Spotlight on the Grass-Fed versus Grain-Fed Beef Debate

May 22, 2019

People who eat meat may wonder about the true difference between grass-fed and conventional, grain-fed beef, especially considering the large discrepancy in price at the grocery store. Does eating grass-fed beef really confer enough benefits to justify its higher price? The answer to this question depends on your particular priorities and values, but it’s important to understand the facts before deciding. The practice of feeding cows grass instead of grain points back to the natural, evolutionary diet of cattle. Before these animals were confined and raised for meat, they roamed free and ate a diet consisting of grass, not grain. Farmers in many countries have traditionally fed their cows grass, but in the United States, most cattle are fed corn and other grains for most of their lives.

Beef Production Practices in the United States

In the U.S., cows raised for beef begin their life eating a fairly natural diet. Typically, calves are born in the spring, and they live first on milk from their mothers and later on grasses that they eat while roaming in pastures. At about seven or nine months of age, young cows are typically moved to feedlots called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In these feedlots, cows are confined to small stalls and fed a grain-based diet so that they fatten quickly. The most common grains are corn and soy. Many farmers also use dried grasses to feed their cows. During this time, the animals are given growth hormones and antibiotics to protect them from disease. After a few months, the cows are moved to the slaughterhouse.

Many consumers assume that a grass-fed cow is spared from this typical course and allowed to roam freely, but that is not necessarily the case. “Grass-fed” does not mean the same thing as “pasture-raised,” and some meat advertised as grass-fed comes from cows that were confined to a stall, but fed a nonconventional diet. Even the term grass-fed may mean different things to various farmers. In general, however, it does mean that the cow mostly eats grass, its natural diet, instead of processed grains.

Consumers should also keep in mind that grass-fed does not mean organic. Organic beef cannot contain any hormones or antibiotics. Furthermore, organic beef must have access to a pasture and can eat only organic, vegetarian feed, but this may include grains. Still, it’s possible to find beef that is both organic and grass-fed; just look for products that have both labels, and read the fine print.  

Nutritional Differences between Grass-Fed and Conventional Beef

What consumers should understand is that the old adage “you are what you eat” also applies to cattle. A cow’s diet does have a significant effect on the nutritional composition of its meat, according to researchers. This difference becomes most apparent when looking at fats. In general, grass-fed beef has considerably less unhealthy monounsaturated fat, but up to five times more omega-3 fatty acids, which are good for health. Also, grass-fed beef has about double the amount of conjugated linoleic acid, which may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer.  

Generally, grass-fed beef contains considerably fewer calories than its grain-fed counterpart because of these differences in fat composition. Grass-fed cows overall have less fat than grain-fed ones. However, consumers should also recognize that these are guiding rules. The specific breed of cow and the cut of the meat also have a major bearing on the fat composition and other nutritional components.

Beef is by and large a concentrated source of nutrients, with lots of vitamin B3, B6, and B12, as well as selenium, zinc, and bioavailable iron. In addition, beef is a leading source of protein and has other important nutrients, including carnosine and creatine. Both grass-fed and grain-fed cows have similar levels of these nutrients. However, grass-fed beef does contain higher levels of vitamins A and E and certain antioxidants.

But What about the Flavor?

The other factor that may matter to some people is the flavor. Culinary professionals do appreciate a different in flavor between grass-fed and corn-fed beef that some people may not like. Most corn-fed beef has a consistent flavor, but grass-fed cattle often get access to several different things to eat, from wild onions to clover, and these different sources of nourishment can cause subtle variations in flavor. The other point to consider is the fact that cows raised on a pasture typically spend their days wandering about, which means that they have toned muscle. This fact can lend some chewiness or gaminess to the meat that people used to corn-fed beef may find strange.

The Bottom Line about Grass-Fed Beef

When it comes down to what to buy at the grocery store, everyone needs to make their own choice. Grass-fed beef does have more nutrients and a healthier fat profile, but both forms of meat do have a significant amount of nutrition and can be integrated into a healthy diet. In addition, grass-fed beef, especially if it is also organic, can cost much more than conventional beef, since it incurs an additional cost to farmers. However, there is the possibility that grass-fed beef costs will decrease, especially given its growing popularity. Only a decade ago, about 50 farms in the entirety of the United States produced grass-fed beef. Today, however, there are thousands of grass-fed cattle ranches, and their numbers continue to grow to match demand.