Where's The Beef (From)?

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

The most famous question in the beef industry comes from genius ad-man Cliff Friedman's legendary campaign for Wendy's: "Where's the beef?" That iconic commercial of the three old ladies peering at Wendy's competitor's fluffy hamburger bun and not being able to find the meat changed the landscape of the fast-food business, and added a new phrase to our lexicon.

Flash forward some 24 years and those of us who remember when that commercial originally aired are no longer looking for larger portions of beef -- if our health allows us to eat it at all! We still have questions about it, though, and I think the first one should be "Where's the beef from?"

If you want to find out, two good places to start are and a book called The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollin. The latter should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding how our government's farm policies have had perverse effects on our food supply. According to Pollin, when cattle naturally feed on grass (as Mother Nature intended) it takes 5 years to raise them for slaughter. Most commercial cattle raised today are matured in 18 months. They're on a fast track: fed grain and corn that's genetically modified to be high in starch. It makes them get fat fast. And it just might be making us get fat fast, too.

According to Eatwild, a 3-ounce serving of grain-fed beef contains 8.5 grams of fat. The same amount of grass-fed beef contains slightly over 2 grams of fat (less fat than chicken thighs, as shown on the chart that Eatwild helpfully supplies). That's quite a difference, especially when you figure that the average restaurant hamburger starts at 8 ounces! If that difference in fat content didn't grab you, there's more.

Eatwild says that studies have shown that grass-fed beef contains 2 to 4 times the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids than grain-fed beef. It also contains higher amounts of vitamin e, beta-carotene, and folic acid. Eatwild goes on to point out that, with the average American eating 66.5 pounds of beef per year, a person could lose 6 pounds per year simply by switching from grain-fed to the lower-fat grass-fed beef. And not give up a single burger in the process! And I won't even go into the health (and ethical) benefits to the animals themselves of being grass-fed, benefits which are passed down the food chain to those of us who eat them.

There are endless variations on the hamburger, of course. Every restaurant has it's specialty, which can range from grinding different cuts of meats to seasonings and other added ingredients. Although these days the rage (for good reason) is low-fat, the ugly truth is that a good burger needs at least a little fat to make it taste good, to give it that yummy sizzle on the grill. The old-fashioned American hamburger was riddled with fat: a 70/30 ratio (meaning 70% meat to 30% fat). These days you're more likely to find "inventive" chefs adding fat (sometimes after the beef fat has been removed from the meat) in the form of things like foie gras or blue cheese, which is pretty anti-health for their customers. I'll admit it. I'm a purist and loathe the idea of fattened goose liver in my burger. But at least I have a choice there: I don't have to order that foie gras burger.

The beef industry is adding fat to our beef by feeding animals high-starch corn. For that reason, and other health (not to mention ethical) benefits, The Food Skinny says that grass-fed beef is the way to go. Yes, it's more expensive than conventional beef, but we always pay the price for our cheap food in other ways. To help us out, perhaps one of the candidates running for the White House might spread some of those subsidies to cattle ranchers who raise their cows on grass. Let Mother Nature do her work; she knows where the beef comes from!