Is Grass-Fed Meat & Dairy Healthier?

A photo of grass-fed meat, such as lamb chops.

You’re standing in front of the meat counter, wondering what to buy. What’s going to be the healthiest for your family? What’s going to fit into your budget? And of course, what’s going to be the most delicious for dinner tonight? There are so many choices, with beef, lamb, and pork, and different cuts, from steaks and chops to chuck and roasts. You finally decide what you want to make and what you need to make it, and wave down a meat guy. But right before he reaches into the case, the final question: “Conventional or grass-fed?”

Grass-fed meat and dairy are more common than ever, but it does cost a little more, and the benefits aren’t always clear. Here’s what grass-fed really means, and why it’s worth the extra green.  

What Grass-Fed Means for Meat & Dairy

When you’re shopping for meat, you might notice labels for natural, organic, free-range, grass-fed, or grass-finished. And it’s not just beef anymore. You’ll see it in the dairy case, too, on milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese. The USDA set a standard for grass-fed in 2007, defining it as animals that have only eaten “grass and forage,” after being weaned from their mother’s milk. Traditional feedlots give animals grain to help them bulk up quickly, so letting animals graze freely on grass is the more natural and humane approach. But unfortunately, the standard was withdrawn and is no longer being enforced, so labels can be misleading, and there are no guarantees.

The Difference for Nutrition & Flavor

That said, provided it comes from a trusted source, grass-fed meat and dairy is probably better for you. The animal has an opportunity to move around, which means less white marbling (unhealthy fat!) and more dark red muscle (lean protein!). Two big review studies also confirmed grass-fed meat and milk are higher in nutrients and healthy fats, including vitamins A, E, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. And if your meat is organic as well as grass fed, it’s also less likely to contain antibiotics-resistant bacteria.

“Grass-fed meat is better for your body, the animal, and the environment,” says Katie Forrest, founder and president of Epic Provisions. “But in terms of flavor, it can also be beautiful. Conventional meat is more consistent, but nature is not consistent! Different grasses grow in Texas versus Montana, and your meat should taste different, depending on where it comes from. So don’t expect exactly what you put into your mouth last time, and embrace a variety of flavors.”

But You Still Have to Eat Meat in Moderation

Is it annoying that grass-fed meat costs more? Sure. Is it annoying that grass-fed labels aren’t regulated well? Definitely. But is grass-fed better for you than conventional? Science says yes! But that needs to be put into perspective. Grass-fed meat and dairy might be more nutritious than conventional meat and dairy, but that doesn’t mean it’s better for you than salmon, beans, nuts, seeds, and many other sources of protein. In terms of a healthy diet, you don’t want to eat too much red meat, anyway.

So if you are a meat eater, and you love a good steak, get the most nutrition for your buck. Eat a little less red meat, a little less often, and when you do, pay a little more for quality 100-percent grass-fed meat, from a farm you trust. And if you can afford it, put grass-fed milk and yogurt in your grocery cart, too. It might feel like a few dollars for a small difference, but the health benefits are real.

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