A Literature Review of the Value-Added Nutrients found in
Grass-fed Beef Products
June 2005 Draft Manuscript
C.A. Daley1, A.Abbott1, P. Doyle1, G. Nader2, and S. Larson2
College of Agriculture, California State University, Chico1
University of California Cooperative Extension Service2
Grass-fed beef, or beef produced from cattle finished on forage only diets, has been
touted as a more nutritious beef product. There are a number of reports that show grass-
fed beef products contain elevated concentrations of β-carotene and α-tocopherol,
increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids, a more desirable omega-3:omega-6 ratio, and
increased levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), all substances reported to have
favorable biological effects on human health. The purpose of this article is to summarize
information currently available to support the enhanced nutrient claim for grass-fed
products as well as review the effects these specific nutrients have on human health.
Nutrients of interest for Grass-fed Beef
ProVitamin A: β-Carotene:
Β-carotene, a fat-soluble antioxidant, is derived from the Latin name for carrot, which
belongs to a family of natural chemicals known as carotenes or carotenoids. Carotenes
produce the yellow and orange color found in fruits and vegetables and is converted to
vitamin A (retinol) by the body. While excessive amounts of vitamin A in supplement
form can be toxic, the body will only convert as much vitamin A from beta-carotene as it
needs, thus beta-carotene is a safe dietary source for vitamin A supplementation.
(University of Maryland Medicine, 2002)
Vitamin A is a critical fat-soluble vitamin that is important for normal vision, bone
growth, reproduction, cell division, and cell differentiation (Stephens et al., 1996).
Specifically, it is responsible for maintaining the surface lining of the eyes and also the
lining of the respiratory, urinary, and intestinal tracts. The overall integrity of skin and
mucous membranes is maintained by vitamin A, creating a barrier to bacterial and viral
infection (Semba, 1998; Harbige, 1996). In addition, vitamin A is involved in the
regulation of immune function by supporting the production and function of white blood
cells (Ross, 1999; Gerster, 1997).
The current recommended intake of vitamin A is 3,000-5,000 IU for men and 2,300-
4,000 IU for women (National Institute of Health Clinical Center, 2002; Harvard School
of Public Health) which is equivalent to 900 – 1500 µg (micrograms) (Note: DRI (dietary
reference intake) as reported by the Institute of Medicine for non-pregnant/non-lactating
adult females is 700 µg and males is 900 µg /day or 2,300 - 3,000 IU (assuming
conversion of 3.33 IU/ug). While there is no RDA (Required Daily Allowance) for beta-
carotene or other pro-vitamin A carotenoids, the Institute of Medicine report suggests that
consuming 3 mg of beta-carotene daily to maintain plasma beta-carotene in the range
associated with normal function and a lowered risk of chronic diseases (NIH: Office of
Descalzo et.al., 2005, found pasture-fed steers incorporated significantly higher amounts
of β-carotene into muscle tissues as compared to grain-fed animals. Concentrations
ranged from 0.63 – 0.45 µg/g and 0.06 – 0.5 µg/g for meat from pasture and grain-fed
cattle respectively, a 10 fold increase in β-carotene levels for grass-fed beef. Similar data
is reported by Simonne, et.al., 1996; Yang et.al., 2002a; and Wood and Enser, 1997,
presumably due to the high β-carotene content of fresh forage as compared to cereal
grains (Simonne et al., 1996).
Vitamin E: Alpha-tocopherol:
Vitamin E is also a fat-soluble vitamin that exists in eight different forms with powerful
antioxidant activity, the most active being α-tocopherol (Pryor, 1996). Antioxidants
protect cells against the effects of free radicals. Free radicals are potentially damaging
by-products of the body’s metabolism that may contribute to the development of chronic
diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Preliminary research shows vitamin E supplementation may help prevent or delay
coronary heart disease (Lonn and Yusuf, 1997; Jialal and Fuller, 1995; Stampfer et al.,
1993; Knekt et al., 1994). Vitamin E may also blocks the formation of nitrosamines,
which are carcinogens formed in the stomach from nitrites consumed in the diet. It may
also protect against the development of cancers by enhancing immune function (Weitberg
and Corvese, 1997). In addition to the cancer fighting affects, there are some
observational studies that found lens clarity (a diagnostic tool for cataracts) was better in
patients who regularly use vitamin E (Leske et al., 1998; Teikari et al., 1997).
