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 Grassfed.org) or the Food Alliance (FoodAlliance.org). 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.