Myths and misunderstandings about omega 3, oleic acids in beef need to be addressed

Jon Condon, 11/05/2016

GRAINFED beef is getting a bad rap in the popular belief that grassfed beef is a healthier option based on its higher levels of omega 3 oils, says a respected US meat scientist visiting Australia for last week’s National Wagyu Conference.

Professor Stephen Smith, from the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University is regarded as a global export in fatty acid profiles in beef. He has studied oleic acids in beef in the US, Japan, Australia and Chian for the past 30 years.

Prof Stephen Smith

Prof Stephen Smith

He spent much of his presentation to Wagyu conference delegates last week highlighting the exciting potential to exploit high levels of beneficial oleic acid in grainfed beef, and especially Wagyu.

While the abundance of oleic acid in grainfed beef was a positive dietary story that would benefit the industry, he also admitted, with some frustration, that much consumer attention continues to focus on the widely perceived dietary benefit in grassfed beef, because of its higher levels of omega 3 oils.

Prof Smith dismissed the omega 3 impact as insignificant, in comparison with grainfed beef’s oleic acid advantages.

He referenced a US trial using 20-month old grain and grassfed Angus cattle.

The grainfed beef sample contained 30mg of alpha-Linolenic acid (the only significant omega 3 oil found in beef) per 100g pattie sample. The equivalent grassfed sample contained triple the amount – 90mg.

“There’s no contesting that the omega 3 in grassfed beef is higher. But the key point is, a woman’s requirement for alpha-Linolenic acid is 1600mg per day, while a man needs 1800mg,” he said.

“I absolutely agree with the need to eat more omega 3 oils, but beef (regardless of whether it is grass or grainfed) will never be a good source of omega 3s, or omega 6s.”

“Yes, you can change the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in beef through grassfeeding – no question. But it has zero dietary implications.”

“That’s because grassfed beef is unable to satisfy a person’s nutritional requirements for omega 3. Just a teaspoon of canola oil has all the daily dietary requirements for omega 3 that a human needs. You simply can’t get that from beef – only proteins like salmon offer any real dietary benefit,” Prof Smith said.

“But that’s why I’m so excited about the oleic acid story with beef. We can tweak the oleic acid levels to increase concentrations by grams per sample, versus just milligram quantities per sample with omega 3.”

Prof Smith said he was greatly frustrated by the amount of misinformation on social media and elsewhere about the relative value of grain and grassfed beef, led by misleading information about omega 3.

New England Wagyu breeder Lock Rogers asked Prof Smith about the ‘paleo’ diet movement, led by superstar TV chef Pete Evans, which heavily advocated for grassfed beef over grainfed, on the basis of healthfulness.

“What you are describing is the complete opposite of what’s being said: how do we reverse the message?” Mr Rogers asked Prof Smith.

“What social media is pushing out, over and over again, is the evils of grainfed beef,” Prof Smith said.

“The messages include that it’s not sustainable, when it fact it is more sustainable than grassfed beef; that it produces more greenhouse gases, when in fact it produces less; and that grainfed beef is fattier, and hence less healthy.”

“We all have to help spread the message, by getting it out there into the social media and other channels – we have to overwhelm their message with our message. It has to get out there.”

“I’m the only one doing these type of studies – that’s not enough critical mass – we need to take the science based information we currently have and push it out there, and have more people doing similar studies to press home the message.”

“But it’s a huge, frustrating problem when people simply say, ‘Grainfed beef is bad for you’,” Prof Smith said.

“The issue we are running up against – and I’m sure it is happening as much in Australia as in the US – is that we are having to defend (the health attributes) of marbled beef. There’s a small, but very vocal minority, active in many countries, that does not want cattle fed in feedlots, using perceived health issues as part of their campaign.”

Oleic acid story big positive for beef

Prof Smith used much of his conference presentation to highlight the ‘healthfulness’ of fatty acids found in beef, and especially so in marbled beef.

He said worldwide in the scientific community, perceptions about beef fat had changed dramatically over recent years.

“The message used to be: ‘eat beef and die’. Now, in the US and around the world, it’s ‘beef fat actually is better for you than its given credit for’.”

He said oleic acid was the most abundant fatty acid found in all beef.  As a mono-unsaturated fatty acid, oleic acid decreased the levels of LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol, and increased HDL (‘good’) cholesterol. Saturated fatty acids do the reverse.

“The more you can increase your HDL cholesterol, the healthier you are going to be,” Prof Smith said.

So how much oleic acid is in beef?

Prof Smith presented the slide below, showing grams of oleic acid in different types of beef, based on a sample about the size of a ‘quarter pounder’ burger pattie (100g). All samples contained 24pc total fat.