The current recommended intake of vitamin E is 22 IU (natural source) or 33 IU
(synthetic source) for men and women (National Institute of Health Clinical Center,
2002; Harvard School of Public Health; ARS, United States Department of Agriculture,
2000) is necessary for biological activity. Twenty-two international units is equivalent to
15 milligrams by weight.
The concentration of natural α-tocopherol (vitamin E) found in grain-fed beef is
approximately 2.0 µg/g of muscle whereas pasture fed beef ranges from 5.0 to 9.3 µg/g of
tissue depending on the type of forage made available to the animals (Yang et al., 2002b,
Arnold et al., 1992, Faustman et al., 1998). Forage finishing increases α-tocopherol levels
3-fold over conventional beef and well within range of the muscle α-tocopherol levels
needed to extend the shelf-life of retail beef (McClure et al., 2002). Vitamin E, α-
tocopherol, acts post-mortem to delay oxidative deterioration of the meat, i.e., a process
by which myoglobin to converted into brown metmyoglobin, producing a darkened
appearance to the meat.
Omega 3: Omega 6 fatty acids:
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential fatty acids, which means that they are
essential to human health but cannot be manufactured by most mammalian species. For
this reason, omega-3 fatty acids must be obtained from food.
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are polyunsaturated and grouped into two families, the
omega-6 EFAs and the omega-3 EFAs. Although there are just minor differences in their
molecular structure the two EFA families act very differently in the body. While the
metabolic products of omega-6 acids promote inflammation, blood clotting, and tumor
growth, the omega-3 acids act entirely opposite. However, it is important to maintain a
balance of omega-3 and omega-6 in the diet as these two substances work together to
There are 3 major types of omega-3 fatty acids that are ingested in foods and used by the
body: α-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid
(DHA). Once eaten, the body converts ALA to EPA and DHA, the two types of omega-3
fatty acids that are most readily used by the body.
According to the University of Maryland, an inappropriate balance of these essential fatty
acids (high omega-6/omega-3 ratio) contributes to the development of disease while a
proper balance helps maintain and even improves health. A healthy diet should consist of
roughly one to four times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. The typical
American diet tends to contain 11 to 30 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3
and many researchers believe this imbalance is a significant factor in the rising rate of
inflammatory disorders in the United States (Simopoulos, 1991; Simopoulos 2002).
Scientists discovered the many benefits of EPA and DHA in the early 1970’s when
Danish physicians observed that Greenland Eskimos had an exceptionally low incidence
of heart disease and arthritis despite the fact that they consumed a high-fat diet. More
recent research has established that EPA and DHA play a crucial role in the prevention of
atherosclerosis, heart attack, depression and cancer (Simopoulos, 1991; Simopoulos
2002; Connor, 2000). In addition, omega-3 consumption by individuals with rheumatoid
arthritis has led to the reduction or discontinuation of their ordinary treatment (Kremer,
1989; DiGiacomo, 1989).
The human brain has a high requirement for DHA, low DHA levels have been linked to
low brain serotonin levels, which are connected to an increased tendency for depression
and suicide. Several studies have established a clear association between low levels of
omega-3 fatty acids and depression. In fact, countries with a high level of omega-3
consumption have fewer cases of depression, decreased incidence of age-related memory
loss as well as a reduction in impaired cognitive function and a lower risk of developing
Alzheimer’s disease (Kalmijn et al., 1997a; Kalmijn et al., 1997b; Yehuda et al., 1996;
Hibbeln, 1998; Hibbeln et al., 1995; Stoll et al., 1999; Calabrese et al., 1999; Laugharne
et al., 1996).
There is some consensus among leading nutritionists who consider increases in chronic
disease as no accident; they believe it is directly related to the change in our dietary
patterns over the last 200 years. Our ancestors lived on an omega-6:omega-3 ratio of 1:1,
while our current dietary habits are closer to 10-20:1 (Simopoulos, 1991; Pepping, 1999).
Researchers believe the ideal omega-6 intake should be no more than 4-5 times that of
our omega-3 intake. The National Institutes of Health recently published recommended
daily intakes of fatty acids, specific recommendations include 650 mg of EPA and DHA,
2.22 g/day of alpha-linolenic acid and 4.44 g/day of linoleic acid. However, the Institute
of Medicine has recommended DRIs for linoleic acid (omega-6) at 12- 17 g and 1.1-1.6 g
for α-linolenic acid (omega-3) for adult women/men.
