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Calorie Count Blog

The Difference Between Conventional, Organic, and Grass-Fed Beef


By +Carolyn Richardson on Feb 06, 2013 10:00 AM in Healthy Eating

You may get confused about what you're buying when you read food labels on beef products. Organic and grass-fed beef products usually come with a heftier price tag, but are they worth the cost for you and your family? Take a look at the differences between conventional, organic, and grass-fed beef to get a better picture of what you're paying for.

 

Conventional Beef

Conventional beef, or feedlot beef, is the product of what the regulated food industry refers to as Animal Feeding Operations (AFO) or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO). Conventional beef cows consume a diet that ranges from high quality cereal grains such as corn or soybeans, to high and low quality fibrous feeds such as legume hays; grass hays and mixtures of legumes and grasses; and other food byproducts that may include mammalian or poultry by-products. They don’t necessarily have access to pasture, but may have had access during grazing season depending on the producer.

Organic Beef

Organic beef differs from conventional beef cows in diet, access to pasture during grazing season, and the nature of pasture land. The National Organic Program allows organic cows to consume 100% organic plant-based feed including corn, hay, grass, and the like. Organic beef cows graze on pastures that have not been treated with pesticides. Additionally, organic beef cows receive no antibiotics, hormones, or animal by-products in their feed. For more on this, refer to our article Is Organic Meat Worth It?

Grass-Fed Beef

100% Grass-fed cows are treated much like organic beef cows, but they only eat grass and forage. The USDA grass-fed label does not limit the use of antibiotics, hormones, or pesticide use on pastureland. Cows have continuous access to pasture during the growing season and routine mineral and vitamin supplementation is also included. There is no regulation against confinement during "finishing." Grass-fed beef bearing the American Grassfed Association (AGA) label has stricter guidelines. You may also see beef labeled as organic grass-fed. These products align with the rules of both organic and grass-fed regulations. So you know, free-range, pasture-raised, humane, and other labels are not regulated by the USDA.

Nutrition Difference

A 3-oz. cooked serving of conventional 90% lean beef is just 184 calories, over 22 grams of protein, and a great source of vitamin B12, zinc, and iron. Yet, when it comes to grass-fed and organic beef, these options are a bit more nutritious-emphasis on "a bit." Grass-fed and organic beef is known to be higher in “good” fats like Omega-3, lower in “bad” fats and higher in vitamins and antioxidants. This is partially due to the different diets they are fed. That is, the more grain fed the cow, the less Omega-3, Vitamin E and Beta-carotene in its meat. The vitamin and mineral supplementation that some organic and grass-fed beef are fed may also be a boost to the meat's nutritional value. 

The biggest difference in nutritional value is found in the amount of Conjugated Lineolic Acid (CLA) which is naturally found in whole dairy and beef products. CLA has been linked to anti-cancer and fat-fighting properties in animal testing. Multiple studies have found inconsistent results in humans, but more of this healthy fat can't hurt, of course as long as calories are kept in check. Conventional beef provides about 10% of the recommended daily value, while grass-fed beef comes in at around 25% of the daily value. 

The Bottom Line

Whether you choose conventional, grass-fed, or organic is a personal choice based on ethical, environmental, financial, and other concerns. No matter which you choose, the best beef from a calorie counting perspective comes down to going lean. To cut down on total, saturated fat, and calories, choose 90% to 95% lean. It may be hard to find and quite expensive to buy organic, 100% grass-fed, extra lean beef, so make compromises based on what is realistic for you and your budget.


Your thoughts...

Do you buy organic or grass-fed beef? Why or why not?



Comments


I bought grass fed stew meat for the first time recently and found the flavor is so much better. It is expensive and will not eat beef but maybe once or twice/week.



First of all, life is not all about the diet. From an environmental standpoint CAFOs are an abomination. Plus, I am not a PETA person, but from an animal rights perspective they are equally bad. Over a year-long weight loss of 40 pounds I ate the following: never more than 4 oz. of red meat a day and never more than 16 oz. a week; nearly 100% grain fed, leanest cut available; organic, free range chicken only; lots and lots of fish and seafood (with an eye towards sustainability and mercury). Grass fed does taste different and it may take some people a bit to get used to it. It tends to be leaner and lower calorie but you may need to adjust your cooking styles as it can get dry easily. Why not get skinny and save the planet at the same time!



