Column #159

Remember my “Phony Grass-Fed” article reviewing a so-called “100% Grass-Fed” steak from Sprouts Farmers Market? After the article hit several readers forwarded it to Sprouts. The responses they got dovetail with my experiences in dealing with many of the larger grocers.

Back in 2000 I tried to sell grass-fed beef to several grocery chains. Their professional meat buyers thought it was just another wacky idea. Ironically one of the rudest receptions came from Whole Foods. Most others had never even heard of it and had absolutely no interest.

I wrote to beef publications about grass-fed beef and, except for some small progressive ones, most mainstream editors were more than rude. They openly mocked me and called me nuts. The “really professional” cattlemen, at that time and still to this day, are either quite hostile to the idea of grass-fed beef or they just nod and go on. The main reason for that response is that they literally raise an inferior product and do not like the grass-fed comparison.

Natural beef is different of course. Natural is grain-fed with all the grain-fed attributes (just no hormone implants and ionophores) so everyone in the cattle industry respects that approach. Money talks and natural sells much better than grass-fed which makes it respectful. Apparently you can’t be respected if you’re small potatoes.

Nearly all meat butchers are equally clueless. They know meat cutting and presentation. They know about Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner. They know “quality” cattle come from feedlots and grain-fed prime, choice, and select cattle are more tender in that order. They like intramuscular marbling yet they have been trained to trim the exterior fat because lean is considered healthy.

Butchers sneer at grass-fed meats which are usually low select or standard grade due to slight marbling at best. They don’t like to process grass-fed meats either. Grain-fed meats have more Omega-6 intramuscular fat and when the meat comes out of the cooler it’s stiff. A knife or saw can always makes nice straight cuts in stiff meat. On the other hand grass-fed meats, at the same cold temperature, are pliable and sort of spongy. They mash down when a knife or saw makes contact and the cut ends up crooked. Grass-fed meats are also naturally dark colored indicating greater nutrient density. For a different reason only 2% or less of the grain-fed animals are “dark cutters” which are discounted and usually sold to the foodservice industry where the meat is cooked before the consumer sees it.

Years ago I visited a feedlot that specialized in finishing “grass-fed” cattle. Their feed bunks were loaded with conventional looking grains mixed with some roughage. There are also grain free feeds that are fed to cattle that are actually worse than grains. Cottonseed meal comes to mind. Some feedlots feed scraps from potato processing. I could go on. Due to ignorance or worse, the feedlots can make their claims and if the meat buyers at Sprouts or other grocers don’t know about the most important differences between grass-fed and grain-fed, what do they care? Their “grass-fed” meats sell and that’s what matters most. Therefore an article by Ted Slanker discussing Omega-6 to Omega-3 essential fatty acid (EFA) ratios doesn’t phase them.

Grain-fed meat marketers want to please customers with tender, mild-flavored steaks. (Mild flavors are why steak sauces and meat batters sell.) Regarding labels, they brag up prime or choice. The other labels they use provide information on calories, protein and fat percent, low fat, cholesterol claims, natural, ingredients, salt, and sugar. But when it comes to understanding the reasons for balanced EFA ratios they are in the same league as the majority of doctors, chefs, USDA MyPlate reviewers, media sources, and meat buyers at Sprouts. They are all clueless in spite of EFAs being one of the most important differences between grain-fed and grass-fed meats.

In a nutshell, to their credit the good folks at Sprouts try to source high quality products. Yet high quality has no bearing on nutrition. They also believe that, in terms of nutrition, not all grass-fed beef is the same. They think the seasonality of the grass, the sex of the animal, the breed, and the meat cut will result in a different nutrient content in every meat test.

Of course what Sprouts believes turns the science of EFAs on its head. It ignores the hundreds of EFA studies involving grass-fed meats. Just for grins, I wonder if they think the nutritional characteristics of their grain-fed cattle varies dramatically because of the same factors they claim for grass-fed meats? Does the 80% corn and 20% roughage ration, which comes from a wide variety of soils and environments around the nation, cause the nutritional characteristics and flavors of beef to vary wildly throughout the year? When heifers and steers are eating from the same feed bunk will the nutrients they receive be utilized so differently that a chemical analyses of their meats will vary significantly?