It shows several features:

  • Oleic acid concentrations in Wagyu beef are remarkably dominant over all other breeds. The highly marbled Japanese Wagyu sample (black column) had 16 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams of ground beef.
  • Oleic acid concentrations are considerably higher in grainfed beef over grassfed (yellow and lightest blue columns). USDA Choice grade Angus beef (grainfed around 130 days) had twice as much as a grassfed Angus sample.
oleic acid in beef

Click on image to enlarge

Human dietary studies using ground beef from a variety of production systems were used on several study groups including men with high cholesterol; post-menopausal women; and older men. Participants consumed five serves of ground beef per week, for six weeks.

The grainfed ground beef patties used in the trial contained much more oleic acid than grassfed samples, while the grassfed patties had more saturated (bad) and trans fatty acids. Patties containing Wagyu had the most oleic acid of all – effectively trading-away trans fat and saturated fat for oleic acid.

One of the key points Prof Smith made was that while Wagyu beef is in fact healthier than beef from conventional breeds, this did not mean that beef from conventional cattle, especially grainfed samples higher in mono-unsaturated fatty acids, was unhealthy.

“Some beef is just heathier than others,” he said.

The trials showed that men and women tended to respond differently to the diets, with men’s results tending to rise more than women, who already had higher baseline HDL cholesterol.

The trials showed all types of ground beef increased HDL (good) cholesterol, but grainfed beef increased HDL cholesterol twice as much as grassfed. In doing so, it was lowering risk factors for diseases like type 2 diabetes.

While dietary fat also increased LDL (bad) cholesterol, the rise was insignificant in terms of heightened cardio-vascular disease, when compared with other factors like hypertension, hyperglycemia, smoking, or low HDL, which represented a ‘huge risk.’

“An increase of HDL (good) cholesterol of 4mg/day in fact strongly decreases your risk of cardio-vascular disease,” Prof Smith said.

part of the conference gathering for the national Wagyu conference in the Hunter Valley

part of the conference gathering for the national Wagyu conference in the Hunter Valley

Changed eating patterns

Prof Smith’s diet data also illustrated that as total fat intake rose in adopting the ground beef diet during the trials, eating patterns changed: carbohydrate intake among the test subjects voluntarily declined, when they ate more ground beef.

The conclusion was that as the participants went through the study, they were adjusting their diets, because in eating higher fat protein, they felt less hungry.

“It shows that as we consume more fats, we consume much less carbs. I consider this to be a healthy approach. It’s a message that we, as scientists are trying to get across to those who set the dietary guidelines. Backing-off on carbs is a good thing,” he said.

Prof Smith referenced a 2012 study backed by the US National Cattleman’s Beef Association based on a consumer study using lean (low fat) beef. While the study did indeed note a decline in LDL (bad) cholesterol among test subjects, it completely ignored the fact that there was also a significant decline in HDL (good) cholesterol.

“The US Beef Board is promoting lean beef based on this study. Not only does promotion of lean beef ignore at least half of the carcase, but it also reduces the good HDL cholesterol levels. This data is taking people in the wrong direction,” he said.

MUFA:SFA ratios

Prof Smith also discussed ratios of mono-unsaturated fatty acids (mostly oleic acid) to saturated (bad) fatty acids, which increase on a grain-based diet. Fullblood Japanese Wagyu cattle typically had ratios of 2:1 or higher, while commercial cattle had ratios around 1:1 or less.

Certain cuts, like brisket, contained the highest ratios of good fats of all, for reasons yet unexplained. “Briskets should be seen as a health food,” he said.

He suggested low lipid (fat) melting point was often a good indicator of beef containing high levels of oleic acid.

Under Stage 3 of the Australian Wagyu Association’s research project, Prof Smith plans to examine genetic relationships with lipid melting points, and whether sire lines in Australian Wagyu cattle can be identified that consistently produce low melting-point fat.

During questiontime, Prof Smith was asked about indications from Japan that NIRS devices were now being used by processors to routinely measure fatty acid profiles on carcases in the chiller.

“It’s brand new – I’ve only just heard about it,” he said. “If it works the way they say it does, it will change life as I know it – the gas chromatograph I currently use for this purpose in the laboratory is obsolete,” he said.

“If it’s true, it’s an enormous leap forward for people like Wagyu breeders who are interested in documenting fatty acid composition. But can that device distinguish between different kinds of saturated fats? Palmitic acid, for example, stays the same in all beef at about 25pc. But stearic acid can go from 4pc to 40pc. Can the Japanese device distinguish this? We need to learn more.”


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your comment will not appear until it has been moderated.
Contributions that contravene our Comments Policy will not be published.


  1. jeff wilson, 28/12/2020

    Having done research for CHS and Kansas State via Dr. Jim Drouillard I have seen the very positive effiecy of gain and semen quality used flax lick.

