Can beef fat be yellow? (Difference of white and yellow fat)

In this brief guide, we will answer the question, “Can beef fat be yellow,” and discuss what is the difference between yellow beef fat and white beef fat, and why packing houses want the cattle to have white fat and not yellow.

Can beef fat be yellow?

Yes, beef fat can be yellow. This distinctive yellow coloration in beef fat is attributed to the presence of beta-carotene. The yellow color of beef fat plays a significant role in beef carcass grading, which evaluates various factors to determine the grade of a carcass.

These factors encompass the anatomical distribution of subcutaneous adipose tissue, the depth of adipose tissue at specific locations, the firmness of the adipose tissue, and its color.

To describe the color of beef fat, subjective terms are employed, ranging from white, slightly tinged with reddish or amber hues, to variations of yellow such as yellowish tinge, pale yellow, lemon yellow, and deep lemon yellow. (1)

What is the difference between yellow and white beef fat?

One of the primary distinctions between yellow beef fat and white beef fat is attributed to the type of pasture where the cattle were raised. Cattle raised in extensive grass-based production systems typically exhibit carcass fat with a more yellow hue compared to their concentrate-fed counterparts.

This yellow coloration is a result of carotenoids found in the abundant green forages. While yellow carcass fat is often viewed negatively in several countries, it is linked to a healthier fatty acid composition and a higher antioxidant content. Carotenoids, a group of natural plant pigments, are responsible for the varying colors in plants.

Xanthophylls, carotene, and lycopene, in particular, contribute to yellow, orange, and red coloring, respectively. Ruminants consuming high forage rations pass a portion of ingested carotenoids into both the milk and body fat, enhancing the color of the fat. (2)

Why do packing houses favor white fat over yellow?

Packing houses prioritize cattle with white or light amber-colored fat because consumer preference leans towards beef with fat that is either white or light amber. In the majority of beef markets, an excessive yellow hue in the fat of a bovine carcass is seen as undesirable and can lead to consumer resistance to purchase.

This resistance stems from the perception that yellow fat indicates the animal was diseased at the time of slaughter. There is a prevailing negative perception regarding the meat quality from carcasses with yellow fat, often associating it with older animals and the presumption of resulting in less tender meat. (3)

What factors affect beef fat color?

The color of fat in cattle is influenced by several factors, including diet, breed, gender, and age. Additionally, there are differences between ruminant species, such as cattle and sheep, in their ability to absorb and store carotenoids, which can impact the color of their carcass fat.

Carotenoids, chemical compounds found in fresh and preserved pasture plants and other green forages, are responsible for imparting a yellow hue to bovine fat when regularly consumed. The primary pigment responsible for this is beta-carotene, with lutein playing a lesser role.

Historically, it has been recognized that there is a direct relationship between the concentration of carotenoids in subcutaneous adipose tissue and the yellow coloration of that tissue.

Rece­nt studies suggest that when cows, which have been grazing on pasture, are­ shifted to a diet primarily composed of grains, their fat’s yellow hue diminishes. This occurs due to the accumulation of fatty tissue and subsequent dilution of carotenoids. The color change­ extent may vary based on multiple factors.

These include the initial level of ye­llow coloration, the amount of carotene and usable­ energy prese­nt in the finishing diet, the duration of the finishing period, the accumulation of fat during finishing, and the rate­ at which carotene is utilized from body fat. (3)

Is yellow beef fat healthier and tastier?

In some marke­ts, yellow carcass fat may have a negative perception. However, it is important to note that yellow carcass fat from grass-fed cattle­ can be associated with a “healthie­r” beef product.

Specifically, beef from grass-fed cattle boasts a more favorable saturated fatty acid (SFA) lipid profile in comparison to grain-fed counterparts. Furthermore, grass-finished beef contains higher concentrations of total conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) isomers, transvaccenic acid (TVA), and n-3 fatty acids.

Moreover, grass-fed beef offers higher levels of pre­cursors for essential vitamins such as A and E. It also contains powerful antioxidants like Glutathione and exhibits increased superoxide dismutase activity compared to grain-fed beef.

Notably, grass-fed beef generally has a lower fat content overall, making it the preferred choice for individuals aiming to reduce their intake­ of fats. Grass-fed be­ef, with its varying fatty acid composition, exhibits a distinct grassy flavor and unique cooking characteristics. This should be considered when transitioning from grain-fed beef.

Grass-fed ruminants yield meat that exhibits greater resilience against deteriorative oxidative alterations in both color and flavor, thanks to the naturally elevated vitamin E content found in their diet. (2, 3)


In this brief guide, we have addressed the question, “Can beef fat be yellow,” and discussed other questions related to the subject, such as what is the difference between yellow beef fat and white beef fat, and why do packing houses want the cattle to have white fat and not yellow.

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SWATLAND, H. J. Optical properties of white and yellow beef fat in relation to carcass grading. Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology Journal, v. 20, n. 5, p. 383-386, 1987.


DALEY, Cynthia A. et al. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition journal, v. 9, n. 1, p. 1-12, 2010.