Sure, some people love their vegetarian diet…but others just can’t imagine living life without steak, burgers and beef bourguignon. Maybe there’s no reason they should have to!

It’s definitely unhealthy to eat a lot of red meat… but just how unhealthy? It depends in part on how the beef is prepared andin part on something you may not have thought much about — what the cow ate on its way to becoming your dinner.

If you want to eat steak (or prime rib, beef stew or any other beef dish), it pays to be particular about what kind of beef you eat. Even your run-of-the-mill supermarket has lots of different alternatives you can choose from… not only a variety of cuts of beef with varying fat content, but also beef that is “antibiotic-free,” “organic,” “grass-fed” and even “free range.” Are any of these truly healthier or just marketing gimmicks? It’s a fair question. I took the query to nutritionist Jonny Bowden, CNS, author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.

Grain Is Junk Food for Cows

I’m sure you are familiar with the old saying, “you are what you eat.” It should come as no surprise to learn that it applies not only to people but also to cows — and to a cow, eating grass is the equivalent of eating natural, whole foods. Unfortunately, only a very few cows have that luxury. At this point, 100% grass-fed cows (also called “pasture-fed”) constitute only about 1% of the nation’s beef, though the number is growing.

Instead, most cows eat grain, which is like junk food to them — and (just like with people) eating unhealthy food extracts a toll. “Cows are meant to eat grass, not grain,” Bowden told me. Since grain is high in omega-6 fatty acids, cows raised on grain produce meat that is high in inflammatory omega-6 fats. Grass in pastures contains healthier omega-3 fatty acids in abundant amounts and that, too, is reflected in cows’ meat.

Related problem:While all cows start out eating grass, 75% are moved to commercial feedlots where they eat grain and live very short, brutish lives in confined quarters. Cows from factory farms (called “CAFOs,” for “confined animal feeding operations”) also are fed antibiotics (to prevent disease) and growth hormones and steroids (to make them very fat very quickly). The beef produced this way is laced with unhealthy drug residue that you don’t want to ingest, Bowden points out.

Grass-fed beef, however, is a whole different animal. Not only is it richer in omega-3s, but it also contains measurable amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthful type of fat that is thought to help fight cancer. Several studies have demonstrated that grass-fed beef has more vitamin A and E than its grain-fed counterpart, not to mention antioxidants such as glutathione and superoxide dismutase (SOD) that help fight cancer.

Grass-fed beef is also better for you because of what it does not have. Most grass-fed beef is antibiotic- and steroid-free. It’s also lower in fat. For instance, a USDA study of one brand (Mesquite Organic Foods) found that their grass-fed ground beef was 65% lower in saturated fat than grain-fed beef, while their New York strip cut was 35% lower in fat.

What the Label Says… and Doesn’t Say

Now that I’ve explained why grass-fed beef is healthier, my job is only half done — you need to know exactly what you are looking for when you head out to buy your meat, since it’s not quite as clear-cut as you might guess. You’ll need to read the labels closely. Bowden offered some tips…

  • You want to buy beef that is labeled “100% Grass Fed” or has the “American Grassfed” logo on its label — which indicates that the farmer meets standards set by the American Grassfed Association. You can find this kind of beef at high-end grocery stores such as Whole Foods.
  • Don’t be fooled into thinking buying “organic beef” necessarily solves the problem. It may merely mean that the cow was fed organic grain (meaning, essentially, pesticide-free grain), but “beef shouldn’t be raised on any grain diet,” Bowden said.
  • A label that says “grass-fed” isn’t good enough either, believe it or not. Beef only needs to be 80% grass-fed to earn this label, and many so-called “grass-fed ranches” send their cattle to feedlots for the final weeks of life, where they are fattened up on corn (which may or may not be organic) and sometimes given growth hormones as well. So, look for that 100% grass-fed label.

Is It Worth the Price?

Obviously, raising a 100% grass-fed animal is far more time-consuming and expensive than raising one on a feedlot farm… and, as you’d expect, the price reflects that. This kind of beef can be 20% to 100% more expensive. I’m convinced that the health benefits alone are worth the extra cost — but is it as good to eat?

Well, grass-fed beef can be tough. “Dry-aging,” a process by which the meat is refrigerated for up to several weeks before being sent to market, is done by some meat purveyors — it makes the meat more tender and flavorful, but is another factor that can drive up the cost even more. For tips on how to cook grass-fed beef, check the American Grassfed Association site at

As far as taste, I did an “informal” test and cooked up some regular rib-eye steaks and burgers along with others that were grass-fed for a gathering that included two families, adults and teens, and a seven-year-old child. The verdict was nearly unanimous:Every person except the seven-year-old said that the grass-fed beef was loads better — more succulent, juicy, tender and delicious.

The seven-year-old simply asked if we could pass the ketchup.