Pasture Production Better for the Environment, Higher in Omega-3 Fatty Acids than Conventional Beef and Milk

The Union of Concerned Scientists has released the first comprehensive study that confirms that beef and milk from animals raised entirely on pasture have higher levels than conventionally raised beef and dairy cattle of beneficial fats that may prevent heart disease and strengthen the immune system. The study also shows that grass-fed meat is often leaner than most supermarket beef, and raising cattle on grass can reduce water pollution and the risk of antibiotic-resistant diseases.

“When you eat grass-fed meat, you’re getting beef with benefits,” said report author Dr. Kate Clancy, a nutritionist and senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at UCS. “There are no losers in producing cattle entirely on pasture. Farmers win, consumers win, the environment wins, and even the cattle win.”

Greener Pastures: How Grass-fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating is the first study to synthesize the findings of virtually every English-language study (25 were chosen for analysis) comparing the amounts of total fats, saturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in both pasture-raised and conventionally raised beef and dairy cattle. The report also combines analyses on the nutrition, environmental, and public health benefits of grass-based farming techniques.

The report found that grass-fed beef and milk contain higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, the so-called beneficial fats. Grass-fed milk tends to be higher in an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) that scientists have demonstrated reduces the risk of heart disease. Both grass-fed milk and ground beef are also higher in CLA, a fatty acid shown in animal studies to protect against cancer. While the levels found are relatively small on a per serving basis, they may be beneficial and merit further research.

“Raising cattle on pasture is essential to maintaining higher levels of good fats,” said Clancy. “Even partially replacing grass with grain can reduce the levels of beneficial fatty acids in meat and milk.”

Pasture-raised cattle fertilize land with their manure in amounts that the soil can safely absorb. In contrast, thousands of beef cattle crammed in industrial feedlot operations generate many tons of manure that can harm local water supplies and fish populations. Confined cattle, which are fed large amounts of grain (especially corn), are also prone to disease, which leads most feedlot operators to routinely administer antibiotics to prevent illness and accelerate growth. Cattle that are allowed to eat their natural diet, on the other hand, are healthier and need fewer antibiotics, which protects the human population from antibiotic-resistant diseases.

“The grass is truly greener when it comes to grass-fed beef and dairy,” said Clancy.

Pasture-based meat production is a fledgling industry, but milk products can often be found at co-ops, larger natural food chain stores, and in some supermarkets; and grass-fed beef products can be found at farmers’ markets, via the Internet, and from local producers. UCS suggests consumers ask their supermarket managers to carry these products. Increasing demand can encourage greater adoption of grass-fed production methods and keep more small farmers and ranchers on the land.

“Buying grass-fed meat and milk is like driving a hybrid car,” said Dr. Margaret Mellon, director of UCS’s Food and Environment Program. “Not only is it good for you, it’s better for your neighbors and better for the country. We encourage families to seek out pasture-raised meat and milk.”

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