By Meghan Filbert
Grass-fed beef is all the rage. So much so, it can be found in every mainstream grocery store and ordered from Omaha Steaks. Nutritional claims abound — it’s leaner, more nutrient-rich and contains a better balance of healthy fats than traditional grain-fed beef.
Two Iowa farm families—Bruce and Connie Carney, and Dave and Meg Schmidt—set out to see how their beef measures up. Both families are cattle producers and members of Practical Farmers of Iowa.
A combined 27 ribeyes from the two farms — Carney Family Farms in Maxwell and Troublesome Creek Cattle Co. in Exira — were sent to laboratories at Iowa State University to be analyzed for fat content, flavor and tenderness. These ribeyes were from Red and Black Angus 100% grass-fed cattle, finished between 20 and 32 months old, with carcass weights ranging from 528 to 772 pounds.
The objectives of this research project were twofold: to evaluate the use of ultrasound in determining the optimal harvest window for 100% grass-fed cattle, and to better understand variables in meat quality. This article explores the latter.
Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids
“One of the big things in nutrition right now is the idea of trying to balance omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in your diet," Dave says. "The idea is that traditional human diets were closer to a 1-to-1 ratio.”
ISU STUDY: Ribeye steaks produced from grass-fed cattle on these two farms were submitted to Iowa State University for analysis.
In short, omega-3 fatty acids are a type of polyunsaturated fat that promotes health, particularly heart health. This is what’s found in fish oil. Omega-6 fatty acids are critical to support our bodies but cause inflammation if not kept in balance with omega-3s. Vegetable and seed oils contain high levels of omega-6s.
The American Heart Association recommends an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 4-to-1. “Most Americans’ diets are around 15-to-1,” Dave says, “and if you eat a lot of fast and fried food, it’s closer to 20-to-1.”
According to AHA, this skewed ratio promotes heart disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases due to chronic inflammation. On the other hand, research by Artemis Simpopoulous, author of “The Omega Diet,” and founder and president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health, found that a ratio of 2.5-to-1 reduced cancer cell proliferation and anti-aging experts tout ratios of 2-to-1.
In PFI’s study, the average ratio of the 27 grass-fed ribeyes was 1.8-to-1, ranging from 1.4-to-1 to 2.2- to-1. “Grain-fed beef tallow is 17-to-1, grain-fed beef is about 10-to-1 and grass-fed tallow is 1.5-to-1,” Dave says.
“If you’re looking to adjust your diet to bring down those ratios, grass-fed beef is one way to do it.” Bruce adds: “Grass-fed producers are able to use these health benefits to differentiate ourselves from the conventional beef industry. We need to continue talking about the health aspect of our product."
Tested for tenderness
Not all grass-fed beef is created equal, and because of varying quality, it has received mixed reviews in terms of tenderness and flavor. Along with nutritional benefits, this research project also tested the ribeye’s tenderness and flavor, among other variables that define a beef-eating experience.
The ribeyes were subjected to the Warner-Bratzler Shear Force test, which measures the force required to cut through a piece of meat. The average force required to cut the 27 ribeyes was 6.8 pounds. The National Beef Tenderness Survey conducted by Texas A&M, which reports top loin takes 4.5 pounds (most tender), ribeyes take 5.2 pounds and top round takes 9 pounds (most tough) of force to cut through. Note that the survey consisted of primarily grain-fed beef.
Testing didn’t stop there. Ribeye samples were taste-tested by a group of panelists in Iowa State University’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Department. The panelists rated the ribeyes on their juiciness, tenderness, chewiness, beef flavor and presence of other flavors in the meat. Average scores are reported in the table below. It’s important to note that laboratory protocols were followed to prepare meat for the taste test. This meant the grass-fed ribeyes were prepared in the same manner as grain-fed beef.
SENSORY DATA: This table shows the average score from Bruce Carney’s and Dave Schmidt’s 27 ribeye steaks tested by ISU.
Preparation plays a significant role in the eating experience of grass-fed beef. Low and slow is key. Grass-fed beef is generally leaner than grain-fed beef, meaning there is less insulation in the meat. Thus, moisture and fat will be lost if it is cooked too hot, explains Shannon Hayes, author of “The Gourmet Grassfed Cookbook.”
Dave agrees: “Grass-fed beef, when cooked properly, is capable of comparing more favorably in juiciness and tenderness to grain-fed beef than is indicated by the ISU results.”
According to Stanley Fishman, author of “Tender Grassfed Meat,” properly cooked grass-fed meat will have “a depth of flavor, a dense, meaty texture, [and] a good clean mouthfeel” that can’t be replicated by grain-fed beef. However, a consumer unfamiliar with grass-fed beef may find these flavors objectionable.
In PFI’s ribeye study, the sensory evaluation shows the ribeyes had a mild beef flavor with the detection of other flavors. The results described some of these other flavors as gamey, metallic, grassy and oxidized.
Ken Prusa, a professor in ISU’s Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, believes these flavors are normal in grass-fed beef.
Bruce agrees and tries to educate his customers about this fact. “We help our customers realize our beef may taste more like deer or elk, which eat what’s available to them at different times of the year,” he says. “This results in different meat flavors with varying consistency, more like wild animals.”
To achieve greater consistency of flavor, Bruce finishes his cattle on annual forages. But he adds that off-flavors are usually the result of environmental conditions. “In a drought, forage quality decreases. Consistency is harder to achieve in grass-fed vs. grain-fed because feeding grain provides control,” he says. “With grass-fed and forage-fed, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature. As we build soil health on our farms and learn how to grow better-quality forages, these flavors will improve.”
BETTER BEEF: Cattle producer Bruce Carney poses in front of his grass-fed beef carcasses at Mingo Locker.
“What really matters is what our customers think,” says Meg, noting that one of their customers loves the grass-fed beef because it tastes “clean.” The Schmidts have yet to have a customer complain about flavor; in fact, many have become repeat customers who tell the Schmidts they thoroughly enjoy Troublesome Creek beef.
Nutritional benefits explored
“Grass-fed beef costs more to raise and finish, but when you take the health aspect into consideration, I think you’re spending money on preventive health care,” Bruce says.
Dave says much of the grass-fed beef found at grocery stores is produced overseas as cheaply as possible in conditions very similar to conventional feedlots, using ration supplements that bend the assumptions about what grass-fed means.
In contrast, local family-run grass-fed cattle operations, such as those managed by the Carney and the Schmidt families, typically keep their cattle grazing fresh forage in productive pastures for as much of the year as possible. A definitive test of whether an animal was truly grass-fed is the omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio of the meat. “We work hard to keep our cattle gaining weight on an all-forage diet,” Dave says. “Having ISU confirm that our beef really does have the beneficial characteristics of a grass-fed ration is very gratifying.”
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Filbert is livestock program manager for PFI.