Is there a difference between grass-fed beef vs grain fed beef? Turns out it’s not a black-and-white situation, and that trips up a lot of people. The better choice depends on what’s important to you: nutrition, price, taste, animal welfare, or the environmental impact of raising cattle.
What does “grass-fed beef” mean?
Even the definition of grass-fed beef is a little murky. All cows, no matter what they’re fed in adulthood, start out as calves drinking milk. The difference of course comes after weaning. How cows are raised and how they’re fed will have a tangible impact on several characteristics of the beef they produce.
According to the USDA Grass Fed Marketing Claim Standards (1), a meat retailer may not sell beef as “grass fed” (sometimes called “forage fed”) unless it meets the following standards:
- The cow eats nothing but grass and forage for its entire life (except milk as a calf).
- The diet should only consist of grass, cereal grain crops in the pre-grain state, browse.and something they call “forbs”, of which legumes is one example.
- They must have continuous access to pasture while growing
- Vitamin and mineral supplements are allowed if needed but must be documented.
- Hay, baleage, silage, and crop residue are allowed.
As you can see, “grass-fed” tells only part of the story. Cows eat all sorts of things when left to their own devices in the field. They’ll even nibble on shrubs. As long as it’s tasty and within reach, in it goes.
Grain-fed beef, on the other hand, will have been fed anything and everything, in addition to grass. There’s even a story of the farmer who fed his cows orange gummy bears because he got a bulk deal on them.
For the first 6 months to 1 year after birth, all cows eat a pasture diet (2). In some cases, grain-fed beef is fed grain only during the last few months of its life, to fatten it up before slaughter.
As you can see, it’s a fine line between grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
Many farmers pasture their cows. The other, more sinister option is the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), which is large-scale factory-production style raising of cattle. These cows rarely if ever get to see a pasture.
A cow who’s lived a pleasant life roaming a large pasture eating forage will still be called “grain-fed” if, during its last 2 months of life, it’s feed grain slurry. Likewise, many smaller farming operations who pasture their cows will also feed them grain supplements. Or they may eat grass during summer and live in a barn during winter, where they’ll eat grain.
Even though the cows have been grass-fed their whole lives, that grain supplement wipes out any chance that farmer had of marketing his beef as “grass-fed”.
Bottom line: all it takes is a month of eating grain and a wonderfully happy and healthy grass-fed cow cannot be labelled “grass-fed” beef when he goes to market. Therefore, the definition of grass-fed is a bit murky. There are varying degrees.
Grass-Fed Beef is Leaner, Less Tasty
Think about it: there’s hardly any fat in grass. That means grass-fed beef is leaner.
That has bearing on taste as well as nutrition.
Less fat sounds good and healthy, but when it comes to taste, the fat is what makes beef taste good. There’s far less “marbling” of the meat in grass-fed beef, which if you know anything about choosing the best cuts of beef, is going to result in a less tasty product.
That rich, wonderful taste you love from price cuts of beef? That’s marbling at work. If you want that, you’ll prefer grain-fed beef.
In fact, a study performed in 1998 found that the taste of grain-fed beef was preferable (3). The grass-fed beef actually tastes a bit like grass according to many well-documented studies, and also has less “beef flavor”.
As as far as nutrition goes, leaner meat has fewer calories. Eating grass-fed beef will save you over 16,000 calories per year, if you eat the American average of 67 pounds annually (2).
Bottom line: if taste is important, go for grain-fed beef. If you’re cutting calories, go with grass-fed.
Grass-Fed Beef has more nutrients
The fatty-acid profiles of grass-fed beef versus grain-fed beef.
Less fat used to mean better for you. But we now know that some fats are good for us. So, even though grass-fed beef may be leaner and be better for us in terms of calories consumed, there’s more to it than that.
The fat profile of grass-fed beef is, technically speaking, very good (much better than grain-fed beef). However, data can be tricky and it’s often manipulated.
The Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio of grass-fed beef is better than that of grain-fed beef. However, it’s not because grain-fed beef has so much Omega-6 (“bad fat”). It’s because grain-fed beef has hardly any Omega-3 (“good fat”) at all, so the ratio is huge.
