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Health Advantages of Organic Beef

We’ve all been there. Faced with the range of beef choices available on the retail shelf, the simple act of deciding what’s for dinner turns into a rumination on the short- and long-term impact of our food choices. Add the steady chorus of marketing messaging embedded in your brain courtesy of Big Meat, and the internal debate can be even trickier.

Here’s what industrial meat doesn’t want you to know: The backdrop for Big Meat is crowded feedlots, and the singular focus is fattening the animals for slaughter as quickly as possible.

Conventional “factory-farmed” cattle are fed diets defined by cereal grains and soy, all of which are heavily sprayed and often derived from genetically modified crops. Cattle may be plumped with cast-off candy (sometimes still in the wrapper), Kool-Aid powder, and other cheap industry byproducts that show up in the feedlot, such as blood meal, chicken manure, and hydrolyzed feather meal.[1],[2]

Organic beef production operates in an entirely different setting, and its higher price points reflect its value. While all food safety is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, certified organic beef must adhere to regulations that offer a layer of assurance about how the meat arrived on your dinner table.[3]

Freedom from Animal Drugs

Industrial beef production yields unhealthy, stressed animals reliant on drugs. The majority of conventional cattle receive various medications throughout their life to aid weight gain and stave off diseases that can run rampant on conventional feedlots. Some of these may be antibiotics given in low doses to promote growth and prevent disease or in higher doses to treat illness. While withdrawal times are required before an animal is slaughtered for human consumption, residues can still remain in the meat.[4]

Antibiotic residues in meat can cause serious health hazards, such as allergic reactions, carcinogenic effects, and harmful changes to intestinal microflora. [5],[6],[7],[8],[9],[10] While the FDA sets limits for the level of residues allowed in meat, not every product is tested and the compounding effect of multiple drug residues on the human body is poorly studied.

Antibiotic resistance is another factor to consider—and a major global public health threat.[11] The use of these drugs in the food system helps explain why illnesses that were once easily treatable are becoming more difficult and expensive to cure.[12],[13]

“No antibiotics” product labeling can be confusing, but the organic label offers clear assurance that you’re avoiding commonly used animal drugs.[14] If organic animals are given prohibited medications, they are removed from organic production entirely and can never be sold as organic.

Nutrition Differences Between Factory-Farmed and Organic Beef

The quality of beef is influenced by environmental conditions, including age of slaughter, breed, living conditions, and the animal’s diet. Though more studies comparing conventional and organic systems are needed, current research shows important differences in the organic and conventional beef on retail shelves.

Organic beef generally boasts a better ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a potent antioxidant predominantly found in the milk and meat of ruminant animals like cattle.[15] CLA has anticarcinogenic, anti-obesity, antidiabetic, and antihypertensive properties.[16] Diets high in CLA can help prevent metabolic issues and promote heart health. Scientific evidence suggests that CLA may even enhance immune system function and prevent cancer, while animal studies indicate that CLA may promote bone growth and reduce inflammation.[17]

A study in 2019 tested the difference in bioactive compounds present in organic and conventional beef meat sold at retail. The organic beef had 17% less cholesterol, 32% less fat, 16% less fatty acids, 24% less monounsaturated fatty acids, 170% more alpha-linolenic acid, 24% more vitamin E, 53% more beta-carotene, 34% more coenzyme Q10 (an antioxidant) and 72% more taurine (an amino acid) than conventional beef.[18]

Nutritional Upgrades of 100% Grass Fed and Organic Beef

Organic and 100% grass-fed beef come with all the health and safety benefits of organic beef with the added bonus of an entirely grass-based diet.

Research spanning decades suggests that 100% grass-fed diets can improve the overall antioxidant and fatty acid content of beef[19]. These nutrients are higher in organic meat than conventional meat, but organic and 100% grass-fed meat generally boasts the highest levels.

Grass-fed beef can also be a good source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory. Excessive intake of omega-6 fatty acids, a common detriment of the standard American diet, can cause inflammation, potentially leading to a wide range of health problems. When consumed in the right ratios, fatty acids offer many proven health benefits.

Research has identified notable differences in the quantity and quality of fatty acids in beef produced in different agricultural systems. When compared to grain-fed cattle, ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 in grass-fed cattle were more in line with an anti-inflammatory diet.[20]

Other studies suggest that grass-fed beef has elevated precursors for vitamin A and E, as well as cancer-fighting antioxidants. The fat found in grass-finished beef may have a yellowish appearance, indicating the presence of higher levels of carotenoids (a precursor to vitamin A, among other benefits).[21]

The caliber and type of forage a grass-fed animal receives also affects the nutrient types and levels in the meat.[22] In fact, seasonal differences are reflected in total fatty acids, with springtime producing the most nutrient-dense grass-finished beef.[23]

While there’s a lot to consider when comparing organic to conventional beef, the price tags for both look different when prioritizing the quality—instead of the quantity—of the meat that ends up in your shopping cart.


