Fatty Acid Analysis of Grass-fed and Grain-fed Beef Tallow

At the Burnsides Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, we carried out an analysis of the fatty acids (fat molecules) in grain-fed and grass-fed beef tallow. The sample of grass-fed tallow came from a farm in western Maryland; the grain-fed tallow was purchased in a supermarket in southern Maryland. This research was funded by the Weston A. Price Foundation.

To explore the difference in the fatty acid profile between grass-fed and grain-fed beef tallow, we analyzed one sample of each type by gas chromatography, a method used to separate and quantify individual fatty acids. See the table below for the concentrations of specific fatty acids.

The largest differences between the two samples were the total concentrations of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), and the balance between the omega-3 and omega-6 forms of these fatty acids. Grass-fed tallow had 45 percent less total PUFA, 66 percent less omega-6 linoleic acid, and four times more omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids was over sixteen for the grain-fed tallow but only 1.4 for the grass-fed tallow. Whatever the ratios, beef tallow is not a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, with only 3.45 percent in grain-fed and 1.9 percent of the total in grass-fed.

Thus, while even grain-fed beef tallow has a much lower content of polyunsaturated fatty acids than modern vegetable oils, the amount found in grass-fed tallow is much lower and similar to that found in the coconut products that dominate the traditional diets of Pacific Islanders, who have been extensively studied and shown to be free of heart disease. This would allow the use of tallow in the context of a mixed diet that includes other foods naturally rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as fatty fish, while still keeping the overall intake of these fatty acids low and similar to that found in successful traditional diets.

Grass-fed beef is often promoted as healthy because of a lower saturated fatty acid content. But saturated stearic acid was 36 percent higher in grass-fed beef (17.45 percent versus 12.8 percent). Levels of sixteen-carbon palmitic acid, considered “atherogenic” because in some studies it raises cholesterol levels slightly, were virtually the same in both samples. Thus, in equally fatty cuts of beef, there would be a higher content of saturated fatty acids in the grass-fed beef. In many traditional diets where the fattiest cuts and the fat itself were sought out, intake of these saturates would likely be considerably higher.

Fatty Acid Fatty Acid Grain-Fed Grass-Fed
Numerical Designation Common Name Percent of Total Fatty Acids
14:0 Myristate 4.8 3.45
14:1 Myristoleate 0.85 0.7
15:0 0.8 0.55
16:0 Palmitate 27.7 27.45
t-16:1? 0.5 0.7
16:1 Palmitoleate (may include sapienate) 3.4 2.5
17:0 1.4 1.35
18:0 Stearate 12.8 17.45
t-18:1 Vaccenate 10.8 3.8
18:1n-9 Oleate 30.9 37.55
18:1n-7 1.25 0.85
18:2n-6 Linoleate 3.25 1.1
18:3n-3 Alpha-linolenate 0.2 0.8
20:0 Arachidate 0.05 0.1
Putative Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA ) 0.25 0.3
20:1 Erruciate 0.2 0.2
20:4n-6 + 22:0 A Arachidonate + Behenate 0.1 0.1
Total SFA 47.65 50.4
Total MUFA 47.9 46.3
Total PUFA 3.45 1.9

Grass-fed tallow also had 65 percent less natural trans fatty acids, and 22 percent more of the monounsaturated oleic acid. Differences in other fatty acids were minor. We could not identify conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) conclusively with this method, but we identified a fatty acid that is likely CLA, and its concentrations were identical between the two samples.

In a future issue, we will report the concentration of fat-soluble vitamins in these samples.


