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It makes sense. Grass is a low-starch, high-protein fibrous food, in contrast to carbohydrate-rich, low-fiber corn and soybeans. When animals are 100% grass-fed, their meat is not only lower in saturated fats but also slightly higher in omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fats found in salmon and flaxseed, which studies indicate may help prevent heart disease and bolster the immune system. Ground beef and milk from grass-finished cattle also have more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which recent data suggest may help prevent breast cancer, diabetes and other ailments. Moreover, grass-finished meat is higher than grain-finished meat in vitamin A and vitamin E, two antioxidants thought to boost resistance to disease. "Grass-fed meat is beef with benefits," says nutritionist Kate Clancy, author of a recent Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) report. UCS, a Washington-based nonprofit, reviewed scores of studies and concluded that a change from grain-based feedlots back to a purely pasture-based system "would be better for the environment, animals and humans."
Radical as that scenario may seem, it was only after World War II that the U.S. began confining cattle in factory farms that can fatten 50,000 head a year on high-calorie grain. Until then, cattle grazed on grass their full lives--as they still mostly do in Europe, South America, New Zealand and other beef-producing nations. The new U.S. system grew thanks to vast surpluses of government-subsidized corn and soybeans, produced with modern petroleum-based fertilizers. Traditionally, steers had taken three to four years to fatten on pasture. Today they grow to slaughter size in less than two years--an efficient industrial process that has transformed beef from a luxury meal into a cheap fast food.
And feedlot beef has the taste and uniformity that U.S. consumers have come to expect. Grass-fed meat, by contrast, varies according to the breed of cattle and the pasture on which it was raised. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), which represents ranchers and feedlots, welcomes grass-finished beef as another market choice but contends that it is no healthier than grain fed. NCBA nutritionist Mary Young acknowledges that grass-fed beef has "slightly" more omega-3 fats than grain fed but says the amount is negligible compared with those in salmon, which has 35 times more. And while grass-fed beef has more CLA, she says, scientists have yet to determine exactly how much is needed for human health. According to the NCBA, growth hormones leave only "minuscule" traces in beef and, by law, meat cannot be sold with antibiotic residues. "All beef, no matter how it's raised, can be part of a lean, low-fat lifestyle," says Young, noting that there are 29 lean cuts of beef, from flank steak to tenderloin.