In other words, that ground beef patty from cattle fed native Texas pastures contains only 5% of the DRI for ALA for women, and just over 3% of the DRI for ALA for men. Yes, grass-fed ground beef contributes to the omega-3 fatty acids in our diets, but can it be considered a significant source of ALA?

For comparison, a tablespoon of canola oil (about 14g) contains 1.4g of ALA. This is more than the DRI for women and almost as much as the DRI for men.

That same tablespoon of canola oil also contains 8.4g of oleic acid, which is similar to the amount of oleic acid in olive oil. Researchers have known for decades that oleic acid has positive health benefits, such as reducing LDL-cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) and perhaps increasing HDL-cholesterol (the good cholesterol). The World Health Organization has recommended that intake of oleic acid should be 15%-30% of daily energy intake.

For women, that would be equal to 25-50g/day of oleic; whereas for men, that would be equal to 40-80g/day of oleic. TAMU research shows that men consume about 20g/day of oleic acid, and women consume about 12g/day, but this can be nearly doubled by consuming ground beef high in oleic acid, such as ground beef from grain-fed cattle or cattle with Japanese genetics.

Grass feeding definitely does not increase the amount of oleic acid in beef. The quarter-pound ground beef patty from grain-fed cattle contains over 2g more oleic acid than ground beef from grass-fed cattle. In fact, the grain-fed ground beef patty contains nearly the same amount of oleic acid as the tablespoon of canola oil. Also, ground beef from grass-fed cattle has 2g more saturated fat plus trans-fat than the patty from grain-fed cattle.

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So, which is better, more omega-3 fatty acids (grass-fed) or more oleic acid with less saturated/trans-fats (grain-fed)?

TAMU studies demonstrate the effects of ground beef from grass-fed and grain-fed cattle. Men consumed both types of ground beef for five weeks in randomized crossover trials. In older, mildly hypercholesterolemic men, ground beef from grass-fed cattle decreased HDL-cholesterol. In men with normal cholesterol levels, only ground beef from grain-fed cattle increased HDL-cholesterol.

Neither ground beef type increased LDL-cholesterol in men. TAMU research similarly demonstrated that consuming ground beef does not affect LDL-cholesterol in postmenopausal women.

In men, plasma insulin was decreased by ground beef from both grass-fed and grain-fed cattle, indicating that ground beef in general reduces this important risk factor for type II diabetes. Thus, neither type of ground beef had negative effects on risk factors for CVD or type II diabetes, but the ground beef from the grain-fed cattle provided more positive health benefits by increasing HDL-cholesterol.

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What about the cholesterol content of ground beef? Many websites claim beef from grass-fed cattle is lower in cholesterol than beef from conventionally raised cattle. A Texas Tech University study found no difference in cholesterol in ground beef from grass-fed and grain-fed cattle if the fat content is similar.

Early TAMU research demonstrated that the cholesterol in beef and beef products is stored in both the lean and the fat within the meat. If you trim all fat from beef (including the marbling), there will be about 45 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol in a 4-oz. serving of beef. For every 1% increase in total fat content, there is a 1-mg increase in cholesterol. So, ground beef that is 95% lean (5% fat) contains about 50mg of cholesterol, and ground beef that is 85% lean (15% fat) contains 60mg of cholesterol. This is as true for beef from both grass-fed and grain-fed cattle.

At this point, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that ground beef from grass-fed cattle is a healthier alternative to ground beef from conventionally raised, grain-fed cattle.

Stephen B. Smith is a Regents Professor and Texas A&M AgriLife Research meat scientist in the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University.


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