If you care about all those things—as well as the nutritional quality of your beef—it's best to avoid conventional supermarket beef and buy organic, grass-fed beef from a farmer, natural food store, or a more health-oriented supermarket. Research has shown that grass-fed beef is higher in cancer-fighting conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), desirable fatty acids like omega-3s, and nutrients like vitamin D, magnesium, and potassium; while typically being leaner than its corn-fattened counterpart. (Here's why it's more important to be an ethical omnivore than a vegetarian.)
However, true 100% grass-feed beef isn't always easy to come by. Catering to the public's desire for more eco-friendly meat-production processes, companies have started stamping labels on food that don't always mean what you think they do.
Here, we break down some common (and confusing) terms and what to look for to ultimately find the best beef out there.
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"Grass-fed" doesn't always mean 100%
The feds recently decided to revoke the standards behind the USDA Grass Fed label. Grass fed still exists as a marketing term—it just won't be held up by any official set of rules from the government. When you want to ensure your meat is 100% grass-fed, look for the following third-party verified labels: Animal Welfare Approved Grassfed, American Grassfed Assocation, Demeter Biodynamic, or Food Alliance Grassfed labels—all of which ensure the animals were fed a diet of grass, hay, and forage their entire lives, and provided access to pasture. Keep in mind, though, that only meat from "ruminant" animals—animals that survive on grass, such as cattle and sheep—can be labeled grass-fed. (So if you ever see eggs or pork with "grass-fed" on the package, buy another brand.)
Related: Why Grass-Fed Dairy Is Better For You, And How To Avoid The Fake Stuff
If you simply opt for USDA Organic beef, you should know that—even if the cows are grass-fed most of their life—the animals can be "finished" on organic feed made from grains such as corn and soy to fatten them up so they're ready to slaughter sooner. That's a bummer because "you've eliminated all the health benefits [of grass-fed beef] in three months when you finish them with grain," says Jo Robinson, founder of the online meat retailer EatWild.com. Feeding grain to cattle, she says, increases the acidity of an animal's stomach, increasing the levels of bacteria, including E. coli, in their guts. So it's best to look for grass-fed beef with one of the labels above or—if you're buying from a local farmer—simply ask if their cows were fed grass and only grass for their entire lives.
"Pastured" doesn't necessarily mean grass-fed
You'll often see beef, along with pork and poultry, marketed as Pastured and Pasture-Raised, but these aren't USDA-regulated either, so you can't put much stock in these terms alone. (One exception: Owners of small, local farms often use this phrase to market their meat—and most of them really do raise their cattle on pasture.) These terms typically mean that animals are outside eating plenty of grass, but may also be fed some supplemental grain, too, says Shannon Hayes, a partner at Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. "Usually, the label is applied to omnivorous animals [like chickens and pigs] that need something in addition to grass to survive" she adds.
Related: The 6 Healthiest Meats For You And The Planet
To make sure you're getting animals that did have ample pasture access, choose Animal Welfare Approved, American Grassfed Assocation, Demeter Biodynamic, or Food Alliance Grassfed. (Depending on your standards, USDA Organic might fit the bill too—it stipulates that animals have pasture access for about half the year at least.) And if you're buying from a butcher shop or the farmers' market, ask the farmer or owner if the animals have free access to pasture and how many days or months out of the year they graze on it.
Buying grass-fed beef from a farmer who can tell you how he treats his animals and how he finishes his animals is the gold standard. Failing that, your best bet is to look for a third-party certification such as the American Grassfed Association. (For more detailed information on these third-party labels, check out this article.)
"These [certifying agencies] are doing important work, but they're also doing the job of replacing the relationship between consumer and farmer," says Hayes. "If you can't know your farmer, you should know the person who knows them. There should never be more than two degrees of separation between your grocer and your farmer."