Cod Liver Oil Survey – Preliminary Results
I n April of 2012, we received an anecdotal report from a midwife of several women experiencing severe postpartum hemorrhages while reportedly following the dietary recommendations of the Weston A. Price Foundation. Concerned that the large amount of omega-3 fatty acids found in cod liver oil could have contributed to the hemorrhages through their blood-thinning properties, especially if not balanced by adequate liver, egg yolks, and other sources of arachidonic acid, we conducted a survey to determine whether postpartum hemorrhage and vaginal bleeding during pregnancy were associated with the use of cod liver oil or the dietary recommendations of the foundation. To reduce the risk of bias and increase the amount of information that could be gained from the survey, we circulated the survey widely on the Internet and asked about a large number of foods, perinatal complications, and medications. Over 3,500 women following many different diets completed the survey.
There was no association between the type of diet the women reported following and any of the complications or medications. Women who reported taking cod liver oil were 30 percent more likely to experience postpartum hemorrhage, but the difference was not statistically significant (P=0.09), meaning there is a reasonable likelihood the association could be due to chance. Several observations suggest this is unlikely to be a true biological effect: there was no association with the dose of cod liver oil; omega-3 fatty acids are also found in fish oil, but there was no association with the use of fish oil; there was no association between cod liver oil and the risk of vaginal bleeding during pregnancy; and there was no association between cod liver oil and the use of medications used to control bleeding.
By contrast, cod liver oil was associated with a large (63 percent) and statistically significant (P<0.001) drop in the risk of preeclampsia, and the magnitude of the drop in risk correlated well with the dose of cod liver oil (P<0.001). Since this is an observational study, it cannot demonstrate cause-and-effect relationships, but this association could reflect a protective effect of the fat-soluble vitamins in cod liver oil.
The data gathered from this survey are voluminous and will be reported in much greater detail in the next issue of this journal.

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2013.

19 Responses to Fatty Acid Analysis of Grass-fed and Grain-fed Beef Tallow

  1. w.vania says:

    What’s the bottom line? Is grass fed beef tallow much better than grain fed? I’m feeling kind of dumb after reading this, because i can’t tell.

    • Nate says:

      Well, to my thinking, grass fed beef is better but not that much. From the article “…beef tallow is not a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, with only 3.45 percent in grain-fed and 1.9 percent of the total in grass-fed.” Thus, the difference in PUFA between the two meats is only 1.55% (3.45% – 1.9%) of the total calories of meat eaten. Thus, a 100 gram (3.5 ounces) piece of grain-feed beef would have 1.55 grams more PUFA. Converting those 1.55 grams into calories gives only an extra 14 more calories of PUFA. Not much when compared to a 2,400 calorie diet. The percentage differences would be about 1% more of PUFA in the diet. Of course, it is additive over a life time, but still…

      Now, GMO’s may be another matter all together.

    • Carroll Hoagland says:

      Grass fed fats are orangey-yellow, this is due to Vitamin A, B’s, E, K and minerals. Butter is yellow because of Vitamin A. We once upon a time made skin care products, gun cleaning, and soaps from tallow. All this changed since WWI, WWII when the chemical industries produced cheap processed seed oils (Soy, Corn, cottonseed, canola) hence “Shortening”. These oil were invented in the last 100 years and migrated into the modern shortenings, hydrogenated oil (chemical industries replacement for lard and tallow), and cooking oils. Farm animals are suffering the same fate as humans, with excess Omega 6 oils.

  2. Alex says:

    It looks like arachidate is 20 times higher in grass fed beef. Any idea why? Any health implications?

    • Judy says:

      Arachidonic acid has been shown to be inflammatory and might contribute to heart disease, so I think the consumption of high levels of arachidate would have potentially serious health implications.

      • Megan says:

        Please see “Good Fats, Bad Fats: Separating Fact from Fiction” and the subtopic: MYTH 2: ARACHIDONIC ACID IS A “BAD FAT”. Also another article with references to the actual need for arachidonic acid: “Precious Yet Perilous”. In this article, symptoms of arachidonic acid deficiency include dry, scaly and itchy skin, hair loss, dandruff, reproductive difficulties, gastrointestinal disturbances, and food intolerances. A subtopic in that article, “How Essential Are the Essential Fatty Acids ? A More Detailed Look” examines arachidonic acid role in the body, but it is throughout the article as well. Happy studying.

  3. Griselda MUSSETT says:

    Thanks for this analysis about grass-fed beef v grain-fed. It seems to corroborate the information in David Servan-Schreiber’s book ‘Anti-Cancer’ which I know has been very useful to many people. Can you say which grains were fed to the cattle? Or, failing that, which grains are routinely fed to cattle? Is it wheat, corn, barley or what? And if it’s corn, would that be GMO corn?
    Thank you

    • Eliza says:

      For big ag? what do you think they are feeding them. Yes GMO- it is cheap, sometimes it is the left over mash (fermented grains) from breweries.

    • Carroll Hoagland says:

      Google “Feedlots” and you will see that modern farming puts animals in these fatten up lots for 9 – 11 months. So, the question one needs to ask “What would happen to the human if they ate Only Corn Chips for a year??” Self-explanatory. But Omega 3’s go to zero. This is also true for chickens. Google “Heritage chicken” Prior to WWII beef and chicken had the same nutrition as Salmon.

