Recent television commercials promoting California cheese claim that one reason it’s so tasty is that it’s made with milk that comes from contented cows. In fact, the bovine actors in those commercials are so talented that they talk. While the commercials are far-fetched, there’s an element of fact in them’but it applies more to beef than it does to cheese. The truth is that happy cattle produce better beef. Now, making cattle happy doesn’t mean taking them on a roller-coaster ride. It’s as simple as letting them do what comes naturally, with the key word being naturally.
Cattle are happy when they get to roam in a pasture, rather than being forced to exist in a feedlot, with cramped quarters and artificial feeding techniques. Today, the emphasis in beef production isn’t on nutritional quality but rather beef quantity; that is, how much beef you can get out of each animal. The process involves fattening up the animals by feeding them grains. Just as eating too many of the wrong kinds of carbs can fatten up humans, so, too, will they reliably produce a fat calf.
The key to fattening cattle by feeding them grains involves increasing intramuscular fat, better known as marbling. While many people believe that the extent of marbling determines the tenderness of a good steak, that’s not necessarily so. What the marbling does do without question is increase the saturated fat content of the beef, inducing a nutritionally imbalanced fatty acid profile. Tinkering with cattle’s physiology ultimately produces beef that has gained a reputation as a dangerous food linked to the primary causes of mortality in the world, namely cardiovascular disease, strokes and cancer.
It wasn’t always that way, however. Until about 75 years ago all cattle were raised on grass rather than grains. So-called primitive herders around the world still raise their cattle that way, and they enjoy the benefit of not employing modern animal husbandry methods by having far fewer incidences of the major degenerative diseases.
In fact, many respected nutrition researchers say that the type of beef most people eat today isn’t a natural fit for the way the human body evolved. And that’s the problem: The human body hasn’t evolved much since the Stone Age, and what was optimal then in the way of nutritional requirements remains optimal today.
As I pointed out in ‘The Paleolithic Diet’ [IRONMAN, April ’01], ancient man was a voracious consumer of meat, which constituted 68 percent of total dietary intake, yet careful analysis of the remains of our human forebears shows little evidence of any of the major degenerative diseases so common today, with the exception of arthritis. If meat is so bad, then how were the cavemen able to eat it with apparent impunity?
The answer is that ancient man and woman fed on wild game that had wildly different nutritional profiles from today’s beef. Unlike the grain-fed beef sold today, wild game had a fatty acid profile that led to a reduction in blood lipid, or fat, levels. The proportion of protective omega-3 fatty acids was much more favorable in wild game. Some nutritional anthropologists even suggest that the human brain evolved to require a relatively high intake of omega-3 fats, which were supplied by wild game, such as elk, deer, antelope, buffalo and others.
The protein content was also considerably higher in Paleolithic diets, averaging 35 percent of daily calories. While a 100-calorie portion of modern hamburger contains a whopping 7.8 grams of protein, a 100-calorie portion of roasted buffalo contains 19.9 grams. The wild game eaten by ancient hunters also contained two to three times more polyunsaturated fat’which lowers blood cholesterol levels’and five times more omega-3 fats than the essential fats in grain-fed beef.
Based on evolutionary history, it appears that the evidence that man is indeed a natural meat eater is extensive. So the question is, How do we emulate ancient man’s diet and obtain maximal health and fitness? According to Paleolithic diet expert Loren Cordain, Ph.D., author of the recently published Paleo Diet, you can simulate the fatty acid profile of Paleo diets by eating a diet of fatty fish that are rich in omega-3 fats, such as salmon, halibut and mackerel; free-range chicken and turkey; and grass-fed beef and bison. In fact, in a recent study that analyzed the nutrient content of various types of wild-beef sources, Cordain and his colleagues conclude that grass-fed beef shows a similar nutritional profile to the type of wild game our Paleolithic ancestors lived on.1
Forcing cattle to eat grain is as natural as forcing humans to eat plastic. The adage, ‘Garbage in, garbage out,’ is very much in evidence here. The types of food used to fatten up cattle, such as corn, soybeans and other grains, aren’t the animals’ natural diet. Cattle are classified as ruminants, whose natural and preferred diet is grass. Even worse, they’re fed just about anything that isn’t tied down in a misguided effort to fatten them up and increase beef production. As a result, cattle often eat such tantalizing items as the remains of other animals, a practice that led to the dreaded mad cow disease in Europe.
Mad cow disease is a type of brain spongiform disease, which means that it pokes holes in the brain. It’s transmitted by a prion, a bit of protein that can cause extensive long-term damage and is inevitably fatal. The cows got the disease after they were fed the remains of sheep inflicted with scrapie, which is what the disease is called when sheep have it. (Obviously, there’s no chance of mad cow disease infecting grass-fed cattle.) A variant of this disease, known as ‘new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease,’ was passed on to humans who ate infected beef.
While it’s true that mad cow disease has not turned up in any cattle in the United States’and the cattle in this country may not eat infected sheep remains’what they do eat is often no less disgusting. For example, when farmers are faced with having to discard tons of animal excrement, what better way to get rid of it than feed it to cattle? Sound implausible? That actually occurred in Arkansas in 1994, when more than 1,000 tons of chicken manure were fed to unsuspecting cattle.2 The practice can pass along various pathological organisms, most of which cause severe food poisoning. Besides animal excrement, cows in feedlots are also fed ground-up flesh, hooves, feathers and bones of other animals, making the cattle involuntary cannibals. Since the object is to fatten up the penned cattle at any cost, why not throw in plenty of stale pastry and add some ‘fiber’ in the form of ground cardboard? Makes you think twice about eating that next fast-food burger, eh?
