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Why is beef one of your 10 Most Controversial WHFoods?

What makes beef controversial is not any particular aspect of this food—for example, whether it is grass-fed or non grass-fed, organic or non-organic, more lean or more fatty in cut. It's the nature of the food itself.

Three of the most controversial aspects of beef are (1) lack of regulatory standards needed to assure a natural lifestyle for beef cattle; (2) potential contribution of large-scale beef production to excess greenhouse gas emissions and global warming; and (3) relatively high total fat, saturated fat, and calorie content of beef in comparison with many other foods. Here is more information about each of those controversies.

Lack of regulatory standards to assure a natural lifestyle for beef cows

In the U.S. and in many other countries, the role of beef cows in culture has changed dramatically over the centuries. Instead of a small number of beef cows being cared for by humans living on small family farms, beef production in the United States now involves 91 million head of beef cattle, with 34 million being slaughtered each year and creating a retail equivalent value for beef of $79 billion. Well over 35 billion pounds of beef are consumed in the U.S. each year, averaging out to 57 pounds per person or just over 1 pound per person per week.

The sheer volume of beef production in the U.S. makes it virtually impossible for beef cattle to follow a natural lifestyle. It's not unusual for a beef producer to try to get about 500 pounds of retail cuts from a 1,150-pound steer, and to take a steer from 70 pounds at birth to 1,150 pounds at 14 months of age through an intensive feeding regimen. It would not be an unusual that a daily diet for a beef cow feature 10-15 pounds of corn and five to eight pounds of hay as well as a daily powdered antibiotic to help prevent infection and an estrogen implant to help increase weight gain over time. At the turn of the 20th century, steers were likely to be about three times as old at the time of slaughter as they are today due to the greatly increased rate of growth promoted by large-scale producers of beef.

The practices described above are associated with beef quality that commonly includes residues of hormones like estrogen used to promote growth of beef cattle, decreased amounts of beta-carotene and lutein in the fatty portion of the beef, decreased vitamin E content, and near elimination of omega-3 fats in beef. Beef cows require pasture-based grasses and legumes in order to develop healthy amounts of these nutrients in their cells.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's organic regulations—while forbidding use of antibiotics in production of certified organic beef—do little to assure pasture access or intake of grasses and legumes by beef cattle. Certified organic beef may be obtained from cows who only have access to pasture on 120 days of the year, and who only obtain 30% of their food from pasture on those days. Similarly, USDA certification for grass-fed beef requires continuous access to pasture during the growing season but not during other parts of the year. While it is true that USDA grass-fed animals are required to consume grasses and forages as their food source year-round, they can still be denied access to pasture and fresh grasses during the non-growing season, provided that they continue to consume grasses and forage in some form (for example, in dried or fermented form). USDA grass-fed standards also allow pasture forage to include cereal grain plants like corn, but only if those plants are in the early stages of development before forming seeds.

Requirements for pasture access and grass-based diets are stricter with third-party certification of grass-fed beef by the Food Alliance (FA) and the American Grassfed Association (AGA). These stricter requirements, which help improve the lifestyle of the cow, are one of the reasons that we recommend purchase of grass-fed beef that has been certified by one or both of these organizations.

Potential contribution of beef production to excess greenhouse gas emissions and global warming

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (, the average surface temperature of the earth has increased by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years. This increase in temperature is commonly referred to as "global warming," and it's due to excessive accumulation of certain gases in the atmosphere surrounding the earth. These gases are called "greenhouse gases" because they help turn the earth into a greenhouse that is warm enough for living things to survive. Greenhouse gases are a good thing. Without them, the Earth would still be frozen and unable to support life. However, too many greenhouse gases create a blanket around the Earth that is too thick and traps too much of the sun's heat. If too much heat is trapped, the Earth's ecosystem balances get disrupted, including the flow of rivers, patterns of wind, and animal habitats.