As with the human diet, cattle feed or the composition of the ration has a significant
effect on the fatty acid profile of the final beef product. Cattle fed primarily grass
enhanced the omega-3 content of beef by 60% and also produces a more favorable
omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Conventional beef contains a 4:1 omega 6:3 ratio while grass-
only diets produce a 2:1 omega 6:3 ratio (French et al., 2000; Duckett et al., 1993;
Marmer et al, 1984; Wood and Enser, 1997). Table 1 which shows the effect of ration on
omega 6 and omega 3 fatty acid concentrations in beef, data is reported as g/100g of total
fatty acids in meat produced from the various feeding regimes. The all grass diet
produces the highest omega-3 concentration within the meat product while omega-6
levels stay fairly constant regardless of grain to grass ratio.
Acides by diet
(g/100g of fatty
1kg hay +
8 kg conc.
6 kg grass
(DM basis) +
5 kg of conc.
12 kg grass
+ 2.5 kg of
22 kg of
n-6 fatty acids 2.96
n-3 fatty acids .91y .84y 1.13x
n6:n3 ratio 3.61w 4.15w 2.86x 2.47x 2.33x
w,x,y,z Means within rows with common superscripts are not significantly different
(P>.05) French, et al., 2000.
Rule et al., 2002, reported similar results in a direct comparison of n-3 and n-6 EFAs for
cattle on grain vs. grass, i.e., grass-fed cattle produced higher percentages of omega 3
within the lipid fraction than grain-fed contemporaries.
Table 2. EFAs by diet (as %
of total fatty acids)
n-6 fatty acids 5.66 %a 3.92 %a
n-3 fatty acids 2.90 %b 0.64 %c
n6:n3 ratio 1.95d 6.38e
Means within rows with common superscripts are not significantly different (P>.01) Rule, et al., 2002.
The amount of lipid per serving is highly variable and depends on the feeding regime,
genetics and actual cut of beef, however when lipid content is standard (as in hamburger),
a serving of grain-fed beef at 10% fat would provide 84 milligrams of omega-3 in a 100
gram serving according to French et al., 2000 (.84 g n-3/100g lipid; 100g serving at 10%
lipid = 10g fat/serving; roughly 84 mg n-3). The same hamburger from grass-fed beef
would produce 136 mg n-3/serving.
In general, grass-fed cattle are slaughtered at lighter weights than grain fed beef,
producing leaner (lower fat) carcasses overall. Thus, whole cuts from grass-fed carcasses
will not provide the same quantities of n-3 as described for hamburger at a constant %
fat. Leaner carcasses have the advantage of an overall lower percent fat and a higher
proportion of favorable unsaturated fatty acids. However, ultra lean carcasses (less than
.3 inches of backfat) lead to cold shortening and reduced tenderness, in addition, lowered
fat levels impact eating quality such as flavor and juiciness.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA):
The term conjugated linoleic acid and its acronym CLA is a group of polyunsaturated
fatty acids found in beef, lamb, and dairy products that exist as a general mixture of
positional and geometric conjugated isomers of linoleic acid (Sehat et al., 1999). These
compounds are produced in the rumen of cattle and other ruminant animals during the
microbial biohydrogenation of linoleic and linolenic acids by an anaerobic rumen
bacterium Butyrivibrio fibrisolvens. (Pariza et al., 2000).
Nine different positional and geometrical
isomers result from this process, of which,
cis-9, trans-11 is the most abundant and is the
biologically active form. Cis-9, trans-11
makes up 75% or more of the total CLA in
beef (Ip, et al, 1994; Chin et al., 1992; Parodi,
Over the past two decades numerous health
benefits have been attributed to CLA in
experimental animal models including actions
to reduce carcinogenesis, atherosclerosis,
onset of diabetes, and fat body mass.
The anti-atherosclerotic evidence was first reported in CLA treated mice by Clement Ip
in 1994. Ip and coworkers showed CLA levels as low as 0.05 percent of the diet can have
a beneficial effect in mice. A level of 0.5 percent reduced the total number of mammary
tumors by 32 percent. These results also demonstrated that CLA administered through a
dietary route was effective in providing protection against cancer (Ip et al., 1994).