In fact, the Omega-6 levels in both types of beef are roughly the same.
Grass-fed beef has way more Omega-3. However, it’s all relative: even though is has so much more, the total amount is still very little. A quarter pounder made from grass-fed beef will contain roughly 0.055 grams of Omega-3 fatty acids while the same size burger from grain-fed cattle will contain 0.020 grams (4). More than twice as much, but still very little.
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)
Grass-fed beef has way more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), however (5). CLA is becoming very important, since it’s believed that it reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes (6).
There is debate, however, that since CLA is a fat-based product, the fact that grass-fed beef is so lean means there will still be very little CLA, even though proportionally it’s found at higher levels than in grain-fed beef.
Other nutritional benefits of grass-fed beef.
- Contains more antioxidants (4).
- Contains less cholesterol-elevating SFAs (4).
- Contains more Vitamin A (4).
- Contains more Vitamin E (4).
Bottom line: grass-fed beef is technically more nutritious, but in very small amounts. We can get these nutrients from other sources.
Nutrition aside, Grass-fed beef is less appealing.
Although studies have now shown consistent results regarding the tenderness differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, the appearance is distinctly different.
Grass-fed beef is simply not that great-looking in the supermarket. It’s darker in color (7) and the fat is more yellow.
It’s also much more expensive. Keep in mind that it’s more expensive to keep feeding a cow for that extra year it takes to bring it to maturity on forage alone. Feeding cattle grain in their last year of life dramatically speeds up the process, fattening them up quickly.
You need more land to raise grass-fed cattle, too. The land also has to be in good condition, supporting a nice variety of forage materials for the cows.
Ethically, grass-fed beef takes the cake.
Finally, if you are at all concerned with the environment or with the humane treatment of animals, there’s no question grass-fed beef is the way to go.
Energy and resource savings are significant.
It’s been an established fact for 30 years that raising cows in pastures and forests results in 60% less energy input (7). This method also uses 8% less land resources.
There’s more: grass-fed cattle raising also results in the following environmental impact points:
- soil erosion is reduced
- soil fertility is increased
- water quality is improved
- human health is improved due to less use of antibiotics
As far as treatment of the cattle goes: grass-fed cattle are healthier so they require antibiotics less often. E.Coli contamination is reduced, since the cattle are not all squished together the way CAFO-raised cattle are. They’re definitely less stressed out, too, and they exhibit less anti-social behavior.
As you can see, your preference for beef will depend on what’s important to you. The idea of healthy, happy cows is enough for some people to choose grass-fed beef, while the low cost of grain-fed beef cinches the deal right then and there.
Summary: When it comes to beef, choosing grain-fed may be the tastier option. However, grass-fed wins the fight based on the healthier choice.
- Grass Fed Marketing Claim Standard. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Retrieved from http://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/beef/grassfed
- Cross, Kim. Grass-Fed Beef versus Grain-Fed Beef. Cooking Light Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.cookinglight.com/cooking-101/resources/grass-fed-beef-grain-fed-beef
- Mandell, IB et al. Effects of forage vs grain feeding on carcass characteristics, fatty acid composition, and beef quality in Limousin-cross steers when time on feed is controlled. Journal of Animal Science. Retrieved from https://www.animalsciencepublications.org/publications/jas/abstracts/76/10/2619?search-result=1
- Smith, Stephen B. Grass-Fed Vs.Grain-Fed Ground Beef– No Difference in Healthfulness. Beef Magazine. Retrieved from http://beefmagazine.com/beef-quality/grass-fed-vs-grain-fed-ground-beef-no-difference-healthfulness
- Daley, Cynthia A.et al. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal. Retrieved from http://www.nutritionj.com/content/9/1/10
- Health Effects of CLA. Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. Retrived from https://ods.od.nih.gov/pubs/conferences/cla/kelley_new_presentation.pdf
- Severe J.and ZoBell D.R. Grass-Fed vs Conventionally Fed Beef. Utah State University Cooperative Extension. Retrieved from http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/AG_Beef_2011-01.pdf
All references retrieved 10/11/2015