Good Food is Colorful

Tom Barthel

By Tom Barthel • Snake River Farm

Editor’s Note: Tom Barthel is a longtime SFA member and owner/operator at Snake River Farm in Becker, Minn. A stalwart sustainable farmer and soil health expert, Tom writes often for his farm website and has shared the following article with SFA. You can get in touch with Tom by emailing him at

Healthy grass fat is golden. Grain fat is white and unhealthy.

I took this un-staged photo in the chilling room at Quality Meats in Foley. I was there with Nick inspecting carcasses. The photo is a striking example of the difference between beef, bison, grass, and grain.

I harvest bovines, beef and bison, each Tuesday from August until December. Before I harvest the animals, I make a tentative decision on the carcass. A decision as to whether it is right for cuts, a little older perhaps but ideal for roasts or a little thinner or older and best for tasty ground meat.

The day after harvest, Nick and I examine the carcasses in the chill room one last time. We want to be certain the beef is right. Nick and Bethany own QM; Nick is teaching me how to evaluate carcasses. By knowing more I can do a better job of evaluating animals on the hoof.

The carcasses hang in a specific pattern. Front quarter, hind quarter, hind quarter, front quarter.

The carcass on the left (four quarters) is from a grass-fed beef and has a moderately thick layer of beautiful golden yellow fat. This color comes from beta-carotene, a vitamin and antioxidant that comes from grass and green forages. This is exactly the same crucial nutrient we can get from healthy foods like carrots, pumpkins and grapefruit.

When we eat foods high in beta-carotene, the vitamin is directly absorbed by our bodies. Egg yolks from free-range chickens are golden yellow for precisely the same reason: grain does not provide beta-carotene or a number of other important nutrients.

Grass-fed meat has seven times more omega 3 fat than grain fat – the same omega 3 that is in salmon. This is a huge health difference.

The carcass in the center is a grass-fed bison. It has the same golden fat but much less of it. Beef animals have been selected for a thousand years to put on fat. Bison have not. Bison meat is higher in protein, lower in overall fat.

The carcass on the right is grain-fed beef. The carcass carries gobs of glistening white fat. No beta-carotene but lots of unhealthy calories. To me it looks as though the grain animal was in confinement. That is normal for grain finishing. The primary objective in grain finishing is to add cheap weight (fat) to meat.

You can learn all you want to know about beta-carotene, omega 3 fats and the high level of nutrients from grass-fed foods on the internet.