What Does Natural Beef Mean?

I love seeing cows free to roam and eat what's natural!
I love seeing cows free to roam and eat what’s natural!


By Stacy Lyn Harris and Forrest Harris

What does natural beef mean, anyway? With so many label options on beef at the market, one is likely to throw their hands up and buy chicken. Well, that brings a new set of labels on their own…maybe just become a vegetarian.

In this article, I hope to dispel any confusion swirling around in your head about the labels on packages of beef making your shopping a little more joyful.

I just love cows. I could watch them all day. I love seeing them in the green pastures eating the healthy grass!
I just love cows. I could watch them all day. I love seeing them in the green pastures eating the healthy grass!

Before the 1950’s, cattle farming looked consistently the same as hundreds of years before.  Farmers used no antibiotics, no hormones, and always finished them off with grass, because feedlots did not largely exist.  Testing in the 50’s proved utilizing hormones (which, incidentally, were unprofitable for swine, poultry, and goats and thereby,  quickly outlawed) and feedlots proved more economically sound, allowing faster muscle mass and shorter turnaround.

With all the new and improved technical advances, we as consumers must ask several questions – What shall we consume?, Do these added changes really matter? What will bring the best and highest nutritional value to our families? How far should all of this super technology go when dealing with what fuels our bodies?

I will attempt to be as concise, yet as informative as possible to lay out the meanings on the labels of our beef. I would love to hear in the comments your determination as to buying beef and any other thoughts that I have left out of this article. Let this be a kind of forum on beef.

Dispelling the goods on BEEF LABELS

  • No added hormones- Just that.

There are several different types of hormones.  A couple of major hormones are hormonal growth implants and beta-adrenergic agonist, known as growth promoters.  Many cattle get treated with hormonal growth implants, a small pellet injected on back of ear slowly feeding gonadotropins (natural or synthetic sex hormones) to the cow, which encouraging more muscle growth and less fat.  As of late, many feedlots have begun to use beta-adrenergic agonist as part of the finishing regimen.  This drug basically creates a suspended adrenaline-like state, keeping nutrients more in the muscles and less in the guts, allowing better body mass: muscle ratio.

  • No antibiotics Same principle as human antibiotics.

Most farmers use antibiotics to heal or prevent disease in cattle. They are often used at the farm like we use them, to stop an infection.  Cattle usually get a preventative dose of antibiotics as they come into the feedlots.

Another type of antibiotic, ionophores, works a little different.  Ionophores, again, a type of growth promoter like the hormones,  act in the rumen to correct the bacteria balance offset by the acid pH of the limited diet of corn in many (but by far not all) feedlots.  (Also, read the words carefully.  For instance, “No antibiotics” is not the same as “no antibiotic residues,” the latter does not mean that the cattle never had antibiotics, but, in accordance with law, waited the determined amount of days to allow the antibiotic to work out (or nearly so) before slaughter (2).)

  • OrganicThe USDA considers livestock “organic” and puts their seal on the meat when, “…Producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.”

The USDA adds a little challenge to all tiers of raising cattle.  Organically grown cattle live in good conditions complete with outdoor space to exercise and breathe fresh air, clean water to drink, and shelter from the elements.  Most cattle receive humane treatment at the farm, but organic regulations assure good treatment at the feedlots.

How serene this cow looks. I need to learn to relax like that!
How serene this cow looks. I need to learn to relax like that!

Like most other cattle farming methods, pasture and forage consist of at least part of the cattle’s diet. While some organic cattle feed purely on grass, further earning the grass-fed standard (below), the remaining (perhaps the majority) of the diet consists of organically produced feed (hay, soy, corn, etc.).  Note that because the corn and other grains fed to the cattle are organic, they contain no GMOs.

Farmers have much higher expenses when producing organic cattle.  Without hormones, cattle grow much slower, hence SLOW FOOD, increasing the time on the farm.  Organic feed costs more than traditional feed, and without hormones to increase the cattle’s growing rate, quickly raises the farmer’s overhead. Therefore, if you wish to buy organic, be prepared to pay premiums.  The Organic Beef Profile reported that organic beef cost 45% more than grain-fed beef in the beginning of 2011.

  • Grass (forage) fedFed on grass, not grain, throughout life.

Grass-fed cattle must have continuous access to pasture during growing season.  Grass-fed cattle may or may not be organic.  By this method, farmers have the option to treat their stock with hormones and antibiotics.  However, farmers generally use less drugs since these cattle skip the feedlots.