Good for you losing 40lbs. I need to lose at least that.  I put the stew in a slow cooker and it was delicious and tender. 

Did you eat red meat every day? I just saw a program where you need to eat protein with the rest of your meal to lose weight. I'm very confused at this point which meal plan to chose for my weight loss.  My brother is on Paleo but that is so restrictive.

Can you give me an example of a meal that you ate to lose the weight?

 

Thanx

 



Considering that it is difficult to be certain of the quality of the beef, the safest road to take is to eat beef sparingly.  I eat it about five times a year. 



Organic, grass-fed beef is better for the world and better for the beasts.  That alone makes it worth every penny.  If it's better for me as well, that's just a perq.

I get chicken, eggs, pork, beef, and seasonal vegetables from a local organic farmer that delivers weekly.  I am so lucky! 



The feed lot beef is NOT well regulated and very prone to all types of bacteria. The ground beef comes from many cows and many parts of the cows.  The slaughter houses slaughter their cows in an assembly line fashion frequently allowing feces into their meat.  So not only is the grass fed and organic beef better tasting but much healthier from an e-coli perspective!



@ Turbodiet. I looked at everything and did a very interesting comparison of the Paleo Diet, the Zone Diet and the South Beach diet. There are a lot of complications but when all is said and done the biggest common theme is watching the glycemic index. As I said, I eat about 16 oz. of red meat (all grass fed) a week, plus lots of free range chicken and fish. Very little prepared foods (check out the ingredients and calories in a jar of spaghetti sauce for example) ZERO high fructose corn syrup, very little white flour products of any kind (although I don't have any problem digesting glutens, they are just so high on the glycemic index) I also avoid or eat sparingly things that are otherwise good but are very caloric (nuts, for example) and I always cook with Pam instead of oil. I have modified a lot of classic recipes over the years. For example, start with the classic Julia Childs recipe for Coq au Vin and cook it with Pam, no oil, low sodium/low fat bacon, free range chicken, mushrooms and onions, (+ wine, the alcohol boils off). Measure everything. Go online and figure out your maintenance calorie count. To lose 1 pound a week eat 500 calories less than that number.



Original Post by: australopithecus1952

First of all, life is not all about the diet. From an environmental standpoint CAFOs are an abomination. Plus, I am not a PETA person, but from an animal rights perspective they are equally bad. Over a year-long weight loss of 40 pounds I ate the following: never more than 4 oz. of red meat a day and never more than 16 oz. a week; nearly 100% grain fed, leanest cut available; organic, free range chicken only; lots and lots of fish and seafood (with an eye towards sustainability and mercury). Grass fed does taste different and it may take some people a bit to get used to it. It tends to be leaner and lower calorie but you may need to adjust your cooking styles as it can get dry easily. Why not get skinny and save the planet at the same time!


I'd like to point out that is it IMPOSSIBLE to have organic chickens that are really free-range. Free-range, like the article said, is not a licensed, regulated term. Most abide by the recommendation that "animals must have access to the outside world". That, of course, doesn't make sense in the case of cattle-feeding operations, because they ARE outside. Free range in the case of cattle should mean that they are let out into a pasture for a break from the pen on occasion. However, in the case of pigs and poultry, which in most animal feeding operations, are in enclosed structures, free range can mean anything from having a window to actually being let outside. Now, let's say the farmer is really nice to his chickens and they're allowed outside for multiple hours a day. Chickens, like many birds, are omnivores. They love to eat bugs, especially grasshoppers, and these insects can travel for miles. To be organic, they can only eat feed that was produced organically. Whether or not what they scratch up and eat during their outside time is regulated, I don't really know, but the farmer has almost no control over that. So, these chickens that are let outside are likely eating bugs that have either eaten plant parts that were sprayed with something, or came in contact with low doses of pesticide themselves. So, if a chicken is free range to any extent, its diet cannot be confirmed to be organic. And if its diet is organic, it can't be truly free range.