  4. Mary says:

    Do you agree with the conclusions in the Grain Brain by Kristin Loberg and David Perlmutter regarding grass fed beef? The book suggests the fat from grass fed beef is healthy for your brain and your heart.

  5. Panny says:

    “In a future issue, we will report the concentration of fat-soluble vitamins in these samples.” – when is the follow-up? Or can you post a link if it’s already out.

    Many thanks – great information!!

  6. Brittany says:

    Absolutely grass fed beef should be highlighted as the best choice for our diets… both internally and extenerally. The fat rendered down from grass fed beef fat is called tallow. Tallow is so beneficial for our skin that the Latin word sebum (the naturally occurring oil on our skin) literally means tallow. Almost immediately after the application of tallow on the skin through body butter or grass fed tallow soaps, the body accepts the applied oil and allows it to moisturize deep into the layers of the skin. Because it’s made of approximately 55% saturated fats just like our skin, our body naturally absorbs the nutrients the grass fed tallow has to offer. I’m terribly partial having a grass fed soap company myself, but the most we speak out about the benefits of eating well and using real natural skin care products, the better we all will be.

    • Theres says:

      Brittany, i have been using this wonderful grass fed tallow on my skin for a year now, have just perfected making the luxurious skin cream and am now looking for info like this to research my product further. Do you have any info or a link with more scientific evidence this grass fed product offers us? Really happy to read your comment, i knew this amazing product was good for me.

  7. Jack says:

    All well and good, but clearly inconclusive. Where is the comparison of the amount of “tallow” in a grass fed beef sample vs the amount of “tallow” in a same size sample taken from conventionally fed beef??? I’ll be very surprised to see a huge difference in the vitamin profiles similarly compared as in this study. What we should be looking at are the TOXINS in the tallow of these two samples. One argument states that the hormone and antibiotic residues in CAFO beef are stored in the beef fat. Where all of the lipids found in beef fat are endogenous and normally found in healthy human beings and are presumably below lethal amounts in the beef from which they are taken, the toxins introduced by feed lot operations are in every case exogenous and never found in healthy human beings. If you like observational studies, one has only to look at primitive humans who are unexposed to toxins from CAFO beef. They are completely free from cancers and heart-related diseases to which we’ve grown accustomed here in “civilization”. The message is clear: Don’t eat food which has been “altered” by man. Either “man” has no idea what he’s doing to your food – or – “man” does know and is doing it anyway. In either case, steer clear of it. Eat only real food the way nature gives it to you. If there’s more than one ingredient on the label, put it back.

  8. Dr. G says:

    I think is a misnomer to say arachadonic acid is bad. It is important for the inflammation our bodies need to defend and repair. We need the spectrum of fats, a bit of the polyunsaturated essential fatty acids, but mono and saturated as well. The bulk of fat intake should be mono and sat fats because of their stability and role for energy. Excess poly can of course be detrimental especially in the context of vitamin/antioxidant insufficiency. With the n-3 and n-6 oils there needs to be balance, but relatively low intake compared to mono and sats. In my view the benefits of grass fed above are clearly there, higher mono and sat fats and lower in trans fats. I wouldn’t be looking for beef to provide much omega-3s. That is what seafood and seeds provide. I would expect there to be more carotenoid related nutrients in the grass fed, ie vitamin A, beta-carotene, as well as fewer toxins… I would hope.

  9. Dave says:

    To help decrease the omega 6 fatty acids, just stop eating processed foods….you will cut about 1/3 of the omega 6 fatty acids. I eat 2 meals per month that are considered processed….fast food meal and Mexican meal….it’s the 95/5 rule for me.

  10. Martha says:

    Can you tell me what percentage of grass-fed beef tallow is comprised of esterified fatty acids? Also, are there different types of EFAs, and if so, which are in the tallow?

  11. jim says:

    I’m not sure that eating esterified fatty acids, free fatty acids and fats will have different effects on your health becasue your digestive system de-esterifies fatty acid esters using the same chemistry that breaks down fat by cleaving the ester bonds binding the fatty acids to glycerin in fat.

  12. Renee says:

    I have rendered tallow from grass -fed pastured cattle for a number of years, most of which was white when I rendered it. The last three cows fat that I rendered was yellow like butter and had a greasier feel. Can you tell me if you have studied these variations?

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