According to a 2010 review by Nutrition Journal, grass-fed beef possesses more nutritional value than grain-fed contemporaries (4).  The study showed grass-fed beef to not only contain less fat, but the existing fat to have a better ratio of saturated fatty acids than grain fed beef, better for cholesterol.  The study found grass-fed beef contains more good fatty acids like conjugated linoleic acid, trans-vaccenic acid, and omega-3 fatty acids.  Also contains higher levels of vitamin A and E precursors and cancer fighting antioxidants.

As a side note to taste, grass-fed beef has a distinctive taste.  Because of this, many people prefer grain-fed beef.  The University of Georgia performed a study on the market for “grass-finished” beef, or beef from cattle not finished at the feedlot, in the Southeast.  Their participants preferred (by a small margin, none the less) grain-fed to grass-fed beef (6).  Another study found similar results in the North (7).  The study done by Nutrition Journal argues many Americans prefer corn-fed beef because of familiarity (4).  People preferred what they grew up eating.

Though the taste tests do contain interesting information and results, I believe the tests had a significant error; the cooking preparation -namely, temperature pertaining to doneness.  Like previously stated, grass fed beef contains less fat (i.e., marbling) than grain fed beef.  Because of this, the former must be treated a little different from the latter.  Grass fed beef, like venison, quickly become dry and tough cooked beyond 150° or to “medium.”  Grain-fed beef have more fat, allowing a little more forgiveness to the cook.  Both aforementioned tests cooked the meat to around 160°, or in other words, “well done.”

I give much credence to the theory of preference from familiarity.  Grass-fed beef, or organic beef, does present a different flavor than their grain-fed counterparts.  …I think grass-fed beef, however, has flavor, corn-finished tasting bland in comparison.

In conclusion there are a few more terms that need addressing.

  • Natural- a much more ambiguous term simply means minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients or synthetic ingredients (food coloring, preservative, etc.).  Pertains purely to processing. Some, but not all, accomplish the “natural” label by adding no hormones or antibiotics to the cattle and finishing them off in pastures rather than feedlots. Personally, I would not pay more for this beef because of the ambiguity of the regulations.
  • Free-rangeprovided continuous access to food and water, in a structure, and an outdoor environment.
  • Cage-freeAllowed to mingle and have unlimited access to food and water
  • Pasture raised Not standardized.
  • Humane- Not standardized.

Although very confusing, these labels are worth decoding.

In some foods, I do not think that it is as important to eat “organic” as others, but concerning the meat that I put in my body, “organic” is the best choice for me and my family. Although extremely expensive, the value outweighs the hardship. I agree that many more studies need to be conducted as to the effect of added hormones and antibiotics in beef have on the human body, but until then I will remain as “pure” in my meat choice as possible.


“Explaining Growth Promotants Used in Feedlot Cattle” Drovers Cattle Network. Beef Cattle Research Council, 2013

Bottemiller, Helena. “USDA Looking at Antibiotics Claims on Meat Labels”  Food Safety News, 25 July 2012

Clause, Reginald, revised by Gary Brester. “Organic Beef Profile” Ag. MRC. Iowa State University, June 2011

“Organic Standards”  USDA. AMS, 2013

“Grass Fed Marketing Claim Standard” USDA. AMS, 2008

“What is Organic?” USDA. AMS, 2012

Lacy, R. Curt, Wendy J. Umberger, Susan K. Duckett, Kent Wolfe, Candice Clark McKie, James Daniels. “Market analysis of Forage Finished Beef in The Southeast” USDA. AMS, 2007

Daley, Cynthia A., Amber Abbot, Patrick S. Doyle, Glenn A. Nader, Stephanie Larson. “A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef” Nutrition Journal 2010

Sitz, B.M., C.R. Calkins, D.M. Feuz, W.J. Umberger, K.M. Eskridge. “Consumer Sensory Acceptance and Value of Domestic, Canadian, and Australian Grass-fed Beef Steaks” Journal of Animal Science 2005

TITLE 7-Agriculture, subpart C- Organic Production and Handling Requirements. USDA. GPO, 12 August 2014

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  1. I prefer my meat weather it is beef, chicken, or pork to be organic because if it is pumped full of hormones I will get a head ache within fifteen minutes of eating it.

    1. Stacy Harris says:

      That is interesting Clare. I don’t doubt it.

  2. Richard Owens says:

    love your comments, we raise scottish highland cattle, pure grass fed to fnish.

    1. That is awesome Richard! They are so good that way…good, all the way around – healthy and amazingly tasty!

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