I'll get into whether "sustainable" and "organic" are always one and the same another day...



Original Post by: australopithecus1952

@ Turbodiet. I looked at everything and did a very interesting comparison of the Paleo Diet, the Zone Diet and the South Beach diet. There are a lot of complications but when all is said and done the biggest common theme is watching the glycemic index. As I said, I eat about 16 oz. of red meat (all grass fed) a week, plus lots of free range chicken and fish. Very little prepared foods (check out the ingredients and calories in a jar of spaghetti sauce for example) ZERO high fructose corn syrup, very little white flour products of any kind (although I don't have any problem digesting glutens, they are just so high on the glycemic index) I also avoid or eat sparingly things that are otherwise good but are very caloric (nuts, for example) and I always cook with Pam instead of oil. I have modified a lot of classic recipes over the years. For example, start with the classic Julia Childs recipe for Coq au Vin and cook it with Pam, no oil, low sodium/low fat bacon, free range chicken, mushrooms and onions, (+ wine, the alcohol boils off). Measure everything. Go online and figure out your maintenance calorie count. To lose 1 pound a week eat 500 calories less than that number.


This is a rather lengthy reply to my post that I eat beef maybe five times per year.  But OK, I also eat fish about three times per week and the rest is plant based.  Very little wheat products, but love the buckwheat. 

Eating beef is like eating a piece of cake - I do it very rarely!



Just reading about CAFO operations takes my appetite away. I am trying to limit beef and use organic grass fed when I do. I understand that there's very little nutritional difference but I know it's much better for the environment.

 



I figured out my calorie count and it is 1350. I would barely survive if I cut out anymore calories.  Thus, my problem.   I am starting to incorporate a little exercise.  Slow at first. 5-6 minutes which is all Dr. OZ says you need. But, every day.  Unfortuantely, I've had surgerieswhereby I have few if any hormones left.  Slow, metabolism. 

I just wannt to eat as healthy as I can.  If I have to spend more for organic so be it.



Of course it's not impossible to have organic, free-range chicken and eggs.  Probably you can't find them in the grocery store, but my farmer down the street raises them, and that's what I get. She feeds them organic feed, and they eat bugs that live on her many acres of organic farm, over which they ramble all day.  So, it may be the case that sometimes a bug flies in that might have gone near a conventionally grown crop and the chicken eats it.   If you believe in homeopathy, I suppose that level of potential non-organic exposure might qualify as sufficient to make the whole chicken and any eggs it lays not organic.  I don't believe in homeopathy, so I can live with that.

I eat an egg almost every day for breakfast.  I have made the commitment to not eat any factory meat or eggs, and wouldn't do factory dairy if I had a consistent source for local, grass-fed, organic milk.  It means we eat less meat, because it's expensive.  But it's been three years now and we'll never go back. I won't participate in CAFO's at all, and I limit my participation in conventional farming as much as I can.



It's worth a look around to find sources for non-factory farm products. For one thing, it introduces you to a folks who have the same values you have. I have found they are out there; you just have to look a little harder. 

 



Any suggestions on seafood. I ordered lobster tails, scallops and shrimp from a delivery grocer Peapod.  Does anyone know about this?

 

Also where I live, they sell cow sections, like 1/2 cow, 1/4 etc. Anyone do this?



Cattle are confined in pens and fed grains/corn to fatten them up faster, but their digestive systems are built only to handle grass. So, they are given medicines (antibiotics) to help digest the food, which medicines (and hormones) are passed along to us. Michael Pollan, food writer, reports this in his books. It is also cheaper because ranchers do not need to round up the cattle and herd them in. That's another reason they are fatter -- they are not roaming and grazing. That old profit motive (greed) rules!

Since reading Pollan's books on foods/food industry, we buy only grass-fed beef from a local farmer.

I am 72 and have noticed how much larger our teenagers are and how developed young girls are. Puberty starts earlier, for some girls as young as ten. This, I believe, is from the hormones in our food supply.

I highly recommend all of Pollan's books, well worth reading. My husband, a big skeptic and cynic, has read them all and is a fan!



