Where's the Beef?  Why Pasture Matters

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

I’ve got a beef...with meat marketing. In case you haven’t noticed, the meat case has become cluttered with confusing labels. There’s “natural,” “organic,” “antibiotic free,” “hormone-free,” “grass-fed,” “vegetarian-fed,” and more.  Dietitians, let alone consumers, can hardly keep the terms straight. 

To further the confusion, there’s a tendency for well-meaning educators to categorize similar foods under one umbrella, such as “all meat,” “beef,” or “animal products.”  For example, here’s some advice recently dished out by a fellow dietitian: “For personal health, and for the health of the planet, reduce your intake of animal products.”

This over-simplified message puts all animal products in one condemned basket and does a disservice to both consumers and organic farmers. In fact, there’s growing scientific evidence (1, 2, 3), showing that organic beef, which comes from pasture-raised cattle, is both safer and more nutritious than meat coming from cattle raised conventionally with hormone implants, antibiotics and GMO feed such as corn and soy. In other words, organic beef is a different animal.   

Why the emphasis on pasture? Cattle were designed to eat grass. When we let them graze, as nature intended, their ruminant digestive system works its magic, turning grass, hay and legumes into delicious meat with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. By contrast, conventionally raised cattle, which are fed a steady diet of grain, produce meat with a higher percentage of omega-6 fatty acids. (1, 3)

Why is the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids so important? While both of these fatty acids are essential for health, over the past 100 years our diets have become deficient in omega-3 and overly abundant in omega-6 fatty acids, due largely to industrial food and farming systems that over-produce corn and soy. In fact, today most American diets provide at least 10 times more omega-6 than omega-3 fatty acids. To get our diets back in balance, most health experts advise consuming more omega-3 and fewer omega-6 fatty acids. (4, 5, 6, 7)

According to biochemist Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., consuming more omega-3s may be one of the most important dietary changes we can make to cut our risk for chronic disease, reduce inflammation, improve mental health, reverse emotional distress, enhance our children’s brain and eye development, and even boost their IQs. In fact, Hibbeln believes that correcting our dietary imbalance of omega-6 to omega 3 fatty acids could reduce the worldwide incidence of cardiovascular disease by 40 percent. (6, 8)

At the University of Pittsburg, researchers are investigating the role of omega-3 deficiency on teen anxiety and hyperactivity. They are especially interested in studying adolescence, because it is a time when youth might be more vulnerable to developing mental illness. (9)

How can we identify meats that provide our families an omega-3 advantage? This question takes us back to the meat case. First and foremost, understand that the “natural” label means little, yet it’s the most misunderstood by consumers. The word “natural” may conjure up pastoral images, but don’t be fooled. The term simply means minimal post-slaughter processing. The label has absolutely nothing to do with how an animal was raised, what it ate, or even if it received hormones or antibiotics. (10)  Brands labeled as “natural” may sound “down-homey” but it’s often a smoke screen hiding global corporate owners. (11) Surprise!

“Grass-fed” animals receive the majority of their nutrients from grass, but this label alone does not tell us anything about whether the animal received antibiotics or hormones.  “Vegetarian-fed” animals likely received GMO corn or soy feed.

Only the “organic” label provides us with the best guarantee that our meat has been produced without genetic engineering, antibiotics, artificial hormones, or irradiation. A third-party certification provides assurance that National Organic Program (NOP) rules are carefully followed, including ensuring a high percentage of the cattle’s diets come from pasture. This means more omega-3 fatty acids on your family’s table.

Need more proof of pasture’s benefits? Organic Prairie beef has been independently tested for omega-3 and omega-6 content compared to conventional beef. The good news: Organic Prairie beef contains nearly twice the omega-3s as conventional beef and lower omega-6 content, providing a just-right ratio of 2:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.

Putting cattle on organic pasture – where they belong – nurtures healthier animals, people and planet. 



1. “Greener Pastures: How Grass-fed Beef and Milk Contribute to Healthy Eating,” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2006. http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/solutions/advance-sustainable-agriculture/greener-pastures.html

2.  “The Benefits of Organic Food and Farming: Navigating Headlines, Questioning Conclusions and Calling for Common Sense, Hemmelgarn, M., http://www.organicvalley.coop/community/beyond-the-plate/benefits-of-organic-food-and-farming/

3. “The Grass is Greener: Organic Pasture Perfect for Cows, Humans & Our Planet,” Hemmelgarn, M.

4. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Health,” Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health, October, 2005. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcidsandHealth-HealthProfessional/

5. “The importance of the omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid ratio in cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases,” Simopoulos, A.P., Exp. Biol. Med., June 2008.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18408140

6.   Food Sleuth Radio, Capt. Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., June 2, 2011. http://kopn.org/a/fl2.html?http://kopn.org/dc/fs/06-02-11%20Food%20Sleuth%20Radio.mp3

7.  “Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality by Composition: A United States-Wide, 18-Month Study,” Benbrook, C., et al. , PLOS One, Dec. 2013. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0082429

8.  Food and Behavior Research, Capt. Joseph Hibbeln. http://www.fabresearch.org/545

9.Adolescent Behavior and Dopamine Availability Are Uniquely Sensitive to Dietary Omega-3 Fatty Acid Deficiency,” Bondi, C.O., et. al., Biological Psychiatry, July, 2013.

10.  USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, National Organic Program, Consumer Information: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/ams.fetchTemplateData.do?template=TemplateC&navID=ConsumerInfoLinkNOPFAQsHome&rightNav1=ConsumerInfo

11. Mike Callicrate, Ranch Foods Direct, Rural Life Day, December 7, 2013. Jefferson City, MO.

Pasture Plus

Cows are miracle machines, able to turn green grass into sweet, creamy milk, and lean, nutritious meat. But dairy cows in particular, have tremendous energy and nutritional needs to maintain healthy pregnancies and produce, on average, 50 pounds of milk per day.  

Fred Martz, former professor of animal sciences at the University of Missouri, says when pasture is "low in quality, animals do not gain and grow as they should."   That's when cows may need supplements to complement what may be lacking in their high-forage diets.

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