How Finishing Affects the Flavor and Nutrient Profiles of Beef
The trend toward plant-based protein and meat alternatives continues to gain traction among consumers, but Americans do not appear to be giving up meat entirely — with beef in particular remaining a popular protein source. According to the 2005-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 54 percent of Americans eat beef on any given day. While the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recognize the role of lean meats as a source of protein in healthful dietary patterns, animal welfare, environmental stewardship and evolving evidence on the health implications of beef are hot topics for shoppers. A greater focus on health and sustainable food systems has people asking how methods of raising cattle affect beef quality, along with beef’s role in a healthful diet.
What Beef Cattle Eat
Calves typically nurse for six to 10 months and eventually transition to grazing on grass in pastures for the next year. Variations in climate, location, temperature, grass and soil density affect the type and quality of grass cows consume. Similar to a registered dietitian nutritionist or physician recommending supplements for a patient or client who has a nutritional deficiency, ranchers may give cows a daily multivitamin or supplemental feed if they recognize the soil contains a vitamin or mineral deficiency. From here, cattle either continue to graze on pastures or move to a feedyard or feedlot, an animal feeding operation that works to get cattle to their target or finishing weight. Cows spend their final four to six months in this stage, gaining weight before harvest (slaughter). This time is known as the “finishing stage.” A staff of animal nutritionists, veterinarians and pen riders closely monitor cows’ diet and health. At harvest, cattle will weigh approximately 1,000 pounds to 1,400 pounds and will be 18 to 22 months old.
DYK the term “grass-fed beef” is a misnomer? All cows are grass-fed until the final 4 to 6 months leading up to harvest, during which they may be grass-finished or grain-finished.
Beef’s Role in Healthful Eating
Eating beef is associated with more total calories, protein, saturated fat, sodium, choline, iron, selenium, zinc, phosphorus and B vitamins. Much of the available research on beef’s overall contribution to the nutritional intake of Americans and the data on beef’s nutritional composition are predominately related to conventionally raised, grain-finished beef.
Research is plentiful on the effects of beef consumption on health, but not without controversy. A study published in September 2019 in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded red meat consumption was not linked to adverse health effects such as heart disease and cancer, despite longstanding recommendations from organizations including the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and USDA (in its 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans) to limit processed and red meat intake.
While there is a large body of research that suggests consuming processed and red meat may negatively affect health, other studies have indicated that lean, unprocessed red meat may be beneficial when incorporated into healthful eating patterns such as the Mediterranean diet or DASH diet. Many health organizations recognize that red meat can be incorporated into healthful eating patterns as long as cooking methods, frequency of intake and saturated fat content are closely monitored.
Additional studies indicate nutritional differences in beef are modestly influenced by breed, age, cut, grade, finishing diet and region where the animal was raised.
- Protein: Beef is a complete protein containing all the essential amino acids. Research suggests cattle’s diet does not significantly impact the total amount of protein in beef.
- Vitamins and minerals: Grass-finished beef contains modestly higher levels of α-tocopherol, β-carotene, riboflavin, thiamin, calcium and potassium compared to grain-finished beef, although this is based on limited data from two U.S. studies. No reported differences have been noted for zinc and iron, but mild differences in trace minerals are influenced by local soil conditions.
- Fatty acid profile: Grass-finished cattle are typically leaner than grain-finished. On a gram-for-gram basis, grass-finished beef contains slightly less total fat, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat compared to grain-finished beef. A lean 3.5-ounce raw cut of grass-finished beef contains 2 to 4 grams less total fat than grain-finished beef.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Grass-finished beef can contain up to double the amount of omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain-finished beef (approximately 71 milligrams compared to 36 milligrams, respectively, for a 3.5-ounce raw serving of 90/10 ground beef). However, the overall omega-3 content of beef still pales in comparison to rich sources of omega-3s, such as certain cold-water fatty fish, seeds or nuts.
Decoding the Label: Finishing Systems
Conventionally raised (also known as grain-finished; will likely not contain a label claim)
The most common form of U.S. beef, representing just under 97% of retail beef poundage. Cattle are raised on pasture and finished on grains, roughage, renewable byproducts (distillers’ grains and beet pulp), and vitamins and mineral supplements. Antibiotics and supplemental hormones are allowed in this production system.
