This past weekend Ben and I attended the “Gathering of the Good Graziers” conference in Western, MA. This is put on by the New England Grazing Network and the Northeast Pasture Consortium.
During breakfast one morning we heard Stephan Van Vliet of Utah State University speak about “Nutrient Density in Meat Systems.”
I’ll be perfectly honest that whenever I see a university title in a speaker bio, I’m expecting my eyes to glaze over during the presentation.
However I was on the edge of my seat scribbling notes the entire time. I should have known since this guy has a publication titled: Limitations of the Food Compass Nutrient Profiling System, where he claims that the Harvard Study’s “chosen algorithm is not well justified and produces results that fail to discriminate for common shortfall nutrients, exaggerate the risks associated with animal-source foods, and underestimate the risks associated with ultra processed foods.”
Basically, this guy has not been bought by industrial agriculture and big pharma. We like him.
He jumped right into talking about the Omega 6:3 ratio. If you’re like me, you have some vague understanding that one of these is good, and one of these is less good. But is it 3 that you want more of, or 6? And what are they, exactly?
I’m still a little foggy on what they are exactly, but I did learn that there is an ideal ratio. An Omega 6:3 ratio that is considered “healthy” is 4:1. The standard American diet (SAD) is currently at 18:1.
How does this affect us? I took this straight from a study on NIH (National Institute of Health)
“Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, as is found in today's Western diets, promote the pathogenesis of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, whereas increased levels of omega-3 PUFA (a low omega-6/omega-3 ratio) exert suppressive effects. In the secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease, a ratio of 4/1 was associated with a 70% decrease in total mortality.”
Stephan carried out a study where his team tested a number of different beef cuts from confinement beef operations and grass-fed beef operations for the Omega 6:3 ratio.
The results from both grass-fed and confinement had ranges. The greatest cluster for grass-fed was around ~2:1 and the greatest cluster for grain-fed was ~8:1.
Why is it so much higher in grass-fed beef?
Forages are rich in omega-3 alpha linolenic acid while grains are richer in Omega-6 LA. It turns out the old adage, "You are what you eat." is true in cows as well.
DPA and EPA are the two major omega-3 fatty acids ing grass-fed beef, which are important for cardiovascular health, reducing inflammation, and brain function.
One of the most interesting part to me was that the “grass-fed” beef that was purchased from the commodity market and came from other countries, tested more similarly to the confinement beef across the board.
This signals to Stephan and to me that this beef may not actually be grass-fed.
Now, the ratio is more favorable in grass-fed beef, but is beef a significant source of Omega 3 fatty acids? If you look up a notable dietician on Instagram (sustainabledish), you’ll see that she is often saying, “No, grass-fed beef isn’t a good source of Omega’s either way.”
However in randomized controlled trials carried out by Stephan’s team, where adults ate 1lb of grass-fed beef vs 1 lb of grain fed beef per week, Omega 3 levels were raised in the adults eating the grass-fed beef.
It gets even more interesting. As I mentioned earlier there were a range of farms in the grass-fed category. There were the commodity market samples that were from other countries, there were samples from continuously grazed farms, and there were samples from small farms practicing rotational grazing.
The farms practicing rotational grazing had the lowest 6:3 ratio and that correlated to the diversity of plants that the cows were eating. The study found that the cows with the most diversity in their diet had the lowest 6:3 ratio, with diminishing returns after 8-10 different plants.
Intuitively I have known that grass-fed beef on a diversified farm has to be the best. I believe that what’s good for us is good for the earth, and vice versa. Now it’s fun to have another tool, science, to back up what I’ve known all along!
Now, worth noting is that, although grain-fed beef has a higher ratio than ideal, the ratio is still less than half of what the average American is eating. If you don’t have access to grass-fed beef, still eat beef!
At the end of the presentation, an audience member asked if this study changed the way Stephan feeds his family. Do they eat grass-fed beef now?
His answer, “Of course, I’m human. We buy most of our meat from small local farmers. But am I going to be afraid to eat a hamburger at a cookout? No.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.