It doesn't matter to me if you eat beef, but I want to clear up some confusion for those who DO eat red meat and worry they shouldn't or DON'T eat red meat but wish they could.
Beef Myth #1: Beef is bad for your health
IT DEPENDS…Beef is often automatically thrown in the junk food category, and many health-conscious folks piously claim they don't “eat red meat” to avoid heart disease and cancer. The fact is, when the pros and cons of beef are up for discussion, it is essential to differentiate between conventional factory-produced beef and beef which is traditionally pasture-raised.
Conventional beef is all wrong. I'm tempted not to go into details here hence you lose your appetite, but gosh darn it, you just need to know. CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) or IFAP (Industrial Farm Animal Production) are the factories that grow 99% of meat in America. Ninety-nine percent!
Cows are herbivores, designed by nature to eat grass and clover; but CAFOs cattle are fed genetically modified corn.
Cows eating corn is a bit like humans eating Lucky Charms – for every meal. Not good. Improper diet tends to create health problems for the cows, so they are often given antibiotics as a routine measure. They are crowded into grass-less bits of land – so you have unhealthy, stressed-out cows, standing in their own poo.
Because of their crappy diet and poor conditions, when they are processed, the meat needs to be uniformly decontaminated, so it is sprayed with ammonia. No, this is not an exaggeration.
So besides the obvious pairing with potatoes fried in rancid vegetable oil, your Big Mac certainly has plenty of reasons to contribute to heart disease, cancer, and other ailments. With 99% of meat coming from this type of operation, it is no wonder beef has such a bad reputation!
On the other hand, good quality beef – from pastured-raised cows – is a nutrient-dense, health-promoting food containing no antibiotics or hormones. It's a great source of saturated fat and cholesterol your body needs to function properly.
By the way, the modern epidemic of heart disease should not be blamed on grass-fed beef, bacon, butter, and cream, but on unhealthy vegetable fats such as margarine, canola, corn, and soy oils as well as the groceries' aisles of other processed foods.
Grass-fed beef also contains more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) which supports the immune system and may help fight cancer; omega fatty acids, and vitamin E. Both the omega-3 fats and CLA in grass-fed beef actually reduce the risk of heart disease.
One concern that's valid regardless of where your beef comes from is the temperature that you use to cook it. Broiling, grilling, or blackening at high temperatures can cause carcinogens to form on any foods (including veggies), so the best cooking methods are slow, low stewing or baking, or lightly grilling to medium rare.
Beef Myth #2: You can get sick from beef
E. coli and other pathogen levels are high in CAFO cattle because improper diet makes their stomachs more hospitable to E. coli (Journal of Dairy Science). Many people cook their meat extra well-done as a measure to kill any harmful bacteria.
My vote: Don't buy sick meat in the first place.
BOTTOM LINE: Healthy (grass-fed) cows make healthy meat.
Beef Myth #3: Cattle farming is bad for the environment
CAFO are horrible for the environment. Factory farmed beef contributes to the earth's ozone depletion largely because the feed factory cows eat requires such a large amount of energy to grow, harvest, and deliver. The soil it is grown on is depleted of nutrients and thus requires tons of chemical fertilizer, and the machines that harvest and deliver the feed require gasoline.
On top of that, the cows' excrement has no fertile soil to enrich, so it is washed into our water systems and pollutes other crops. Remember the e coli on spinach and the recent cantaloupe recall for listeria? These are food borne pathogens that most likely came from the runoff of industrialized meat farms.
Conversely, grass-farming typically incorporates rotational grazing, an efficient use of natural resources. It eliminates the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers required to grow unsustainable corn and soy, and eliminates the problem of pollution from animal waste, since manure cycles right back into pasture soils during grass-farming. This circle of efficiency reduces soil erosion and flooding, and contributes to diverse and healthier ecosystems.
BOTTOM LINE: Traditional pasture-raised cattle ranches are actually GOOD for the environment.
Beef Myth #4: The cattle industry is inhumane
Again the difference is stark: Factory-farmed, grain-fed cattle are confined in feedlots, while grass-fed cattle range free on pasture. They graze on healthy grasses in fresh air, and they are not dosed with antibiotics and hormones on a regular basis.
Grass-fed cattle do not suffer with the same health problems and are not “sickened” by living conditions that include over-crowding, stress and discomfort.
BOTTOM LINE: Factory-raised meat practices are inhumane. Pasture-centered farm practices are not.
Beef Myth #5: I can't find good beef
This reminds me a bit of my husband looking for a mysterious ingredient in the kitchen. If you continue shopping the same grocery store meat counter looking for high quality, local, pasture-raised beef, you will not find it. Remember that 99% of meat is factory-raised, so you need to get a bit creative here.
The best way to find good beef is to find a farm near you that raises healthy cows.
If you don't have time or access to local farms, many ranches offer direct shipping to your home.
Second best, find a health food store or small butcher, that sources the beef for you. Currently, Whole Foods in my area sells organic grass-fed beef since consumers (like you!) have been demanding it.
Note: While the label “organic” conjures up ideas of health, know that organic corn and/or grain-fed beef is not the best choice. It is more important that the cows are raised on un-sprayed pasture and eat grass and hay, NOT corn or soy. “Grass-finished” means the cattle were raised entirely on pasture and not fattened up with grain before harvest. Talk to the butcher or farmer to find out how your meat was raised.
A word on dining out: Despite the price you pay, most restaurants save cost by using conventional, factory raised meats. Unless the menu clearly states so, assume your choices for healthy meats are limited in most eateries. Here's how to eat out while being a conscious, healthy consumer.
Beef Myth #6: Grass-fed beef is too expensive
You get what you pay for. Good quality beef costs more, but the health of you and your family is absolutely worth it. With a bit of practice (and cutting out the junk) your food budget will likely even out.
Ways to stretch your red meat dollar include eating less steaks and “cheaper” cuts like ground beef and stew meats. As much as possible (limited only by availability and your comfort level), aim to eat as much as the ‘whole animal' as possible – bones make wonderful stocks for soup, and organ meats including liver and heart are super nutrient-dense.
The take home message
- Pasture-raised beef is good for you and the environment.
- Factory meat will make you sick and wreaks havoc on our planet.
- Choose good quality, and listen to your body – Eat meat when you crave it!
- If the cost is prohibitive, eat less, but always, always choose grass-fed, and preferably from a farmer you've met yourself.