Conventional vs Pastured Animals: Is there a nutritional difference?
Here’s a good question: “What creates exceptional health?”
Surely this can be answered in countless ways. Complex movement, quality sleep, supportive relationships, nature immersion, and clean water are just a few of the variables involved in generating exceptional health.
And then there’s diet. “You are what you eat” is the old adage that cannot be ignored. Very few people would disagree with the idea that in order to experience exceptional health, eating as close to our natural diet (whatever that may be) makes the most sense.
This concept makes the most sense for humans (Homo sapiens, the animal), as much as it does for other animals, including cows (Bos taurus), pigs (Sus scrofa domesticus), and chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus).
We’re all animals, and we all thrive on our natural diet.
Digging deeper into the original question, let’s tag on another. If diet plays a major role in the health of an organism, and if an organism thrives on its natural diet, wouldn’t it then make sense to eat organisms that consumed their natural diets?
Yes, assumptions have been proposed, and no research has been cited so far. Let’s move forward, then, and see what the research suggests.
Do animals, raised in natural conditions and fed their natural diets, present improved nutritional profiles compared to animals fed altered diets?
One function of food is to provide certain compounds that our bodies cannot make on their own. Take these fatty acids, for instance: omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Both are considered “essential” in that our bodies must acquire them through the ingestion of food. We cannot produce them on our own.
Traditionally, the human diet received a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids nearing 1:1, respectively (1). Today, that ratio can be as high as 25:1. While essential, linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) has been associated with inflammatory conditions of the body when consumed in extreme excess of omega-3 fatty acids.
Many studies have shown that animals raised on their natural diets may help to improve this situation. Eating pasture-raised animals can balance the omega-6:omega-3 fatty acid ratio, bringing it closer in alignment with the traditional ratio of 1:1. (2) (3) (4).
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
Conjugated linoleic acid is a group of polyunsaturated fatty acids naturally found in beef and dairy. Several studies have demonstrated a correlation between CLA and numerous potential health benefits, including actions to reduce carcinogenesis, atherosclerosis, onset of diabetes, and body fat mass (5).
Research has shown that, while the precursors to CLA can be found in both grass and grains, grass-fed ruminants can produce up to 3 times more CLA than confined ruminants fed grains. One explanation for this large difference is that grain-consumption decreases the pH of the animals’ rumens, which ultimately creates unfavorable conditions for CLA production.
Vitamins A & E
Beta-carotene is part of a class of plant pigments known as carotenoids. Animals that feed on grassy plants uptake carotenoids and pass them into their meat and milk. Beta-carotene is important for human health: it acts as a precursor to vitamin A, a fat soluble compound that is necessary for healthy vision, bone growth, reproduction, cell division, and cell differentiation.
A study from 2005 found that pasture-raised steers contained significantly higher amounts of beta-carotene (up to 7 times as much) in their muscle tissue compared to grain-fed steers (6). Another study demonstrated that the beta-carotene content of ribeye steaks and ground beef from pasture-raised Angus steers was higher than the beta-carotene content found in conventionally raised steers (7).
Vitamin E is another important fat-soluble compound that possesses powerful antioxidant activity. Alpha-tocopherol is the most biologically active form of vitamin E. Research shows that pastured-raised animals contain higher levels of alpha-tocopherol in their final meat products compared to conventionally-fed animals (8) (9).
What does this mean for human health?
It’s simple, really: Whenever we eat animals that were raised in their optimal environments (or as close to them as possible), we tend to receive nutritional profiles that exceed those provided by conventionally-raised animals. In other words, for optimal health, eat animals that ate and lived well.
Adam Haritan is the creator of WildFoodism.com and just recently launched Learn Your Land, a database of Pennsylvania's naturalists and nature-based classes and events.