Grass-Fed v. Grain-Fed Beef: Is There a Difference?

Grass-Fed v. Grain-Fed Beef: Is There a Difference?

Despite being more expensive, many consumers are choosing exclusively grass-fed beef. What makes this the better option for some? Some cite health concerns and others cite taste. What matters to you? First let's start with the basics.

"You are what you eat" applies to the cow as much as it does to you. Calves start their lives drinking milk, followed by a liquid-based milk replacement. From the time they are weaned and separated from their mothers, the diet varies based on who's raising them and how.

"Grass-fed" means that the cow has been fed any range of graminoids, including sedge, cane, and various species of grasses. "Grass-fed" labels can also include feed from hay, non-grain crop byproducts (such as husks or surplus vegetable produce), and some cereal grains in a pre-grain stage. A cow's digestive system, due to its microbial composition, requires a balance of minimal corn and grain content to large amounts of graminoids for best health.

Most commercial cattle ranches use CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), which provide a mix of grains and nearly any other filler that is inexpensive. The goal is to quickly bulk up the animal as much as possible, using as little space and the cheapest feed source available. CAFO processes encourage rapid weight gain; as the cow reaches about 700 pounds it moves into a dedicated feedlot where it packs on an additional 500-plus pounds within 3 to 4 months. A crowded, sedentary life means fatty deposits interspersed with muscle, which creates a marbled, softer meat quality.

A pasture-fed cow will take several more months to reach comparable weights, requiring more space per animal; and resulting in greater expense over the course of the animal's life. However, the health of the animal is generally better, and the nutritional value from the meat is greatly enhanced.

In conventional meat farming, little attention is paid to the comfort or quality of the animal's life. Why does that matter? Even if you have no interest in the ethical treatment of the animal you're eating, you may be interested in its nutritional content.

Fats: Your body needs a balance of essential fatty acids. While you can get omega-6 from vegetable sources such as seeds and nuts, omega-3 is harder to find, fish being the highest source. Grass-fed, and particularly grass-finished, beef contains omega-3 where it is nearly nonexistent in grain-fed beef.

Your body does not need more saturated fat, and while a grass-fed cow does have saturated fats, it is distributed in the cow's body more compactly (easier to remove) than a grain-fed cow, where it is mingled with the muscle.

Vitamin content: Grass-fed beef has higher levels of B-vitamins, vitamin E, K, and beta-carotene; and higher levels of minerals like selenium, calcium, magnesium.

Grass feed will tend to be grown in more nutritious soil, not depleted by routines of soy or corn farming. Bottom line is that a cow fed on a nutritious, varied diet simply will have more nutrients in its body.

Taste is, well, a matter of taste. Like venison or other wild game, cattle fed on natural grazing sources will be leaner. Some consumers find it to be stringy or tough consistency, while others appreciate the leaner less-marbled meat. Curious? Do a taste test for yourself. Grass-fed beef can be found at grocery chains such as Whole Foods, or sourced from a local farm - try sites like to find something in your area.

CATEGORIES: Alternative Health, Healthy Foods