Cattle in a naturally raised system are raised without antibiotics or supplemental hormones. They can be finished on grass or grain. This production system represents approximately 2% of total retail beef poundage.
This production system represents approximately 1.5% of retail beef poundage. After being weaned, cattle consume grass their entire life and are finished on pasture or at a feedyard. They may receive antibiotics and supplemental hormones. A grass-based diet is less dense than grain, so it takes longer for cattle to reach their finishing weight.
USDA Certified Organic
Cattle in an organic system must follow USDA National Organic Program standards. Animals cannot receive antibiotics or growth-promoting hormones and must be provided organic grass or feed their entire life. This production system represents less than 1% of retail beef poundage.
Flavor is one key reason for beef’s popularity, largely due to its savory umami (the taste perceived when proteins are broken down into amino acids, rendering free glutamic acid) and effects of the Maillard reaction — the chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that creates more than 1,000 chemical compounds that make up the smell of cooked beef.
Another key factor in the flavor profile and eating experience of beef is intramuscular fat, or marbling. Marbling not only affects mouthfeel, texture and juiciness, but the lipids that oxidize during the cooking process contribute to the beef-y aroma. For this reason, sensory panels have shown more marbling equates to “more flavor”—and the diet of cattle during their finishing stage can affect the amount of marbling in beef, as well as the flavor of the fat itself.
For example, beef with higher concentrations of monounsaturated fatty acids have a lower fat-melting point, making the beef fat softer (thus more tender meat). Likewise, differences in fatty acid content can affect the flavor of beef. Some describe grass-finished beef as “nuttier” with a yellowish tinge to the fat due to elevated carotenoid content. Cattle finished on grain-based diets have more marbling and a higher monounsaturated fat concentration than grassfinished cattle.
In addition to cattle’s diet, breed and the cut of meat, preparation and cooking techniques also play major roles in beef’s flavor and texture. Certain marinades can tenderize tougher cuts. Slow cooking over low heat causes less moisture loss and more consistent doneness, while faster cooking over high heat generates more Maillard reaction.
The environmental footprint of beef continues to be debated. Although cattle ranchers strive to produce high-quality beef using the fewest amount of natural resources, increased scrutiny of cattle’s contribution to climate change remains a contentious topic. As ruminant fermenters (mammals that ferment plant-based food through a chew-regurgitation-chew process prior to digestion to extract nutrients), cattle expel methane primarily from the mouth, but also as flatulence. In 2019, USDA data concluded beef cattle production accounts for 3.7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. However, the USDA did note opportunities for improvement in water conservation and use, as well as nitrogen loss — an umbrella term for nitrate leaching, ammonia volatilization and nitrous oxide emissions.
Cattle are upcyclers, meaning they consume plants that offer no nutritional value to humans to produce a complete source of protein. A 2011 study comparing beef production in 2007 to 1977 concluded modern production requires one-third less cattle, 81 percent of feed, 88 percent of water and two-thirds of the land to produce the same amount of beef 40 years ago. Advancements in animal health, genetics and nutrition are drivers of these environmental changes. They are a key reason why the U.S. beef industry produces 18 percent of the world’s beef supply with 6 percent of the world’s cattle and a carbon footprint that is 10 times to 50 times lower than other parts of the world.
As nutrition science continues to evaluate the impact of beef consumption, it is important to balance beef’s nutritional role and consumer food preferences with potential health and environmental concerns. People who are not likely to (or who simply do not want to) pursue an all-or-nothing approach may consider reserving meat for certain meal occasions; use less meat by combining it with plant-based extenders (such as adding mushrooms or legumes to a beef recipe); or make vegetables and whole grains the main course and enjoy beef as a side dish.
Humane and Ethical Treatment
Ethical treatment and humane handling of animals raised for food production is a consumer expectation and core responsibility of everyone involved in the cattle industry. The people responsible for raising cattle share a commitment to the health, welfare and safety of the animals. The U.S. beef industry developed cattle care handling guidelines called the Beef Quality Assurance program, which aligns with the internationally recognized Five Freedoms of animal welfare. As of December 2019, more than 380,000 people in the U.S. have been BQA-certified.
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