    For the family the beef animals/4-H have preformed well and more importantly eaten very well. More tenderness and flavor and when the hamburger gets cold in a taco you do not get the tallowy film in your mouth. A culinary friend stated it is the best ‘mouth experience’ he ever had with beef.

    Next is the flax plus algae beef event we are feeding then experiencing. Early test at Kansas State has Dr. Douillard stating it is Flax-lick on steroids, and results are astounding–a mouthful coming from Jim.

    With this recent work animal agriculture is incurring a revolutionary step in on farm and CONSUMER BEBEFITS of Omega-3 enriched farm animal foods.

    • Dave Dreiling, 22/02/2021

      Hi Jeff, I read your comment on the beef central re the research that you’ve done at KSU on acid composition in beef. I’ve recently launched a Wagyu beef company, and would love to know more about what all you and the others are doing!


  2. Perry, 02/09/2020

    I would just like to know if brisket can be considered safe for heart health and that it will not create plaque build up and blockage in the arteries.
    Please get back to me.

  3. Neil Sing, 13/08/2018

    I doubt if the trial would have measured fractionated LDL because of the cost. If he had then he may have discovered that the increased LDL comprised of larger “good” LDL particles. Funding of such work is also an issue for much nutrition research leading to the need for confirmatory studies .

  4. Daniel Hammond, 28/06/2016

    We have been raising and feeding Wagyu x Charolais (Gyulais®) for 7-8 years. Those of us who raise and eat this type beef know that Dr. Smith is correct about the fatty acid composition , based on the melting point of the fat in the beef and the texture of the fat. The increase in HDL ,in my opinion, is closely tied to the decrease intake of carbohydrates. Daniel Hammond MD

  5. Chad Bitler, 12/05/2016

    As Mrs. Cripps stated, I too would like to see references to the studies that Prof. Smith is discussing in the article. Grain vs grass seems to be a polarizing topic and I think that either side can spin the research to favor their view. I’d like to see the data collected (and how it was collected) for myself.

  6. Mandy Cripps, 12/05/2016

    I’d love to have a look at the studies Professor Smith referenced in this article. I am currently doing a systematic review of the evidence myself as a component of an university assignment. The journal articles I’ve been looking at so far are at the most 5 years old and seem to contradict many of these arguments. Please know that I have no doubt that beef meat and fat is great for health in certain quantities.

  7. Paul D. Butler, 11/05/2016

    While I have the greatest respect for Dr. Smith’s work………he is operating under the old…….proven wrong theory that saturated fat is bad……or not as good as unsaturated fat. Beef fat is terrific food and it is crazy to debate the merits of EXACT beef and fat composition. The real answer to better health is simple. Eat MORE Beef.

    • jeff wilson, 28/12/2020

      Eat twice as much beef as we did it the seventies and prior–when typy II diabeties was 1,000% lower.

  8. David Hill, 11/05/2016

    Why is it that the beef industry continually looks to further the grass verse grain debate? Why not start to promote the health benefits of beef? If you are looking to compare, at least mention other animal protein sources. The professor mentioned salmon as a source of omega 3’s, it is my understanding that farmed salmon fed on cereal based diets have a totally different fatty acid profile to wild salmon. As far as sustainability goes, there is a lot of contention about the sustainability of different beef production systems, maybe the industry would be better served if animal scientists involved in beef genetics started to focus on selection of animals based on feed efficiency as well as other commercial traits, such as tenderness, yield and marbling. The debate over sustainability could potentially be lost when comparisons are made on feed efficiency, yet even grainfed cattle spend the majority of their lives on pasture, which in Australia’s case, is what a lot of our productive land is most suited to.

    Thanks for your comment, David. Stand by for a story on selection for net feed intake in coming days. Editor.

    • Bobbi, 23/02/2023

      is it really the meat or is it stress that heightens your bad cholesterol. I worked out every day. I ate salads all the time oatmeal etc. Ate red meat twice a weak. I was a custodian. I had to do lots of lifting etc.
      My cholesterol was in the 900. I also ate flaxseed ever other day.
      I had covid 19 lost all my DNA and b12. I have long covid. My cholesterol is fine. And my blood pressure amazing. I have ate meat to save my life from covid as it instructed by my doctor. I do bison and lean meats. I don’t stress anymore. I walk enjoy my animals.
      I have to say stress causes you more problems.
      And please do your research of msg. As that is your reason for high blood pressure and obesity in America. Proven in Oct 2019 from biocheck labs down in the US government by the US government. Yet still allowed to be put in everything you eat. He has caused kindey failure heart failure live failure fertility and obesity in rats. It was a year study. It is a real study.

Get Beef Central's news headlines emailed to you -