Beef: Let's Cut Through the Bull

Got beef with beef?  Let's get past the inflammatory headlines and get to the facts.  Here's the real deal behind some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding this delicious, nutritious protein.  

Beef.  It's what's for dinner.  One of the most successful ad campaigns in beef history, the expression is easily recalled.  Why?  Beef has a special way of creating morsel memories.  Having recently relocated from the city to the suburbs, I long for my favorite juicy burger in Washington Heights.  I can close my eyes and feel the ambiance at the steakhouse where my husband and I celebrated every birthday with juicy T-Bones.  And the savory pastelitos de carne at the local Dominican spot?  Don't get me started.  

As a certified personal trainer and registered dietitian, I've long touted the benefits of beef.  While I respect various food ways and preferences, numbers don't lie: a 3 oz. serving of lean beef provide 25g of high-quality protein for a mere 154 calories.  You'd have to consume 1 1/2 cups of black beans - and take in twice the calories - to get that much protein!  Don't get me wrong - legumes are great, but not the best bang for your buck from a protein perspective.  And beef's nutritional benefits don't stop at high-quality protein.  Here's how its nutrient profile stands up to other sources of vitamins and minerals.

As a lover of all things beef, I jumped at the opportunity to join the NY Beef Council for a weekend of farm tours, beef fabrication, and culinary workshops in the Finger Lakes.  Like, literally, I was jumping up and down when I received the invitation from Cindy Chan Phillips, Registered Dietitian for NY Beef Nutrition.  I received room and board and some delicious meals, but was not compensated for my time.  Feeling so inspired by the weekend's activities, I returned home and voluntartily completed a Masters of Beef Advocacy.  Suffice it to say, I'm feeling even more confident about choosing beef for my family, and recommending it to yours.  So let's bust some beef myths and chow down!

Myth: Beef is full of saturated fat.

Fact: Today's retail beef is leaner than ever, and we're absolutely spoiled for choice at the meat  counter!  We have a whopping 38 lean cuts to choose from, as compared to only six back in 1989. Here's a list of the most popular lean cuts of beef.  

Looking for something with a little bit more marbling?  You know, that yummy stuff that gives a steak flavor?  Here's a little tidbit I picked up in my beef studies: the intramuscular fat in beef is comprised of an average of 40-50% monounsaturated fat - the same healthy fat found in foods like avocado and olive oil.  I know - surprising, right?  Beef fat has long suffered the bad rap as being mostly saturated.  The saturated fat is concentrated in the extra-muscular area, and is often trimmed.  More good news?  Widely-available (and more affordable) grain-finished beef often contains more monounsaturated fat than grass-finished.

Myth: Grass-finished beef is more nutritious.  

Fact: Busted! While grass-finished and grain-finished are both nutritious choices, marketing may lead you to believe the former is superior.  The erroneous label "grass-fed" is like a magnet in the age of fear mongering and misunderstanding about GMOs (and grains in general).  

Two things here: 

1.  All beef cattle spend most of their lives grazing on grass.  The difference is in the finishing phase - the cow's final 150 days before heading to market.  This is when he or she will either continue to graze on grass, or switch to a balanced diet that includes grain.  We'll get to more of that good fibrous stuff later.

2.  Grass-finished beef is often touted as being more nutritious due it's higher omega-3 fatty acid content.  Here's another post that touches on this point.  The truth is that, while beef is a nutritious choice for many reasons, omega-3 fatty acid content isn't one of them.  The difference between the two is insignificant.  Consume foods like salmon and walnuts to up your intake of omega-3s, and choose beef based on taste preference.  The NY Beef Council hosted a blind taste-test at the New York Wine and Culinary Center, and most of us preferred grain-finished beef!  It's more tender, juicy, and has a silkier mouth feel.

Myth: Grain-finished beef isn't sustainable.

Fact: The rumen, the cow's main stomach, is akin to a furnace.  Unlike the human digestive system, it's able to utilize extremely fibrous foodstuffs and convert it into energy.  When this fibrous feed isn't limited to just grass, it can be an upcycling opportunity for other local businesses.  Corn silage, alfalfa, distiller's grain, and other materials that otherwise would be considered waste are all feed sources.  A local brewer makes a great beer, sells his grains to a local cattle farmer, the cows digest it, and the consumer ends up with a a delicious steak.  Is that synergistic or what?!  Another important thing to note is that grass doesn't grow in most climates year-round.  Corn-based silage is plentiful, and therefor arguably a more sustainable choice.

Another note on sustainability: cattle (and dairy) farmers are often making use of land that's unfit for growth of consumable vegetation.  The NY Beef Council showcased Windbrook Farm on our tour, where the herd grazes on hilly, rocky pasture.  

Happy herd at Windbrook Farms.

Happy herd at Windbrook Farms.

Myth: Cows are treated poorly in a factory somewhere.

Fact: No business is perfect.  But from what I witnessed with my own eyes, and knowing the hard numbers in New York, raising beef (and dairy) cattle is a hands-on, all-encompassing lifestyle that's so much more than a job to farmers.  According to, 99% of New York cattle farms are family owned, and 56% of those farms have been in the same family for three generations.  Two family farms in the Finger Lakes region hosted me and 12 other food bloggers - Wilson Family Farm and Windbrook Farm.  I was blown away by their compassion toward their herds.  Dave Wilson (Windbrook Farm) is also a veterinarian - and so is his wife!

But here's the nitty gritty: those beloved cattle eventually leave the farm for the slaughterhouse.  The word alone can make the most carnivorous consumer a bit squeamish.  While the reality is that beef cattle wind up hanging like this...

Scene from the dry-aging locker at Wilson Family Farm.  

Scene from the dry-aging locker at Wilson Family Farm.  

...they got there in the most humane way possible.  If you haven't heard of Temple Grandin, take a look here and here at how she's been designing slaughterhouses (and stockyards) for the beef industry over the past 30 years.  

Myth: Beef is full of hormones.

Fact: Some cattle are treated with growth promotants.  I'm personally not concerned with the hormonal content of the resulting beef.  Here's why: all beef, and most foods, for that matter, contain hormones.  The hormonal difference between a pound of beef that's been treated with a growth promotant and one that hasn't is a matter of 0.2 nanograms.  Yes, you read that right: 2 one BILLIONTHS of a gram.  To put that in some non-food perspective for my female readers, a typical birth control pill contains upwards of 25,000 nanograms. The infographic below sums it up nicely:

Be aware that the most commonly used growth hormone, Rumensin, is an ionophore classified for use ONLY in rumen.  It's not absorbed systemically by the animal, and it's inert (inactive) in soil.  From a business perspective, it doesn't make sense for cattle farmers to utilize hormones OR antibiotics irresponsibly.  USDA testing of beef is precise to 0.01%, and violations carry hefty financial burdens.  If a cattle farmer violates USDA standards by bringing contaminated cattle to auction more than once, that farmer is placed on a public "repeat violator" list.  As if that weren't embarrassing enough, the auctioneer is required to announce that his cattle came from a violator!  The farmer's wallet then takes a serious hit: cattle that comes from a repeat offender is less appealing and commands a lower price point.

Remember: these farmers feed themselves and their families the beef that they raise! They share your concerns about safety and quality.  It doesn't make sense for them to deliver a contaminated product.  

Enjoy that beef!  Enjoy your life!