[1] Alex Park. December 19, 2013. “5 Surprising Things We Feed Cows.” MotherJones.com. https://www.motherjones.com/food/2013/12/cow-feed-chicken-poop-candy-sawdust/

[2] Joe Fassler. Janaury 25, 2017. “Yes, cows eat Skittles. But it gets a lot weirder than that.” TheCounter.org. https://thecounter.org/alternative-feed-not-alternative-facts/

[3] Food and Drug Administration website. “Food.” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/food

[4] U.S. Food & Drug Administration website. “Adequate Drug Treatment Records Help Ensure Food Safety.” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.fda.gov/animal-veterinary/animal-health-literacy/adequate-drug-treatment-records-help-ensure-food-safety

[5] Jun Chen, Guang-Guo Ying, and Wen-Jing Deng. 2019. “Antibiotic Residues in Food: Extraction, Analysis, and Human Health Concerns.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 67 (27), 7569-7586.

DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.9b01334. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.jafc.9b01334

[6] Ramatla, Tsepo, et al. December 7, 2017 “Evaluation of Antibiotic Residues in Raw Meat Using Different Analytical Methods.” Antibiotics (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 6,4 34. doi:10.3390/antibiotics6040034. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5745477/

[7] Ali Saei, Afshin Javadi, Mohammad Reza Afshar Mogaddam, Hamid Mirzaei & Mahboob Nemati. 2020. “Determination of three antibiotic residues in hamburger and cow liver samples using deep eutectic solvents based pretreatment method coupled with ion mobility spectrometry.” International Journal of Environmental Analytical Chemistry, DOI: 10.1080/03067319.2020.1759564. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03067319.2020.1759564

[8] Neelma Ashraf, and Abid Rashid, et al. 2018. “DETECTION OF ANTIBIOTICS RESIDUES IN PROTEIN CONTAINING DIETS (MEAT AND EGGS) OF HUMAN THROUGH DIFFERENT METHODS.” Journal of University Medical & Dental College9(1), 1-11. http://www.jumdc.com/index.php/jumdc/article/view/38

[9] Jayalakshmi, K., et al. 2017. “Review on antibiotic residues in animal products and its impact on environments and human health.” J Entomol Zool Stud, 5(3), 1446-51. https://www.entomoljournal.com/archives/2017/vol5issue3/PartT/5-3-133-778.pdf

[10] See Id.; see Babapour A., Azami L., Fartashmehr J. 2012. “Overview of antibiotic residues in beef and mutton in Ardebil, North West of Iran.” World Appl. Sci. J. 2012;19:1417–1422. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.389.6893&rep=rep1&type=pdf

[11] CDC website. 2019. “Antibiotic resistance threats in the United States.” Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/pdf/threats-report/2019-ar-threats-report-508.pdf

[12] Jayalakshmi, K., et al. 2017. “Review on antibiotic residues in animal products and its impact on environments and human health.” J Entomol Zool Stud, 5(3), 1446-51. https://www.entomoljournal.com/archives/2017/vol5issue3/PartT/5-3-133-778.pdf

[13] Galvão CE, Ribeiro SM, de O Silva GG, Franco OL. November 30, 2018. “Antimicrobial residues in animal products may induce Salmonella spp. resistance in humans.” Future Med Chem. doi: 10.4155/fmc-2018-0247. PMID: 30499348. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30499348/

[14] Consumer Reports. June, 2012. “Antibiotics are widely used by U.S. meat industry Our investigation finds that shoppers have lots of ‘no antibiotics’ choices, but they have to learn how to decipher product labeling.” https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/06/antibiotics-are-widely-used-by-u-s-meat-industry/index.htm

[15] Hall N, Schönfeldt HC, and Pretorius B. 2016. “Fatty acids in beef from grain- and grass-fed cattle: the unique South African scenario.” South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 29(2): 55-62. DOI: 10.1080/16070658.2016.1216359. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/16070658.2016.1216359

[16] Kazunori Koba, Teruyoshi Yanagitab. November–December 2014. “Health benefits of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA).” Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, 8(6): e525-e532. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1871403X13001968

[17] Watkins B and Seifert M. 2000. “Conjugated linoleic acid and bone biology.” J Am Coll Nutr 19(4): 478S-486S. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10963468/

[18] Ribas‐Agustí, A., Díaz, I., Sárraga, C., García‐Regueiro, J. A., & Castellari, M. (2019). “Nutritional properties of organic and conventional beef meat at retail.” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 99(9), 4218-4225. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jsfa.9652

[19] Daley C, Abbott A, Doyle P, Nader G, Larson S. March 10, 2010. “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef.” Nutrition Journal, 9:10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/

[20] Hall N, Schönfeldt HC, Pretorius B. 2016. “Fatty acids in beef from grain- and grass-fed cattle: the unique South African scenario.” South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 29(2): 55-62. DOI: 10.1080/16070658.2016.1216359. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/16070658.2016.1216359

[21] Daley C, Abbott A, Doyle P, Nader G, Larson S. March 10, 2010. “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef.” Nutrition Journal, 9:10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/

[22] Van Elswyk M, McNeill S. January, 2014. “Impact of grass/forage feeding versus grain finishing on beef nutrients and sensory quality: the U.S. experience.” Meat Sci.96(1):535-40. Doi: 10.1016/j.meatsci.2013.08.010. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24018274

[23] Jain R, Bronkema SM, Yakah W, Rowntree JE, Bitler CA, Fenton JI. February 26, 2020. “Seasonal differences exist in the polyunsaturated fatty acid, mineral and antioxidant content of U.S. grass-finished beef.” PLoS ONE 15(2): e0229340. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229340.