The antibiotics fed to cattle ostensibly protect them from illness but also fatten them up. Unfortunately, extensive use of antibiotics for such purposes has led to the appearance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that some public health officials fear will eventually cause a significant health crisis. That effect is worsened by feeding grain to cattle, since the grain changes the acid characteristics in the animals’ digestive tracts. While normally occurring acidity can destroy enough pathogenic bacteria to prevent problems, the picture changes when the animals are switched from grass to grains. The organisms evolve to become acid-resistant, making them far more likely to infect humans who eat meat produced from such animals. One example of such Frankenstein-like bacteria is a particular strain of E. coli bacteria. E. coli normally exist in the gastrointestinal tracts of both humans and cattle, but one strain, known as E. coli 0157:H7, first appeared in 1982, and it was soon apparent that it didn’t act like other E. coli bacteria. The new bacteria, which was thought to have evolved from both an overuse of antibiotics and a grain diet misguidedly fed to cattle, causes about 40,000 cases of food poisoning each year, 250 of them fatal. One study showed that switching cattle from grain to grass’meaning hay’diets for only five days dramatically decreased the number and acid-resistance of E. coli bacteria in the animals.3
From the standpoints of bodybuilding and health, eating meat that comes from grass-fed cattle or bison offers no disadvantages but plenty of advantages. When cows are penned up for four to eight months, their meat contains four to six times more total fat than grass-fed beef. What’s more, the saturated-fat content of penned beef is twice as high as grass-fed beef. Even worse, the naturally rich and balanced level of essential fatty acids just about disappears in feedlot cattle. That’s no mystery, since the cattle and bison build up precious omega-3 fats in their bodies by eating grass, not grains. When they stop eating grass, the omega-3 levels in their bodies eventually disappear, displaced by undesirable saturated fat.
In contrast, cattle allowed to remain on pasture and eat only grass show fat contents similar to those of skinless chicken and wild game. As noted above, meat from grass-fed cattle contains two to six times more essential omega-3 fats than their feedlot counterparts. Grass-fed beef has one-third the fat of grain-fed beef, which means that a six-ounce steak that comes from grass-fed beef contains 100 fewer calories than the same steak coming from a grain-fed animal. While that doesn’t initially sound impressive, if you eat an average of 66.5 pounds of beef a year’as most people do’eating grass-fed beef instead of the grain-fed variety will cut 17,733 calories from your diet, which translates to a six-pound fat loss with no additional change in diet or exercise.
Besides a more natural and beneficial fat content, grass-fed beef offers other nutritional advantages. Studies show that meat from grass-fed cattle is five times higher in vitamin E than grain-fed beef, and even when grain-fed cattle are given vitamin E supplements, grass-fed beef still has twice the vitamin E content. Vitamin E is a vital dietary antioxidant that helps maintain the optimal stability of fats, among other functions. The rich vitamin E content works in tandem with the higher omega-3 fat content to maintain the stability of the usually easily oxidized omega-3 fats.
Cattle raised on pasture also produce beef that’s five times richer in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than grain-fed beef, and the CLA is far more stable than synthetic derivatives. CLA may offer potent bodyfat-reduction or prevention effects, as well as anticatabolic effects in muscle. The health aspects include inhibiting cancer in humans and other animals. One study showed that women who took CLA had a 60 percent decreased incidence of breast cancer.
Researcher Tilak Dhiman, Ph.D., of Utah State University says that you can greatly reduce your risk of cancer by eating the following grass-fed cattle products because of their high CLA content: one glass of whole milk, one ounce of cheese and one serving of meat. In contrast, you’d need to eat or drink five times as much grain-fed meat and dairy products to get the same level of protection.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the so-called organic beef sold in many markets today is grass fed. While organic beef may be free of pesticides, hormones and other undesirable elements, it may still come from grain-fed sources. So it lacks the many advantages offered by true grass-fed beef and bison.
You should also consider switching to grass-fed beef for a reason that benefits everyone: ecology. According to David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University’s College of Animal Science in Montreal, Canada, ‘If all the grain 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.’ Feeding grain to cattle is a costly and nonsustainable way to produce animal protein, Pimentel says. He notes that cattle grazing is a more reasonable use of marginal land.
One thing is clear: For maximal health and muscle benefits, you’d be wise to consider eating only grass-fed beef and bison.
Editor’s note: For more information, visit www.eatwild.com, www.northstarbison.com and www.grasslandbeef.com.
When you click below, you will automatically be directed to the Grassland Beef web site. ALL
1 Cordain, L., et al. (2002). Fatty acid analysis of wild ruminant tissues: evolutionary implications for reducing diet-related chronic disease. Eur J Clin Nutr. 56:181-191.
2 Haapapuro, E.R., et al. (1997). Animal waste used as livestock feed: dangers to human health. Preventive Medicine. 26:599-602.
3 Russell, J.B., et al. (2000). Potential effect of cattle diets on the transmission of pathogenic Escherichia coli to humans. Microbes and Infection. 2:45-53. IM