Red Meat, Health, and the Conscience of a Nation

Written by Gregory Rummo on October 10, 2019

Unless you are a vegan, or you just don’t like beef, the latest report that eating red meat “may not be so bad after all” is good news. The results of a new study published in September in the Annals of Internal Medicine challenges current recommendations to cut back on red and processed meats. Several nutrition scientists are bewildered and outraged over the new findings, criticizing the study for its use of a non-traditional statistical method.

Bradley C. Johnston, one of the more than one dozen researchers, maintains that there is simply too much uncertainty about the unhealthy claims of red meat. “There may be a benefit [from] reducing your intake of red or processed meat, and people should know that,” he said. On the other hand, “there may not be a benefit at all. We’re uncertain.”

Haven’t we been here before? We’ve been warned that eggs were harmful, whole milk is dangerously laden with fat, butter is artery-clogging, too much sugar causes your kids to become hyper, artificial sweeteners cause cancer, trans-fats cause heart disease, and organic is better.

I’m sorry but I’ll take that small ray of light Johnston’s hedge offers and celebrate right here by writing that there is nothing quite like sinking your teeth into a thick, juicy, filet mignon that came from a grain-fed steer.

That juiciness comes from marbling – “(intramuscular fat) that makes the finer cuts of beef so tender and juicy.”

Since shortly after World War II, the livestock industry in the US has catered to the tastes of red meat lovers by raising cattle on grain—feed corn grown especially for animal consumption—and not the same sweet corn that we serve on the cob as a summertime vegetable at barbecues.

Perhaps in a parallel universe, where we hadn’t starved the American Indians from their lands by ruthlessly hunting herds of bison that thundered across the Great Plains several centuries ago, we could be enjoying lower-fat, denser, grass-fed, and wonderfully flavorful buffalo meat in our burgers at our family barbecues. But instead, to feed the 320 million or so meat eaters across the United States, who on average consume about 220 lbs. of meat and poultry per year, we’re left to the methods of a livestock industry that raises animals in close quarters, feeding them grain to pack on the pounds under conditions in which, without antibiotics, disease would spread quickly.

And while grain-fed beef has been the norm for decades in the US, a throwback alternative to the days on the prairie—grass-fed beef—has slowly been gaining traction in supermarkets and butcher shops, largely based on health claims stemming from its lower fat content.

But before getting into the health claims of grass-fed beef, it is interesting to note that almost all beef raised in the US comes from cattle (or from cows that no longer produce milk) that grazed on grass in pastures the majority of their lives and are finished in the feed lot on grain to fatten them up. So, by definition, grass-fed beef really means grass-finished beef.

Raising cattle on grain is the traditional method of livestock rearing in the US out of necessity based on the simple fact that “few regions in North America have the growing season to allow beef cattle to graze on forage year-round.

A lot of grass-finished beef is imported from Australia and New Zealand, where grass grows all year long and is more abundant than feed corn.”

Whether imported or raised domestically, grass-fed beef is more expensive than its grain-fed counterpart, and many consumers aren’t willing to pay the higher price, often 1.5 times more per pound—especially if they eat beef more than once or twice a week.

But is it healthier?

The answer isn’t straightforward.

“Grass fed beef is leaner than beef raised by conventional methods.” Writing in Health Magazine on August 12, 2016, Cynthia Sass, RPH, RD explains, “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.”

The Tasteful Table echoes these claims, explaining,

“[G]rass-fed beef is leaner. It’s lower in calories, contains more vitamins A and E, higher levels of antioxidants, and up to seven times the beta-carotene. And then there are the quality fats; grass-fed beef contains more alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid), as well as more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a natural trans fat purported to have cancer-fighting properties (though there is little to no evidence to support this).

“However, skeptics are quick to point out that the benefits of these fats in beef are much ado about not much. Because grass-fed beef is so much leaner than grain-fed, there aren’t enough of the good fats to get excited about. Beef is not a primary source of omega-3s, which are much more prevalent in plant foods. And the vitamin E content of a serving of grass-fed beef is still only 4 percent of the recommended daily intake (compared to almonds, which provide 24 percent). Ditto the beta-carotene, which you will find in much higher concentration by eating vegetables.”

A study conducted by Texas A&M published in Beef Magazine in March 2014 concluded after analysis of the omega-3 fatty acids, oleic acid, total saturated and trans-fat that “there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that ground beef from grass-fed cattle is a healthier alternative to ground beef from conventionally raised, grain-fed cattle.”

And amidst all the clamor of grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef, David Pimentel, professor of ecology in Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, lobs this grenade into the debate: “If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the United States were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million.”

Such a statement is food for thought—pardon the pun—and given that there is an industry of meat disruptors on the horizon—“startups using technology to engineer meat in labs or manufacture it from plant-based products” —in the spirit of stewardship of the Earth’s resources, maybe this is feasible.

But if we’re serious about feeding grain to people instead of to livestock, and if we’ve reached a limit on the acreage of arable land capable of growing crops, then the artificial meat industry is going to have to kick development into high gear as we may only have 30 years to solve such a problem, at least if you believe the statistics for future world population growth.

“At current consumption rates [of meat], the world would need to generate 455 million metric tons of meat annually by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 9.7 billion, from 7.3 billion today. Given today’s agricultural productivity, growing the crops to feed all of that poultry, beef and other livestock would require every acre of the planet’s cropland, according to research firm FarmEcon LLC—leaving no room for raising the grains, fruits and vegetables that humans also need,” explains Jacob Bunge in a Wall Street Journal article, “How to Satisfy the World’s Surging Appetite for Meat.”

But leaving aside world-sized problems for the moment, if all you are concerned about is getting adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, eat salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines, and tuna. If you want to increase your intake of oleic acid, eat olive oil. But if you like red meat and eat a lot of it, and if you want to limit your intake of fat, you’re probably a little better off eating grass-fed beef simply to reduce the overall amount of saturated fat in your diet.

And pass the steak sauce.

Gregory J. Rummo is a Visiting Instructor of Chemistry at Palm Beach Atlantic University and a Contributing Writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. The views expressed in this column are his own.