The market for grass-fed meat has been growing for over a decade, with more and more health-conscious consumers looking for top-quality animal products. That's because commercial farming practices have led to an industry with a terrible track record, both for the end consumer and the animals themselves.
By rejecting these poor practices and opting for grass-fed meat, healthy eaters everywhere are not only doing what's best for them and the livestock in question, they could also be slowly changing the landscape of how meat is mass-produced in the UK and beyond.
Grass-Fed vs. Pasture-Fed vs. Free Range
In large part, the terms grass-fed, pasture-fed and free range are marketing tactics with legally flexible meanings. For example, a ‘free range chicken’ may be free to roam with open-air access, but the minimum space allotted for them can still be quite small. In the UK, there can be up to 13 chickens confined to 1 square meter of space and that still meets the requirement — not exactly as ‘free range’ as one might imagine.
Furthermore, these distinctions don’t always take quality of life or food sources into consideration. Free-range chickens have no food requirements, and the practise of beak-burning is still allowed to prevent them from pecking at each other. Not ideal, to say the least.
A grass-fed cow might not necessarily have been eating grass for its whole life. It could have started with grass and be grain-finished or started with grain and be grass-finished.
Because the requirements aren’t explicitly spelled out for these various labels, it’s often up to the interpretation of the farmer to label their products as they see fit. This lack of regulation around these claims can make your shopping experience a bit confusing. Here’s a rough idea of what these labels might mean:
- Grass-fed: The animals have eaten mostly grass and herbs in their lives, but there’s no guarantee that they’ve eaten it exclusively.
- Grass-finished: The animals eat grains for most of their lives but finish the last two weeks to a month grazing on pasture.
- Grain-fed: Conventionally raised livestock that eats grains or soy feed for most or all of its life.
- Free range: The animals have access to grazing, but this access doesn’t guarantee that they’re eating their natural diet or that they’ve been treated humanely.
- Pasture-raised: The distinction between pasture-raised (or pasture-fed) and grass-fed is important because not all animals are meant to eat only grasses. Pigs and chickens are omnivores with a natural diet that goes beyond greens. Chickens eat all sorts of other things, including grubs and seeds, while pigs will eat roots, worms, small animals and even dirt. A certified pasture-raised ruminant will have eaten 100% grass/herbs for its entire adult life. This could be in the form of silage or haylage in the winter months.
All this isn’t to say that you’re doomed to eat mystery meat. The most reliable way to know for sure that you’re eating 100% grass-fed and finished beef and dairy is to look for third-party certification. Pasture for Life standards are the highest in the country for meat and dairy.
Their certification standards include:
- High animal welfare: Animals have enough space in a low-stress environment
- A natural diet: Animals are eating what nature intended
- Wildlife-friendly fields: Animals are living or have constant access to sunshine and the outdoors
- The certification of the farmer: The facility and farmer have been inspected and approved by the organisation
Look for the Pasture for Life logo the next time you're on the hunt for the best meat. There are also great meat subscription box options that deliver grass-fed meat right to your door.
What's Wrong With Factory-Farmed Meat?
Conventional factory farming practices are all about maximising output and profit at all times. Unfortunately, animal welfare and overall quality are diametrically opposed to the practices that these farmers employ.
Ruminant grazing animals like cattle, sheep and goats evolved with a natural diet of grasses, wildflowers and wild herbs on pasture. But pasture-raised animals require a lot of land and they don't fatten up as quickly as grain-fed livestock — two strikes against the bottom line for factory farmers.
The (unethical) solution to maximising profit is to give the animals less room to roam — sometimes forcing them into crowded feedlots where they stand in their own excrement all day long — and feeding them grains and soy. Grains and soy are both cheaper and more calorie-dense than grass on pasture, saving the farmer money and time in the end.
In the UK we are fortunate not to have extensive feed lots like the US — we have strict farming standards. With the recent changes to import regulations, do check where your meat is coming from as not all countries are to the same standards as the UK.
Omega-6 To Omega-3 Ratio
Unfortunately for the animals (and for you as the end consumer), feeding animals a diet they weren't meant to eat isn't without consequences. Grain-fed beef, lamb and goat meat all contain a greater proportion of omega-6 fatty acids than their grass-fed counterparts. That's because grains and soy are higher in omega-6 than grass, which is much higher in omega-3 .
