Image: Steaks on the grill
Grass-fed beef packs up to a third less fat per serving than grain-fed beef. The fat it does have boasts more benefits: A three-ounce serving contains 35 milligrams of the heart- and brain-protecting omega-3s EPA and DHA, compared with only 18 milligrams for the same serving of meat from grain-fed stock.
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updated 7/27/2008 1:52:41 PM ET 2008-07-27T17:52:41

Environmentalists, E. coli sufferers, the Skinny Bitches — the list of beef haters grows longer every day. But let's face it: For a lot of people, biting into a thick, juicy steak ranks up there with make-up sex and cocktails on the company's dime as one of those priceless MasterCard moments. So what's a carnivore with a conscience to do?

Instead of focusing on what you're eating, how about taking a look at what your prime rib had for lunch last week? Research is showing that beef from grass-fed cattle is leaner, healthier, and less costly to the planet —  and may even be safer to eat than the heifers you're chewing on now.

Omega moos
Most U.S. raised bovines feast on a grain mix made up mainly of cheap corn. Just like humans on a high-carb diet, grain-fed cows fatten up fast. This gives ranchers a quick, inexpensive turnaround from the feedlot to your supermarket's meat department. But a number of retro ranchers are feeding their herds the way they all did 50 or so years ago: letting them roam the fields to graze at will. They're switching to grass for a variety of reasons, including a desire to improve their animals' quality of life.

"It's very difficult to get into the mind of a cow," says Cynthia Daley, Ph.D., a professor of animal science at California State University, Chico. "But in my opinion, if you gave them a choice, they'd choose grass over grain every time."

It just so happens that what makes herds happy also makes their meat healthier. Beef from grass-fed steer (the industry lingo is "grass-fed beef") packs up to a third less fat per serving. The fat it does have boasts more benefits: A three-ounce serving contains 35 milligrams of the heart- and brain-protecting omega-3s EPA and DHA, compared with only 18 milligrams for the same serving of meat from grain-fed stock.

Steers that munch on pasture also have twice the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) per serving (26 milligrams, compared with 13 milligrams in grain-fed). According to Kate Clancy, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, early research in rats has linked higher CLA levels with easier weight loss and a reduced risk of heart disease as well as certain types of cancer.

Another possible health perk: fewer bouts of food sickness. The Journal of Dairy Science has reported that levels of E. coli are usually higher in grain-fed cattle. The leading theory, says David Pimentel, Ph.D., professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, is that grain creates an environment in a steer's stomachs (they have four of them, remember?) that's more hospitable to the nasty bug, adding to the likelihood that the meat of a grain-fed animal will be contaminated with E. coli during processing.

More grass, less gas
Cattle farms leave a Sasquatch-size footprint on our air quality, but that can't all be blamed on Bessie's methane-emitting farts. The problem is that growing the corn to feed the cows produces a load of greenhouse gases. Corn production takes a huge number of what those in the enviro biz call energy inputs.

Is it worth it to buy organic?Among these are chemical fertilizers added to the soil and the fuel that's burned by harvesting machines. In fact, a single acre of corn requires 14 energy inputs, Pimentel says. That wouldn't be a big deal if we were growing just enough corn on the cob for the Johnsons' annual clambake, but the U.S. produces 1.5 billion bushels of the yellow stuff each year — just to feed cows.

By contrast, a field of grass gets its energy from the sun — pretty much the ultimate renewable resource. Of course, ecofriendly ranchers still use farm machinery and transport the beef on trucks, but it takes half the fossil-fuel energy to produce two pounds of grass-fed as it does to produce the same amount of grain-fed, Pimentel says. Bottom line: Eating a burger that has nibbled on turf reduces our damage to the planet in a big way.

Claim your steak
We'll readily admit that the place you feel the grass-fed-versus-grain-fed difference most is at the supermarket. A seven-ounce top sirloin steak from a grass-fed steer — that is, if you can find it — will run you about $9.50, compared with about $2.20 for conventional beef. But if higher-priced beef cuts down overall meat consumption, the cost might not be so bad: Consider that the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends eating less than 18 ounces of beef a week (regardless of what the cow eats) and that researchers at the University of Chicago have found that if Americans reduced red meat consumption by 20 percent, they'd save as much energy as they would if they switched from regular sedans to Priuses.

So where do you find it?

Though still rare, grass-fed beef is distributed by 1,000 companies —  a huge leap from 1999, when there were just a dozen, says Allan Nation, editor of The Stockman Grass Farmer. Specialty stores like Whole Foods now offer it, and some supermarket chains, including Publix, are starting to sell it. Farmers markets and local-food merchants are also good places to look. But the best place to buy may be online — sites will either direct you to stores in your area or ship the beef right to your home. (Go to womenshealthmag.com/beef for a list of Web sources.)

No matter where you're shopping, look for your top round roast to bear a black-and-white label that reads grass-fed and USDA process verified. Just last year, the USDA raised its standards for what could be termed "grass-fed," and the agency plans to debut the new label soon, though it hasn't determined when.

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

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