Forgot to mention I get raw, organic milk delivered every week by the same farmer.

I repeat:  I am so lucky!



That's very interesting.  Will look into it.



Anybody who cares about our planet should give up eating beef. The beef industry is unsustainable and horrific to the environment. It takes well over 4000 gallons of water to produce one pound of ground beef. And this does not even take into account e coli and other nasty stuff in the beef. Just stop eating beef altogether and you will be much happier, like I am.



Raw milk is dangerous and has not been shown to be any healthier than pasteurized milk. Do NOT believe the old wive's tales you hear about raw milk. It can kill you (and does kill a lot of people!). You folks really should do better research before putting anything controversial into your bodies. 

http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/consumers/ucm079516. htm ;



Some of you live in avery narrow, selfish state of mind. It's ok, 7 billion people are EXACTLY just that: selfish, narrow minded and only caring about their welfare. The only morally correct and responsible choice you can make regarding your diet is to GROW YOUR own COWS, CHICKEN and PORK yourself. Then kill it and eat it. One animal should be enough for a person to have a healthy intake of animal fat and protein per year. Buying meat is as unethical as farming and slaughtering animals in inhumane conditions. I don't care if you hate my comment. In a few years hundreds of other species will be extinct because consumerism has replaced whatever trace of humanity human beings used to have.



This article gives options for eating meat raised in different ways. But why isn't not eating meat an option? 



"Animal Feeding Operations (AFOs) are agricultural operations where animals are kept and raised in confined situations. AFOs congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland. ... There's no grass or other vegetation in the confinement area during the normal growing season." - EPA.gov

These animals ("conventional" anything) - they do NOT have access to pasture, regardless the season. These animals are kept in small, tight confined spaces where they literally walk on each other. They are knee deep in their own excrements - their food trucked over to them where they fight or a meal, constantly beefed up (no pun) with antibiotics in rider to keep them alive - not healthy. When "living" in a cell amongst dead brethren - wouldn't one get sick?!

This should not be an issue of whether this beef or that beef is healthier for us to consume.


Original Post by: katchja

Some of you live in avery narrow, selfish state of mind. It's ok, 7 billion people are EXACTLY just that: selfish, narrow minded and only caring about their welfare. The only morally correct and responsible choice you can make regarding your diet is to GROW YOUR own COWS, CHICKEN and PORK yourself. Then kill it and eat it. One animal should be enough for a person to have a healthy intake of animal fat and protein per year. Buying meat is as unethical as farming and slaughtering animals in inhumane conditions. I don't care if you hate my comment. In a few years hundreds of other species will be extinct because consumerism has replaced whatever trace of humanity human beings used to have.


I agree with you - but I do eat some meat. I cannot deny that my purchasing beef, pork and poultry, while I choose organic or natural that's locally farmed, perpetuates the issue. But i can say that at least I am voting for organic and natural every time I purchases. Thank you or the reminder.


ravenlyn - what worked for me is limiting calories by having a set meal for two meals a day, followed by a "free choice" meal for the third.  Any snacks in between were just a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts, logged on calorie count, of course.  The free choice meal had to be whole foods like meat (grilled or fried with very little oil), and a vegetable.  Avoid high glycemic index foods, and I need way more exercise than 5-6 minutes a day for optimal health.  Try adding in extra movement like parking a bit farther from the store, climbing the stairs, walking on a nice day, etc.  The more lean muscle tissue you have, the better your body will be at burning calories and in overall function!  The more exercise you enjoy, the better will will feel and it is a systemic improvement.  Lifting weights helps a lot, too, which I do 2-3 times a week.  I lost 40 lbs. and have kept it off for a year so far.



I was very disappointed in this article, as it did not mention the most important health difference between feedlot beef and grass-fed beef:  The level of Omega 6 fatty acids.

Excessive omega 6 fatty acids are bad for you, and feedlot beef is loaded with them.  Grass-fed and finished beef is DRAMATICALLY lower in Omega 6.  Amazingly lower.  So much lower, it's almost as healthy to eat as fish.

