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Grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef: What’s the healthy choice?

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When shopping at the grocery store, you may have noticed that the meat counter offers grass-fed beef as an alternative to conventional beef.

Grass-fed beef has gained attention, particularly among fitness buffs who follow a paleo or “caveman” diet, because of its supposed heart-healthy benefits.

Studies have shown that grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fatty acids than conventional grain-fed beef. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered “good” fats for heart health.

However, that doesn’t mean grass-fed beef is a significantly better source of omega-3s than grain-fed beef, says Ruth Litchfield, an Iowa State University nutrition scientist.

A 3-ounce serving of grass-fed beef has about 0.015 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Nutrient Database. “So 100ths of a gram of omega-3s,” Litchfield notes.

In comparison, a 3-ounce serving of conventional ground beef has about 0.003 grams of omega-3s, according to the National Nutrient Database.

“The key message is although there is a statistical difference (or more omega-3s) in grass-fed beef, is it enough to be clinically significant (i.e., impact health outcomes),” Litchfield says. “There is no clinical trial testing this question, but knowing the recommendation of omega-3 intake and the amount of beef it would require to achieve that recommendation inclines me to think no, it’s not clinically significant.”

Beef in general – whether grass-fed or conventional – isn’t considered a good source of omega-3s, especially when compared to fish, Litchfield said.

A 3-ounce serving of wild-caught Alaskan salmon has about 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, much greater than the 0.015 grams of omega-3s in grass-fed beef, according to the National Nutrient Database.

“You would have to consume 100 times the amount of (grass-fed) ground beef to get the same amount of omega-3s as the similar portion of salmon,” Litchfield says. “So in the scheme of things, you can’t eat enough (grass-fed beef) to make a significant impact on your (omega-3) intake.”

However, all beef is considered a good source of many other essential nutrients, including B12, iron, zinc and protein.

The USDA also recommends lean beef as part of a healthy diet in its MyPlate dietary guidelines.

So whether it’s grass-fed or grain-fed beef, both are nutritious choices. Farmers will continue to provide what consumers prefer depending on their personal tastes, lifestyle and budget.

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