What's the Beef?

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, August 1, 2006

If you've ever stood at the meat counter pondering whether to buy plain-old beef or to spring for the various niche varieties proliferating in food stores, you're not alone.

"Consumers do not understand the difference between all-natural, grass-fed and organic beef," notes Rick Machen, who grew up on a cattle ranch and is now a livestock specialist at Texas A&M University. "I don't understand them myself, and I'm a university professor. It's something that the industry needs to work on so that consumers fully appreciate and understand the differences between those products."

That hasn't stopped consumers from plunking down at least $2 more per pound at supermarkets -- and sometimes far more at high-end restaurants -- for various types of niche beef. "In terms of nutrition, there is little appreciable difference," Machen notes.

Nor are there even clear definitions. While a standard for certified organic beef was implemented by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2002, there is no government definition for free-range beef. USDA also doesn't have a formal standard for certified Black Angus beef, though it enforces an industry definition that dictates hide color, neck size, degree of marbling, age and other features.

In May, the USDA proposed a standard for grass-fed beef -- not necessarily the same as free-range beef -- after a failed attempt in 2002. The deadline for public comments on that standard is Aug. 10. Under consideration: Cuts of beef labeled "grass fed" must come from steers that have eaten grass at least 99 percent of the time from weaning to the slaughterhouse.

That may sound healthier than standard beef, "but the way we produce beef right now is almost all grass-fed," notes Jose Pena, an agricultural economist with Texas A&M University. "Eighty percent of calves are born in the spring and weaned in September." After that, they graze on grass or mesquite during their roughly 20-to-30-month-long lives.

If the proposed USDA standard is finalized, "grass-fed" steers will keep grazing until they go to the slaughterhouse. The others, including many certified organic cattle, will likely spend their last couple of months eating corn, barley or other grain in a feedlot to add the final 250 to 400 pounds before slaughter, when they weigh about 1,200 pounds.

It's this grain feeding "that gives steak the marbling and makes the fat white," says Pena, a former beef rancher. Otherwise, the fat is "yellow and kind of funky-looking, and the beef has a grassy taste," he says.

As for certified organic beef, it must come from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics or hormones. All their food, from mothers' milk to grassy pastures and feedlot grain, must also be certified organic.

Organic beef is often touted as a safer bet for those concerned about mad cow disease. But neither organically raised livestock nor other steers in the United States are allowed to eat feed containing ground-up protein from other mammals -- the practice that was linked to the spread of the illness in animals and has been banned by the USDA since 1997.

Where niche beef can sometimes have a slight nutritional edge is in the type of fat it contains, says Chris Kerth, an associate professor of animal sciences at Auburn University in Alabama. Grass-fed beef contains "anywhere from two to 10 times as much omega-3 fatty acids as regular beef," Kerth notes. These healthy fats are known to be important for the brain, for the heart and possibly for mood.

Plus, grass-fed beef has a healthier ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. In the last century, Americans have shifted to more processed foods that contain far more omega-6s than omega-3s. Studies suggest that there could be health advantages to returning to a diet that has much more omega-3s.

Even so, "if increasing omega-3s is your goal," notes Keecha Harris, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetics Association, there's far more in a serving of salmon than in any kind of steak.

According to a recent review of the research conducted on grass-fed beef, other possible nutritional advantages include slightly increased levels of beta carotene, which is converted in the body to vitamin A. It also appears to have a little more vitamin E, and it seems to contain more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a type of healthy fat. There's growing evidence that CLA may help reduce risk of cancer, diabetes and heart disease, and may be linked with a lower percentage of body fat.

But what about taste? In two independent tests -- one conducted by the University of California, the other by Auburn -- two-thirds of consumers preferred standard beef to grass-fed.

Or as Texas A&M's Machen puts it: "I prefer the grain-fed beef taste, which is just as safe and wholesome as the organic or grass-fed product, and it is significantly less expensive." ยท

Join Sally Squires, author of "Secrets of the Lean Plate Club" (St. Martin's Press), online today from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub, where you can also subscribe to the free, weekly Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter.

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