic-beef-healthier   
5. United Nations World Population Prospects 2017:  https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/ 
6. Health Canada Food Guide Recommendations: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/canada-food-guides.html