The other unspoken important point is that grass-fed, as was pointed out, might be 'finished' in confinement.  You don't want this.  As soon as the animal is taken off grass, the nutrient balance begins to change.  Omega 6 spikes when you add grain to the diet.  So, what you want is grass-fed and GRASS-FINISHED beef.

I would almost suspect the author of trying to downplay just how unhealthy feedlot beef it, compared with grass-fed/finished beef.  I have to wonder at the motivation.



Original Post by: katchja

Some of you live in avery narrow, selfish state of mind. It's ok, 7 billion people are EXACTLY just that: selfish, narrow minded and only caring about their welfare. The only morally correct and responsible choice you can make regarding your diet is to GROW YOUR own COWS, CHICKEN and PORK yourself. Then kill it and eat it. One animal should be enough for a person to have a healthy intake of animal fat and protein per year. Buying meat is as unethical as farming and slaughtering animals in inhumane conditions. I don't care if you hate my comment. In a few years hundreds of other species will be extinct because consumerism has replaced whatever trace of humanity human beings used to have.


Believe me, I know I'm a self-indulgent, squeamish coward.  That I buy my meat, milk, and vegetables from a single, local farm that has been run by the same family for nine generations and uses sustainable, ethical methods mitigates this only barely, and I do not kid myself otherwise.



Original Post by: Badjuggler

Raw milk is dangerous and has not been shown to be any healthier than pasteurized milk. Do NOT believe the old wive's tales you hear about raw milk. It can kill you (and does kill a lot of people!). You folks really should do better research before putting anything controversial into your bodies. 

http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/consumers/ucm079516. htm ;


http://www.realmilk.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Rebuttalt oFDARawMilkArticle-MAR2012.pdf

http://www.realmilk.com/press/fda-and-cdc-bias-against-raw-m ilk/

http://www.realmilk.com/

FDA can't be trusted.

Do some more research please.  You will be better off for it.

 



Original Post by: qwertycode6

This article gives options for eating meat raised in different ways. But why isn't not eating meat an option? 


Meat has great nutrition...avoiding meat isn't necessary.  Avoiding CAFO meat is a good idea, but avoiding entirely isn't needed.

http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org/wp-content/uploads/2013 /01/A-Breath-of-Fresh-Air-v1.pdf

http://www.animalwelfareapproved.org/wp-content/uploads/2012 /07/The-Grassfed-Primer-online.pdf

Especially fish as fish and seafood have the EPA/DHA needed for our brain development.  Striving for more sustainability is a good idea, but avoiding all meat including Fish isn't good for our health if we want to be our healthiest.



There is a huge difference between pasturized homogenized milk and raw milk. You must visit westonaprice.org! They are really helping farmers making raw milk safe. Pasterized milk is dead and has had it's proteins altered. Some people do much better on raw. the FDA is linked with big ag and is giving raw dairy farmers a hard time. There are ways to make it safe. People starting getting sick when cows were crowded into grain lots, etc.



The major issues that started right before pasteurization were linked to people feeding the cows distillers grains.  On a properly managed farm where they feed them their proper diet the milk is perfectly fine raw.



Original Post by: turbodiet

Original Post by: australopithecus1952

@ Turbodiet. I looked at everything and did a very interesting comparison of the Paleo Diet, the Zone Diet and the South Beach diet. There are a lot of complications but when all is said and done the biggest common theme is watching the glycemic index. As I said, I eat about 16 oz. of red meat (all grass fed) a week, plus lots of free range chicken and fish. Very little prepared foods (check out the ingredients and calories in a jar of spaghetti sauce for example) ZERO high fructose corn syrup, very little white flour products of any kind (although I don't have any problem digesting glutens, they are just so high on the glycemic index) I also avoid or eat sparingly things that are otherwise good but are very caloric (nuts, for example) and I always cook with Pam instead of oil. I have modified a lot of classic recipes over the years. For example, start with the classic Julia Childs recipe for Coq au Vin and cook it with Pam, no oil, low sodium/low fat bacon, free range chicken, mushrooms and onions, (+ wine, the alcohol boils off). Measure everything. Go online and figure out your maintenance calorie count. To lose 1 pound a week eat 500 calories less than that number.