It's important to note that omega-6 fatty acids are not, in and of themselves, unhealthy or bad for you. On the contrary, they're a critical part of the human diet and provide compounds that protect the immune system, the digestive system and skin cell integrity .
That being said, the ideal proportion of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in your diet is about 3:1, and the standard Western diet looks more like 15:1 or 17:1. This is definitely not ideal, because too much omega-6 is pro-inflammatory to the eater (the animal, and eventually you) .
This out-of-whack ratio is due in part to factory farming, along with humans’ overeating of junk food, processed grains and soy products. By switching to grass-fed meat, you're reducing the inflammatory foods you're eating, thereby reducing your risk for inflammatory diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer and inflammatory autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus .
In addition to losing the beneficial omega-3 content of grass-fed meat, conventionally farmed livestock is also lacking in an important fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA is helpful in maintaining a healthy glycemic profile (blood sugar level), promoting fat loss and protecting against atherosclerosis and even some cancers .
Meat and dairy products of grass-fed ruminants like cows, goats and sheep are the main source of CLA in the human diet, so if you're going for the cheaper grain-fed meat, you're missing out on this important nutrient entirely . According to a study in the Journal of Dairy Science, ‘Cows grazing pasture and receiving no supplemental feed had 500% more conjugated linoleic acid in milk fat than cows fed typical dairy diets’ . So if you want to get that valuable CLA, stick to grass-fed animals.
Benefits of Grass-Fed Meat
After learning what's wrong with factory-farmed meat, you can surely see the nutritional advantages of switching over to grass fed. Ruminants raised on grasses offer more nutritional value in the way of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA. But they also offer more vitamin E, A and other antioxidants like glutathione than their grain-fed counterparts .
Environmental Impact of Grass-Fed Meat
Vegetarians and vegans will argue that farmed meat is always bad for the environment, no matter how the animals are raised. And while cattle, in particular, are held responsible for methane gas emissions, the methane cattle produce is part of a healthy cycle of resource transformation, whereas fossil fuel pollution is not .
Even still, it's a hot topic of debate whether switching to grass-fed beef would have a lower impact on the health of the environment. Methane gas (a greenhouse gas partially responsible for climate change) is only one environmental factor to consider.
While studies show that cows on pasture actually produce more methane than factory-farmed cattle, there's compelling evidence that certain methods of grass-fed cattle farming actually mitigate the effects of climate change due to soil carbon sequestration — a process in which carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, is trapped in the soil .
These strategic ways of farming grass-fed cattle encourage soil and crop biodiversity and field rotation in order to allow the grazing lands to recover over time. This in turn creates a more sustainable food source and a more nutritious rib eye, beef mince or topside.
As we hinted earlier, going grass-fed does require a little bit of research. But certifying organisations like Pasture for Life will do at least some of the work for you by providing Where to Buy Beef and Lamb and Where to Buy Dairy lists for all over the UK.
We mentioned top quality meat boxes, and it's also helpful to get friendly with your local butchers so that you can feel comfortable asking them questions about the farms they buy from.
At Hunter and Gather, all of our lamb organ supplements are made with 100% grass-fed, wild-roaming Icelandic lamb, giving you the absolute best quality freeze-dried organ meat on the market. That’s because your health, the health and welfare of the animals we source, and the health of the environment are our top priorities.
In the end, going grass-fed is 100% worth it for your health, for your conscience and for the environment. Grass-fed animals contain incredibly high levels of CLA, a better ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, and more vitamins and antioxidants than their grain-fed counterparts.
They're also much happier animals, raised in more humane conditions. And when farmed properly, they're also better for the environment, whether you're considering greenhouse gasses or soil health and biodiversity.
Head over to our recipe page to find delicious ways to prepare and enjoy grass-fed beef and grass-fed lamb.
All information provided on our website and within our articles is simply information, opinion, anecdotal thoughts and experiences to provide you with the tools to thrive.
It is not intended to treat or diagnose symptoms and is definitely not intended to be misconstrued for medical advice. We always advise you seek the advice of a trained professional when implementing any changes to your lifestyle and dietary habits.
We do however recommend seeking the services of a trained professional who questions the conventional wisdom to enable you to become the best version of yourself.