On a global basis, about 10-15% of unwanted increases in greenhouse gases (GHGs) come from agriculture. Even though there is unwanted release of carbon dioxide (a key greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere due to the use of industrial farm equipment that requires the use of gasoline, oil, or natural gas, carbon dioxide is not the primary greenhouse gas of concern in agriculture. That distinction goes to two other greenhouse gases: methane, which is released into the atmosphere from manure (and primarily cow manure), and nitrous oxide, which is released into the atmosphere following use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers used in the cultivation of feed crops for animals (and primarily cows). So there are some direct links between the phenomenon of global warming and the raising of beef cattle on large amounts of grain feed that involve increased reliance on nitrogen-containing fertilizers to grow the grain, and that also results in increased presence of manure due to the greatly accelerated rate of growth in the beef cattle. A more natural lifestyle for beef cattle involving 100% grass feeding can lessen both of these problems. Less focus on extensive grain production for cattle feed can mean less use of nitrogen-containing fertilizer, and it can also mean lower volume of feed consumption resulting in less manure. These favorable environmental consequences of 100% grass feeding are another reason that we recommend selection of 100% grass-fed beef.

It's also worth noting that 100% grass feeding typically means more emphasis on the existence of pastureland for beef cattle. This increased focused on pastureland brings with it more cultivation of food crops and cover crops. Increased crop cultivation, in turn, means increased capture of carbon dioxide by the crops and less release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air.) Some scientists have estimated that widespread use of cover crops and planted pasture land in global agriculture could turn global agriculture into an industry that actually helps reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rather than increasing it.

Relatively high total fat, saturated fat, and calorie content of beef

The total fat, saturated fat, and calorie content of beef can vary widely depending on the cut of beef. Of course, these amounts also vary along with serving size. According to information gathered by the NPD Group—a market research firm operating internationally and in this case, in conjunction with researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Clemson University in South Carolina—the average U.S. portion size for steak served at restaurants across the country is 12 ounces.

So let's look at this serving size, and select a commonly chosen cut of beef like T-bone that qualifies as a higher-fat cut. A 12-ounce T-bone steak, even with all of the visible fat trimmed, will provide you with 687 calories, nearly 33 grams of fat and 12 grams of saturated fat. On an 1,800-calorie diet, those amounts translate into 38% of your total calories for the day, over 50% of your allowable total fat, and nearly all of the saturated fat that you are allowed in a single day. (Based on American Heart Association guidelines, a person consuming 1,800 calories of food should keep their total fat intake between 50-70 grams and their saturated fat intake at or below 14 grams.) A 12-ounce serving of T-bone steak just doesn't leave much room in the rest of the day for higher-calorie or higher-fat foods, and it leaves virtually no room for foods that contain saturated fat. By comparison, consider a 4-ounce serving size of beef from a lower fat cut like strip steak. From this lower-fat cut and conservative serving size you get only 133 calories, 3 grams of fat, and just over 1 gram of saturated fat. These amounts leave plenty of room in an 1,800-calorie meal plan not only for some higher-calorie and higher-fat foods, but even for some foods that might contain higher amounts of saturated fat. Organizations like the American Heart Association recommend that you keep your saturated fat to 7% of our daily calories or less. On an 1,800-calorie diet, that percent would mean no more than 14 grams of saturated fat; you can see how a 4-ounce serving of strip steak stays well under this recommended level for saturated fat.

Given the large average serving size for beef in U.S. restaurants, and the higher fat cuts of beef (like rib eye, porterhouse, brisket, T-bone, and most restaurant ground beef) that many consumers tend to enjoy, we understand the widespread concern that exists about beef as a high-fat, high-saturated fat, and high-calorie food. However, we believe that this concern can be largely offset by selection of lower-fat beef cuts (including top round, bottom round, eye of round, strip and flank) and by reduction of serving size to 4 ounces.

We also believe that 100% grass feeding is part of the solution here, since this practice can improve the quality of the fat that is provided by the beef. While grass feeding does not reduce the amount of total fat or saturated fat in beef, it can increase the presence of omega-3 fat as well as CLA (conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat associated with immune and cardiovascular benefits). Grass feeding can also increase other nutrients in beef, including vitamin E and beta-carotene.


While we believe that a smaller serving size of beef (4 ounces), a lower fat cut of beef (like round, strip or flank), and selection of 100% grass-fed beef can lessen some of the concerns about this food, we understand how controversial it remains and we respect the decision of many individuals to avoid it in their meal plan. We do not consider intake of beef to be mandatory for anyone. At the same time, however, we recognize that some people do well when including it in their diet, and we want to provide as accurate information as we can about this controversial food.

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