This is a rather lengthy reply to my post that I eat beef maybe five times per year.  But OK, I also eat fish about three times per week and the rest is plant based.  Very little wheat products, but love the buckwheat. 

Eating beef is like eating a piece of cake - I do it very rarely!


Agree on the "free range chicken" not being what you think it is. I saw special about Rosie's chickens, and the so-called free range. Yes. They are organic in that they are fed organic feed. They are in the same industrial farm like buildings. The difference is that they are less total numbers in the building, and their building as a door that opens onto a grass yard. That door is locked for the first 4 weeks of their life. When it is finally opened, the comment was that the chickens didn't use it (since it was never open before).  

One other note is that a free range chicken would NOT be vegetarian. Chickens eat bugs, worms, etc.



Chickens are omnivores yes.  A vegetarian chicken is not one being fed their natural diet.  Chickens will eat grass, bugs, worms etc...

 



Original Post by: raiken3712

Chickens are omnivores yes.  A vegetarian chicken is not one being fed their natural diet.  Chickens will eat grass, bugs, worms etc...

 


Same with pigs.  I've even heard of them eating snakes.  Heh



Original Post by: qwertycode6

This article gives options for eating meat raised in different ways. But why isn't not eating meat an option? 


Two comments - an eye opening documentary is "Kill it, cook it, eat it" which takes a group of young people (from fast foodies, lower demographic, snobs, vegan) through the farmgate, abottoir and to the table to see how your meat is produced. Great watching.

 

Also, the article makes no mention of aged meat - that is meat (generally beef) which has been aged to remove moisture content and improve flavour. So you can buy a smaller piece of meat (equivalent price or slightly more than 'fresh' but it won't shrink like the supermarket stuff.



Cows were biologically created as forage animals, but they are continually forced to eat grain and corn, something their bodies can't digest.  Why does the industrial food market do this?  Because corn is easy to grow, we have large quantities, and it is cheap.  As a result, most of the cattle in feedlots, before they are slaughtered, get sick with different degrees of gastrointestinal illnesses and are treated with antibiotics.  Most cows can only tolerate feedlot diets for around 150 days, before this unnatural diet blows out their livers and kills them.  So for me, it is a no brainer!!  If I am going to consume meat, I only want to eat an animal that has lived its life the way God intended for it to live.  If you are only comparing the differences in nutritional value, in my opinion, you are missing the point.



For me, it comes down to this; I buy beef ( and pork and chicken ) from local producers not simply because it is grass fed/pasture raised/free range but because:

 1) I support my local farmers and the local economy -- our money stays at home when we buy from local producers

 2) It tastes better. That may be a placebo effect or it may be real because for the most part it is fresher

 3) There is no guarantee that I won't pick up some bacteria from the meat but if I do, I know whose window to throw the bricks through.



Original Post by: sarah_petersen

The feed lot beef is NOT well regulated and very prone to all types of bacteria. The ground beef comes from many cows and many parts of the cows.  The slaughter houses slaughter their cows in an assembly line fashion frequently allowing feces into their meat.  So not only is the grass fed and organic beef better tasting but much healthier from an e-coli perspective!


You are soooooo lucky. I envy you. I don't have access to that, I don't think, but I am going to investigate.


Original Post by: sarah_petersen

The feed lot beef is NOT well regulated and very prone to all types of bacteria. The ground beef comes from many cows and many parts of the cows.  The slaughter houses slaughter their cows in an assembly line fashion frequently allowing feces into their meat.  So not only is the grass fed and organic beef better tasting but much healthier from an e-coli perspective!


You are soooooo lucky. I envy you. I don't have access to that, I don't think, but I am going to investigate.


I was pleasantly surprised by the comments on this article. Lots of good thoughtful discussion, and it didn't devolve into mindless anti-meat/anti-govt/anti-humanity vitriol until at least halfway down. That's a step up from the usual!



I try not to eat beef for ethical reasons. If I do ever eat it, its from a local place that has humanly slaughtered organic beef, pork, and chicken.



To me it tastes better.


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