Hit the yogurt or meat section in just about any grocery store these days and you’ll find tons of products labeled ‘grass-fed.’
Sure, we all like to picture our cheese coming from cows that used to hang out on sunny, green pastures instead of inside giant, cramped warehouses—but it turns out grass-fed animal products may not only be better for our consciences, but for our overall nutrition, too.
Remember the phrase ‘you are what you eat’? Consider this: “A lot of standard cow feed comes from dent corn, which is super-high in starch [a.k.a. carbs],” explains Joe Pilewski, director of product development for NutriForce Nutrition. This corn is quite nutritionally different than grass—and more difficult to digest, he says.
So, it would make sense that a cow’s daily grub affects, well, our daily grub. Research, like a 2013 study published in PLOS One, has found that organic, grass-fed milk contains fewer omega-6 fatty acids and more omega-3 fatty acids than the conventional stuff. Many Americans consume too many omega-6 fatty acids from foods like processed veggie oils, and not enough omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in foods like fatty fish, explains Ryan Andrews, M.A., M.S., of Precision Nutrition. And since omega-3 fatty acids support our heart and brain health, and our immune system, we wouldn’t say ‘no’ to getting more out of our dairy. According to the study, grass-fed milk is also higher in CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a fatty acid that supports lean muscle mass.
Similarly, research suggests grass-fed animal products may also be higher in antioxidants like vitamins A and E. One review published in Nutrition Journal found that grass-fed beef contained more beta carotene (a precursor for vitamin A) than grain-fed beef. It also found that grass-fed beef packed more alpha-tocopherol, a form of vitamin E.
So, while that’s a pretty solid case for picking grass-fed dairy and meat products, does it mean you should also switch to a grass-fed whey protein supplement? After all, whey protein is made from milk!
The short answer: It depends on what you’re looking for. “Protein powder has gone through manufacturing in which many nutrients have been processed and removed,” explains Andrews. Chances are, you love your go-to whey protein isolate because it’s just the protein (and low in fat, carbs, and sugar, if it contains any at all)—but you don’t get the nutritional benefits, like extra omega-3s or vitamins, of grass-fed whey.
That said, there’s more to our food than its nutritional stats. “People are really starting to ask where their food is coming from and if it’s a sustainable choice,” says Andrews. Going for grass-fed may be a more environmentally-sustainable choice, on top of being an opportunity to support companies that prioritize the treatment of their animals, he adds.
It’s worth noting that many protein supplements utilizing grass-fed whey prioritize clean, natural ingredients across the board. You might notice that these supps use sweeteners like stevia, or stick with natural flavors. “There are a lot of facets that constitute clean whey,” notes Shawn Sherwood, vice president of research and development for Designer Protein. Those may include everything from being non-GMO to skipping artificial flavors and sweeteners, he says. If a supp’s super-clean street cred is a priority for you, look out for products labeled Non-GMO Project Verified, USDA Organic, and/or NSF certified.