Where’s The Beef? Decoding Package Labels

It seems like you can’t walk down a grocery store aisle without being bombarded by labels – “free range,” “grass-fed,” “antibiotics-free,” the list goes on and on. Poultry and eggs have their own set of classifications and rules, and beef is no exception.

Beef is a staple in Americans’ diets – in 2013, 25.8 billion pounds of beef were produced, according to the North American Meat Institute. The way that cattle were treated and fed can impact the taste and nutritional content of beef, so read on to learn the scoop about what those package labels mean so you can make the best decision for you and your family next time you’re food shopping.

The way cattle was raised affects how beef tastes.

Most of the beef sold in the U.S. comes from grain-fed cattle, according to ExploreBeef.org. These cattle are raised in an open pasture where they are allowed to graze, however, they are later transferred to special feedlot area where they are fed grain for 4-6 months. To producers, feeding cattle grains has advantages because it causes the cattle to grow quicker, requires less space than a pasture and causes the beef to be marbled, fatty and juicy, noted The Nourish Evolution.

However, there are disadvantages to the grain-feeding method that have caused consumers to seek out alternative methods. Feeding cattle grains makes them susceptible to certain illnesses, which antibiotics are then required to treat. Also, the cuts of beef can be tougher and fattier, and contain high levels of cholesterol and saturated fat. Furthermore, there are some concerns about the ethics of holding cattle in feedlots, and grains are not natural to cow’s diets.

Unlike grain-fed cattle, grass-fed cows are allowed to roam and graze on an open pasture their entire lives. Grass-fed cattle are not administered antibiotics or other hormones and are not kept in feedlots, according to the American Grassfed Association.

"Grass-fed beef contains more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed."

One major advantage of grass-fed beef is that it's believed to be healthier than grain-fed. According to Mercola, grass-fed beef contains two to four times omega-3 fatty acids, which promote heart health, higher levels of vitamins A and E and less saturated fats. Additionally, grain-fed beef also has higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid. CLA, as it's referred to, is found in animals that were not fed a diet of grains, the source reported, and according to research, the acid stops people who are trying to lose weight from gaining more weight. Since seasonal weather conditions can make producing large amounts of grass-fed beef challenging, it can be more expensive to buy, noted ExploreBeef.org.

While grain-fed beef can be rich and fatty, grass-fed beef can have a tendency to taste a bit drier since it's leaner. For the best taste, The Nourish Evolution recommended that you marinate the meat to make it more tender and avoid overcooking it and instead cook it to rare or medium-rare.

For beef to be certified organic, it must follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's guidelines on organic livestock. These requirements mandate that organic beef must come from cattle that were not genetically engineered in any way, were not administered antibiotics and hormones, were fed 100 percent organic feed and and were raised in an environmentally conscious way that allowed the cattle to have year-round access to the outdoors. ExploreBeef.org noted that grain feed can be certified organic, and that vitamins and minerals may also be added to the feed for nutritional reasons. Organically raised cattle, while required to have access to the outdoors, can still be detained temporarily, and the source mentioned that the majority of cattle in the United States already have pasture access.

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