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Amazing grazing!

Why is grass-fed Irish food so unique?

Dr. Vanessa Woods, Agri Aware

With a greater focus on healthy eating and food provenance for a growing world population, to reach nine billion people by 2050, food awareness and education, right back to the farm, is of increasing interest and importance to the consumer.

We hear a lot about the benefits of grass-fed produce in Ireland. We also hear about how the food that comes from grass-fed animals has a unique flavour, colour and taste and why it allows Irish produce to be in huge demand across the globe. However, does the consumer really know what it is about grass-fed produce that is so special and unique?

Some 80% of Ireland is covered in grass and our cattle graze this grass for up to 300 days each year. It is only during the colder winter period, when the grass stops growing, that our animals are housed. When they are housed, the main feed offered is grass silage, with some meal. As such, the food that comes from Irish cattle and sheep is said to be predominantly produced from grass.

In some countries, animals can spend a lot of their time in intensive feedlots. In Ireland, our animals graze the lush green pastures for the majority of their life. This is their natural environment where they express their natural behaviour, which is of paramount importance to both farmers who produce the food and consumers who eat it. This is what makes grass-fed Irish food so unique.

Indeed, the important attributes of grass-fed produce do not stop there, because grass is naturally rich in a number of healthy nutrients. We all know that omega-3 fatty acids are healthy and we often purchase supplements or food that is fortified with omega-3 for this reason, often at a significant premium, but what about omega-3 fatty acids and CLA-Conjugated Linoleic Acid, from grass-fed produce? Conjugated Linoleic Acid or CLA, is known as an essential fatty acid that is found in ruminant (beef, cow and sheep) products, such as meat and milk. It is referred to as ‘essential’, because we have to get these fatty acids from our food, as our bodies cannot manufacture them.

If we compare grass-fed meat for example, to grain-fed meat, research shows that grass-fed meat has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA. Meat contains a mixture of fatty acids in the fat, and many of these are considered healthy fats. As such, eating grass-fed produce can make a contribution to our requirement for these ‘essential’ fatty acids.

Furthermore, grass-fed produce is also rich in beta-carotene, which is a precursor to Vitamin A. Vitamin A is required for growth and development in humans, the maintenance of our immune system and good vision. Grass-fed meat and butter has a unique colour, flavour and appearance due to beta-carotene coming from the grass. This is why Irish butter, such as the famous Kerrygold, has a yellow colour, compared to a more white coloured butter that you might find in other countries, where the cows are not pasture-fed.

Another important nutrient that we all need in our diet is Vitamin E, which is an antioxidant. Research has shown that grass-fed animals have higher levels of Vitamin E compared to grain-fed animals.

The next time you eat Irish butter, admire the colour and flavour and know why it has this unique colour and taste. When you next eat grass-fed Irish meat or dairy, you will know why we are so fortunate to have this unique product on our doorstep, because our grass-fed produce is natural and special and this is why it is in demand all over the world.

Professor Paddy Wall, Professor of Public Health in UCD, stresses that our health is our most valuable asset. He says “a healthy diet is essential, yet some people can sometimes give little thought to what they eat. An investment in your health is an investment in your future. We regularly talk about the ‘green image of Ireland’, but it is not an image, it is a reality that we have ‘forty shades of green’ and our grass produced meat and dairy products are special”.