When thinking about nutrition you can get pretty deep thinking about all the factors that ultimately result in how healthy your diet is and how much you're going to benefit from it. The rabbit hole goes as deep as you want it to and if you aren't careful you can get lost in a sea of health advice and quackery…
For example, you might spend a lot of time thinking about what you eat… but how much time do you spend thinking about what that ate? As in, you're eating cow… but what was that cow's diet like before it ended up on your plate? That's precisely what we're talking about when we look at grass-fed beef or butter, because when you eat those products you're indirectly eating the same grass that the cow did. That's what Mufasa from 'The Lion King' would call 'the circle of life'.
When a cow eats, this provides it with the raw materials its body uses to convert into tissues. Literally cows 'are what they eat', and thus when you eat them, you get more or less nutritional value based on what they had been fed.
When it comes to selecting a cow's diet, farmers will pick one of two options. The first is grass, and the second is grains. And the general consensus is that those cows fed with grass will benefit you more in terms of nutrition.
Look at it this way: cows evolved eating grass and wouldn't likely have had much access to grains of any kind in the wild. Do you remember the last time you stumbled across grains lying about when walking through the forest? Didn't think so. As such, grass will naturally contain all of the things necessary to promote optimal health in cows, and that means that those cows will be better for your health in turn.
The Health Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
For instance, cows that eat grass will have a higher content of omega 3 fatty acid as compared with cows fed with grains (1). Specifically, grass-fed beef contains roughly 2-5 times more omega 3 than grain-fed which could help to reduce blood pressure, arthritis, depression and asthma while also supporting healthy brain function.
The content of saturated fat in grass-fed beef is also superior. Grass-fed contains higher levels of stearic acid (2) with lower amounts of palmitic and myristic acid. All you need to know is that this is marginally better for cholesterol.
Grass-fed beef is also higher in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals (3). Carotenoids for instance (a precursor to vitamin A) are found in high quantities in grass and not at all in grains. Thus grass-fed beef will contain more carotenoids in their tissue which means you'll get more carotenoids when you eat them.
Did you know that you can actually tell whether a steak came from grass-fed or grain-fed beef just by looking at it? This proves just how true it is that 'you are what you eat' and it makes for a good party trick when eating out.
The carotenoids in grass for instance are partly what give it its colour, which is why a cow that has eaten lots of grass will actually result in a slightly yellower steak (4). This makes it appear also slightly lighter (though you might have to see two side-by-side in order to tell with accuracy).
It's also true that grass-fed steak tends to have a slightly healthier looking glaze on top – you can literally see that the steak is healthier.
So there you have it, don't just think about your diet… think about the diet of the thing you're eating. And I said that this rabbit hole went as deep as you wanted… so now the question to ask yourself is whether the grass that that cow ate was grown organically…
Seriously though, while there are health benefits to eating grass-fed, it's worth noting that these are very minor and really it's more important just to make sure you are eating a balanced and varied diet. Grass-fed beef is a little more expensive, so if you're concerned about health and on a tight budget there are more cost effective ways to make a difference to your diet.