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Prior to the 19th century, all beef was grass-fed.
Cows roamed pastures and ate their preferred diets of grasses and leaves, providing our ancestors with healthy and delicious meat.
Now, due to lower costs and greater ease, our modern-day agricultural systems have shifted the landscape of meat—literally, from pastures to feed lots—to becoming predominantly grain-fed.
But how does this shift in what the cows eat affect how their meat turns out?
In this article, take a closer look at the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, from nutritional profile to environmental impact to cost.
For a TL;DR answer, grass-fed meat wins on almost all counts, except for the higher price—which may soon be a moot (er, moo?) point as grass-fed beef is becoming more well-known and readily available to the average American.
The term “grass-fed” isn’t clearly defined but typically means that a cow eats grasses, in addition to other plants, like alfalfa and hay.
Conversely, grain-fed cows eat a grain-based diet, including corn, soy, and wheat.
Grain-fed cows raised on factory farms are also often administered with drugs, including antibiotics and growth hormones, to prevent infections and facilitate more rapid growth.
You may have also heard the term “grass-finished beef,” which means that a cow spent its entire life—up until the “finish”—eating grass.
This can make the terminology confusing, as some companies can place a “grass-fed” label on a cow that was only fed grass for a short period of its life.
Another term for grass-finished cows is “100% grass-fed,” which means the cow ate grasses its entire life, after being weaned from its mother’s milk.
For the sake of ease, we’ll just use the term “grass-fed” in this article as an umbrella term for 100% grass-fed and grass-finished cows.
There are three primary categories that differ between grass-fed and grain-fed beef:
Grass-fed beef tends to have more nutritional value than grain-fed beef, with more favorable fatty acid profiles and nutrient content.
Cows that roam on pastures have more muscle and less fat, which means grass-fed beef has less fat, fewer calories, and more protein.
The main fatty acids that are elevated in grass-fed beef include conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and the omega-3 fats alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
The higher levels of CLA and omega-3s in grass-fed meat may contribute to improved cardiovascular, metabolic, and cognitive health.
Research has shown that grass-fed cattle that eat a diversity of plants have concentrated levels of antioxidant-rich phytonutrients in their meat and milk, including phenols, carotenoids, and terpenoids.
We reap the benefits when we consume this antioxidant-rich meat, which includes anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, and cardioprotective activity.
These phytochemicals also protect the meat from oxidation that causes inflammation and damage to cells, proteins, and fats—a leading cause of chronic disease and aging.
Grass-fed beef supports the environment because the grazing cows minimize soil erosion on the land that they pasture on, which makes the land more resilient to flooding or drought.
The natural daily movement of the grass-fed cattle—as opposed to being stuck in one spot on a feed lot—allows them to spread their manure over the land.
Also known as regenerative agriculture, the cows’ manure acts as a natural fertilizer that returns nutrients and healthy microbes to the soil, improving the biodiversity and health of the surrounding ecosystem.
Grass-fed cows that are not fed antibiotics or hormones also benefit the water supply, as typical cattle feeding lots (known as CAFOs or concentrated animal feeding operations) are known to contaminate water with run-off from these chemicals or medications.
Lastly, grass-fed cows can help fight climate change because healthy soil and grasses trap carbon dioxide, keeping it from rising into the atmosphere.
However, the grass-fed system unsurprisingly requires more land to produce the same amount of meat, which is why 75-80% of grass-fed beef sold in the U.S. is grown in Australia, New Zealand, and South America—areas with vast regions of healthy grassland.
One potential environmental downside of grass-fed beef is that the cows take longer to grow to their full size—due to the lack of growth hormones—leading to about 20% more methane production, a greenhouse gas that negatively impacts the environment.
All cows produce methane in the form of belching or flatulence, but grass-fed cows will emit more methane during their longer lives.
However, some environmental researchers believe that the grass-fed cows’ regenerative grazing process mitigates these slight increases in methane output.
Concentrated feedlots or CAFO environments are notoriously harmful to animal welfare.
Not all grain-fed cattle are raised in these factory farms, but it is significanly more likely that a grain-fed cow will be found in concentrated feedlots than roaming on a pasture.
The large number of cows are typically kept in confined stalls with limited space, which is highly stressful to the animals and increases the risk of spreading infectious diseases.
These close quarters are why the cows are often pumped with antibiotics preventatively, which is detrimental to their health and could be considered a cause of antibiotic resistance in humans after we eat the antibiotic-laden meat.
Allowing grass-fed cows to roam on pastures enables them to participate in their natural behavior, choosing the foods they want to eat and not being forced to overeat grains to make them gain weight more quickly.
Overall, it’s undisputed that grass-fed cows are more humanely raised than cows fed grains in a CAFO environment.
We’ve all heard the phrase “You are what you eat”—and, it turns out, this applies to cows, too.
There are several nutritional differences between grass-fed and grain-fed beef, with the biggest variations coming from omega-3 content, fat and protein makeup, and micronutrient levels.
|Grass-Fed Beef (8 oz of raw ground meat)||Grain-Fed Beef (8 oz of raw ground meat)|
|Monounsaturated Fat (MUFAs)||10.4g||20g|
|Polyunsaturated Fats (PUFAs)||0.96g||0.97g|
|CLA (% of total fat)||0.72%||0.33%|
As you can see, grass-fed beef has several benefits over grain-fed meat, including lower calories, higher protein, lower saturated fat, higher omega-3 fat, and more vitamins and minerals.
There are many advantages to grass-fed beef, such as:
Although there are plenty of advantages of grass-fed meat, there are also some downsides, including:
One company that is working to fight the lack of widespread availability is Crowd Cow, which offers high-quality, mail-order meat and seafood, including 100% grass-fed beef and pasture-raised Wagyu beef.
The list of positives for grain-fed beef is much shorter and less impactful than that of grass-fed beef:
As you can expect, many of the disadvantages of grain-fed meat are the same as the advantages of grass-fed beef, including:
Made from a special breed of cattle from Japan, Wagyu beef is considered some of the best-tasting and highest-quality beef in the world.
Some Wagyu beef cattle are 100% grass-fed, while others are fed a combination of grass and grains, which is thought to produce superior marbling.
Crowd Cow, for example, has Wagyu beef that is pasture-raised and grass-fed but finished on both local grains and grasses.
The only advantages of grain-fed meat are generally a lower cost and more widespread availability across the nation.
Grass-fed meat has many more advantages than grain-fed meat, including better nutritional value, less environmental impact, improved animal welfare, and better taste (to some).
Technically, yes, you can eat grass-fed beef every day.
As with all foods, it’s best to have dietary variety to increase the number of nutrients that you get from different foods.
However, because grass-fed beef has such high nutritional value, it would be fine to eat it in moderate quantities every day if you’d like.
High consumption of red meat is often linked to colon and colorectal cancer, but the research doesn’t differentiate between conventionally raised and grain-fed beef, so the boosted levels of antioxidants and omega-3 fats in grass-fed beef may mitigate this risk.
This is a question of personal preference, but many people prefer the taste of grass-fed beef.
Although it has less marbling and fat than grain-fed beef, many state that the fat in grass-fed beef is much more flavorful and unique.
Grass-fed beef technically means that a cow was fed grass at some point during its life, which could mean that the cow also ate grains or finished its life eating grains—a common practice to fatten up the cow more rapidly.
The term grass-finished means that a cow ate grass throughout the end of its life—another way to say grass-finished would be “100% grass-fed.”
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