You have probably heard that grass-fed beef is the healthier choice—if you are going to eat beef. As with other healthful products that swell in ­popularity, however, cheap imitators have snuck in behind the real deals, and they are lying on labels to give the impression that their animals were grass-fed. Identifying the real deal can be a challenge. 

True: Grass-fed beef has assorted health benefits vs. its grain-fed and fattened cousins. It has higher levels of vitamins, antioxidants and other ­nutrients, including more anti-inflammatory omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid and fewer pro-inflammatory omega-6s. Also, grazing helps restore natural pasture ecosystems, leading to less reliance on chemical pesticides and herbicides. And since antibiotics are not used, grass-fed beef is significantly less likely to harbor drug-resistant bacteria. A 2015 study found that 18% of conventional beef samples were contaminated with “superbug” bacteria resistant to several classes of antibiotics, compared with 9% of sustainably raised (including grass-fed) samples. 

Problem: There are no federal government standards for grass-fed beef nor for grass-fed beef labeling—meat companies can label meat “grass-fed” even if grass was only a minor part of the animals’ feed. 

Potentially misleading label: “Grass fed, grain finished” typically means that the animal ate grass much of its life but was fed a grain-rich diet to boost its weight in its final months. This is less than ideal even if the animal truly was grass-fed for most of its life—altering diet in these final months leads to changes in the nutritional composition of its meat. 

What to look for on the label: A ­label identifying beef as grass-fed can be trusted if it’s certified by a reliable third-party verifier such as the American Grassfed Association (American or the Food Alliance ( In order to be certified grass-fed beef by these organizations, the animal must have lived on pasture and eaten an exclusively grass (and/or other “forage,” such as hay) diet throughout its life. Whole Foods uses the term “pasture-raised,” and its beef is third-party verified. Another option is to purchase beef from a local farm, ­perhaps at a local farmer’s market. 

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