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Grass-fed beef: opportunities for healthier diets

Ireland’s climate means we are good at growing grass. It is well known that producing beef from grass results in lower costs than feeding animals on concentrates. But what about the consumer? Is grass-fed beef better than other types of beef for consumers? This was the focus of a Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine funded project undertaken by Teagasc and University College Dublin (UCD).

Grass-fed beef: opportunities for healthier diets
Pictured at the “Grass-fed beef: Marketing opportunities and the scientific evidence” workshop at Teagasc Ashtown were from (L to R): Sinead O’Mahony, FSAI; Aidan Moloney, Teagasc; Briege McNulty, UCD; Joe Burke, Bord Bia; Helen Roche, UCD; Maeve Henchion, Teagasc and Frank Monahan, UCD.

The project examined the scientific basis for any potential nutrition and health claims that could be associated with grass-fed beef.

The findings from this work were the topic of a one-day workshop held at the Teagasc Food Research Centre, Ashtown, Dublin, on Tuesday, 11 December 2018.  A diverse audience gathered to hear the results of the nutritional analysis of Irish grass-fed beef and the implications of differences in the composition of grass-fed and concentrate-fed beef for the quality of the human diet and the health of the consumer.

Joe Burke of Bord Bia outlined the market requirements for beef and the opportunities for Irish grass-fed beef. Professor Aidan Moloney of Teagasc and Professor Frank Monahan of University College Dublin, reported that grass-fed beef had higher concentrations of several minerals and fatty acids (particularly conjugated linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid) which are of benefit to cardio-vascular health. Dr. Breige McNulty of UCD used a predictive modelling analysis to demonstrate that consumption of grass-fed beef could improve population adherence to dietary recommendations for total fat, saturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Dr McNulty said: “Dietary recommendations can be hard for people to adhere to.  Our work in UCD has shown that consuming grass-fed beef can help more people to meet their dietary recommendations for total fat, saturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids.”

Professor Helen Roche of UCD stated that modelling exercises have demonstrated that supplementing a high-fat diet with a small amount of the beneficial fatty acids found in grass-fed beef (i.e. conjugated linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid) can improve what are known as “biomarkers” of cardio-metabolic health, indicating their potential to reduce the potential negative effect of high-fat diets. Subsequent work in the form of a pilot human study however did not show that grass-fed beef resulted in improved health profiles. Professor Roche said: “This was a pilot study of short duration; a more prolonged intervention may specifically improve risk factors relating to heart disease and diabetes risk”. Sinead O’Mahoney of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland discussed the current regulation on Nutrition and Health Claims with respect to beef composition.

In a facilitated workshop, Professor Maeve Henchion of Teagasc worked with the industry and academic workshop participants to identify how these research results can be used to benefit Irish consumers, meat companies and farmers. Professor Henchion said: “Grass-fed beef is different to other beef on the market place. We need to use this evidence, and continue to support the strong position of Irish beef in the market.”