In a 1996 supplemental feeding study, Carol Steinhart showed a lower level of LDL
(“bad”) cholesterol in both rabbits and hamsters treated with oral CLA, resulting in
significantly less plaque formation in the aortic artery of treated animals (Steinhart,
1996). Presumably this reduction in plaque formation would therefore reduce the
incidence of heart disease. Likewise, David Kritchevsky demonstrated that CLA levels
as low as 0.1 percent of the diet can have beneficial effects by inhibiting atherogenic
activity in rabbits (Kritchevsky et al., 2000). This particular study also showed a 30
percent regression of established atherosclerosis with a CLA level of 1 percent of the
There is considerable data that demonstrates how CLA modulates body composition by
reducing the accumulation of adipose tissue, primarily in experimental animals. In mice,
rats, pigs, and now humans, dietary CLA has been shown to reduce adipose tissue depots
(Dugan et al., 1999; Park et al., 1997; Sisk et al., 2001; Smedmen et al., 2001) Although
there is some controversy within the human data, it is likely that dose, duration, isomeric
composition, age and gender influence the outcome of CLA supplementation. For
instance, lower doses (3g/day: Blankson et al., 2000) had little effect while larger doses
(3.4 – 6.0 g/day) significantly reduced fat mass in humans (Zambell et al., 2000).
These ultra high doses of synthetic CLA may produce ill side-effects, with the most
common being of gastrointestinal origin, although there have been reports of adverse
changes to glucose/insulin metabolism and liver function in some animal studies
depending on the dose and the isomer studied (Tsubooyama-Kasaoka et al., 2000; Delany
et al., 1999; Clement et al., 2002; Roche et al., 2002). In humans, insulin resistance was
reported with ingestion of a supplement enriched with the t10,c12 isomer, but not with a
mixed preparation of predominantly c9,t11 and t10,c12 CLA isomers (Riserus et al.,
CLA is found naturally in a variety of ruminant meats (French, et al, 2000) and dairy
products (Dhiman, et al, 1999), due to the anaerobic activity of the rumen bacterium
Butyrivibrio fibrisolvens. This rumen organism is responsible for the biohydrogenation of
linoleic and linolenic acids into the conjugated isomers referred to as CLA. Because
linoleic and linolenic acid is a precursor, diets rich in these compounds increase the
concentration of the CLA within the fat depot of the animal. Lush green forages are
particularly high in this precursor, therefore, grass-fed ruminant species have been
shown to produce 2 to 3 times more CLA than ruminants fed in confinement on
concentrate-only diets (French, et al, 2000; Duckett, et al, 1993; Rule, et al, 2002;
Mandell et al, 1998).
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (g/100g or g/3.50oz.)
Study Feedlot/Concentrate Range/Grass Amount Increased
French, 2000 .37 z 1.08 w 2.92 X
Duckett, 1993 .82 c 2.2 d 2.69 X
*Rule, 2002 .26 e .41 c 2.04 X
On average, grass-fed beef will provide approximately 123 mg of CLA for a standard
hamburger at 10% fat. The same hamburger produced from grain-fed beef would provide
48.3 mg. (i.e., grass-fed = 1.23 g CLA/ 100g lipid; 12.3 mg/g lipid; 10% lipid/serving =
123 mg CLA).
Research to date would support the argument that grass-fed beef is higher in Vitamin A,
Vitamin E, CLA and Omega 3 when lipids are compared on a gram of fatty acid/gram of
lipid basis. Little work has been done to compare grass-fed cattle to grain-fed at a
constant degree of fatness, most studies harvest cattle after a specific number of days on
feed rather than processing cattle at a logical slaughter endpoint based on degree of
fatness. Because grass-fed cattle are fed lower energy diets, they tend to fatten more
slowly and are slaughtered at a lower % body fat. As percent body fat decreases so does
the concentration of these important lipids like CLA and omega-3 in whole cuts of beef.
Maintaining the favorable lipid profile:
Maintaining the favorable lipid profile in grass-fed beef requires a high percentage of
forages, the more green and fresh the forage, the higher the C18:2 α-linoleic and α-
linolenic acid precursor will be available for n-3 and CLA synthesis. Dried, cured forages
will have a lower amount of precursor, with a slightly lower level of functional lipids in
the final product. However, if cattle are switched over to a diet predominantly composed
of cereal grains, a significant amount of FA remodeling takes place in the intramuscular
fat fraction (marbling or neutral lipid fraction viewed as fat flecks throughout the meat.)
will take place within 30 days of diet transition (Duckett, et al., 1993).
To maintain high functional lipid concentrations, producers must feed forages rich in
C18:2 is to maintain a high concentration of pre-curser compounds in the ration. The
precursor for the n-3 series is α-linolenic (LNA: C18:3 n-3), the higher the concentration
of C18:3 n-3 in the ration, the more n-3 fatty acids will be found in the final product.
Fresh forages have 10 to 12 times more C18:3 than cereal grains (French, et al., 2003).
Likewise, the precursor fatty acid for CLA is linoleic acid (LA: C18:2n-3), the higher the
concentration LA the diet, the higher the concentration of CLA in the meat.
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