The answer to those questions is: “No!” If the answer was yes, every trip to the store would result in a different flavored steak. Sure there will always be minor, yet measurable, differences. Different muscles and organs will have different flavors and be physically different. But the EFA ratios will be quite consistent throughout the animal. Overall, a pen of feedlot cattle will be very consistent in their nutritional characteristics and grass-fed cattle off of pasture are just as consistent. That’s because the chemical compositions of green leafy plants and grains are pretty uniform worldwide. That’s why the nutritional characteristics of grass-fed goat, grass-fed lamb, grass-fed buffalo all end up being very much like grass-fed beef yet with slight differences that result in different flavors.

My reason for wanting to eat grass-fed meats is that they are zero glycemic, nutrient dense and diverse, with nearly perfectly balanced Omega-6 to Omega-3 EFA ratios. Grain-fed meats are also zero glycemic but their nutrient density is less than grass-fed even though their nutrients are just as diverse. It’s like comparing kale to iceberg lettuce and their differences are pretty much the same in test after test. Importantly, the EFA ratios for grain-fed meats are usually 10:1 to 15:1 and even higher in some prime meats. The EFA ratio of the Sprouts “grass-fed” ribeye was 8.63:1 which is typical for a steer on feed for 100 days rather than 160 days. In most of the scientific reports I’ve seen, grass-fed meats typically have ratios of less than 2:1 for all cuts. But Sprouts thinks 8.63:1 is normal!

If the folks at Sprouts are focused on selling perfect nutrition, why are so many of their products nutritionally inferior? Sprouts, like all grocers, plays a niche war. They want to appeal to the broadest range of consumers and their marketing style is down home goodness, fresh off the farm. They are not out to change the world, rather they want to attract the broadest cross-section of consumers with a particular theme. For instance they advertise grass-fed ground meat served between buns made with grain. That kind of marketing approach is no different from McDonald's, Walmart, Domino's Pizza, and other food marketers.

When it comes to selling meats, Sprouts sells significantly more very high EFA ratio grain-fed meats such as beef, free range chicken, all natural pork, and organic turkey than they do meats with EFA ratios of less than 4:1. Since their 100% grass-fed steaks have 8.63:1 ratios, which is not grass-fed, the best in nutrition is not their goal. Unfortunately health-conscience consumers who are trying to make a difference in their health fall for the Sprouts-type marketing hype and fail to reach their goals.

My experience over the past two decades is that, just like most large grocers, Sprouts is clueless when it comes to understanding EFAs. So too are most cattlemen, feedlot managers, processors, meat buyers, butchers, medical doctors, media types, politicians, teachers, and even consumers who are thinking about trying to eat healthier.

The tipping point for the general population to understand what the EFA ratio is all about is probably years away yet. Until then we can’t expect others to do our homework for us.

To your health.

Ted Slanker

Ted Slanker has been reporting on the fundamentals of nutritional research in publications, television and radio appearances, and at conferences since 1999. He condenses complex studies into the basics required for health and well-being. His eBook, The Real Diet of Man, is available online.

Don’t miss these links for additional reading:

Phony Grass-Fed by Ted Slanker (The first column regarding a Sprouts steak.)

Ionophores: A Technology to Improve Cattle Efficiency from Pennsylvania State University

Nutritional Composition of Red Meat by P. G. William
An Analysis of Australian and New Zealand red meats which are primarily grass-fed.
Dark-Cutting Beef by Jeff Savell from Texas A&M Meat Science

Grades of Meat from American Meat Science Association

A Guide to Federal Food Labeling Requirements for Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products from Food Safety and Inspection Service

Interpreting Omega-3 Blood Tests by Ted Slanker

The Importance of the Ratio of Omega 6 Omega 3 Essential Fatty Acids by Artemis Simopoulos M.D.