What’s the Difference Between Grass-Fed Beef and Grain-Fed Beef?

You’ve surely heard about grass-fed beef. Over the past decade, it’s become a trending food product among Americans, bolstered by consumers who care about optimal nutrition as well as eco-conscious living. But what exactly is the difference between grass-fed beef and its alternative (grain-fed beef and/or factory-farmed beef), and why should you care? You’ll learn everything you need to know here.

What is Grass-Fed Beef?

Some people think that grass-fed beef is easily defined as beef that’s been fed grass. That’s partially true. However, all cows are likely to spend their first 12 to 18 months of life on pasture eating grass, including soy- or corn-fed beef cattle (they’re fed corn or soy to fatten them up and create the coveted “marbleization” of the beef). It’s how the beef is finished that makes the difference. Once a certain size, cows are brought to either a feedlot (grain-fed/factory-farm) or left on pasture (grass-fed cattle/grass-finished cattle). This small distinction makes a world of difference for the ground-beef and ribeye steak that reaches your plate. For beef to be its most pure and healthy, it needs to be grass fed and grass finished. 

What Is Grass-Fed/Grass-finished Beef?

Plainly put, grass-fed/grass-finished beef is beef that has been raised on pasture for their entire lives. It tends to be less fatty and consequently cooks faster. 

Letting cows roam and feed on pasture is how cows were intended to live and eat. Additionally, when raised this way, they actually add back to the environment by recycling back to the land the nutrients they eat, which supports the health of the soil and growth of new plant life. It’s a perfect, natural cycle.

What is Grain-Fed Beef?

If your beef is grass-fed but not grass-finished, it has spent the last four or so months of its life eating grains (likely GMO corn or soy). 

Factory farms, where grain-fed cattle or grain-finished cattle is raised, were developed to eliminate the need for raising animals in large pastures and for producing fattier, more juicy beef. 

But that mouthwatering marbling of grain-fed beef is not without consequence.

Grass-Fed Versus Grain-Fed

Cows have a four-chambered stomach designed to digest and ferment grasses. They are not designed to eat grains. Moreover, the confinement and relatively unsanitary environment of feedlots require the animals be given antibiotics to avoid illness. So, when you eat grain-fed beef, you digest any of their unhealthy, unbalanced elements and any residual antibiotics.  

The Challenge of Finding Truly Grass-Fed Beef

Knowing the difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef is not enough to ensure you buy the healthiest meat, because the term “grass-fed” has been unregulated by the USDA since 2016. What this means is that there’s no guarantee your “grass-fed” beef was never fed grains just because its label says “grass-fed.”

The key is to find beef described as “grass-fed” and “grass-finished”; this essentially means the beef in question is the embodiment of grass-fed beef. It’s a way for top-quality producers to differentiate their beef from those marketed as “natural” or “pasture-raised,” which gives no indication as to whether they’re grass- or grain-fed, but sounds good to consumers. 

Regardless, your best bet, if you want 100-percent grass-fed beef is to find a local farmer and learn how their meat was raised. 

It’s worth noting that although farmers raising grass-fed/grass-finished beef don’t typically abuse growth hormones and antibiotics, there is no real regulation around their use. This is all the more reason to get to know your local farmers as well as to look for the words “USDA organic” if you want your meat antibiotic- and hormone-free. 

The Nutrient Differences Between Grass-Fed/Grass-Finished and Grain-Fed Beef

It’s not just the texture and flavor profile that separates grass-fed and grain-fed beef. The nutrient profiles are very different, too. Here’s how:

  • Grass-fed beef contains less total fat content than grain-fed beef.

Grass-fed beef is typically lower in total fat, which is apparent by its lack of marbling. Consequently, grass-fed beef contains fewer calories than conventionally raised beef. Interestingly, there’s no significant difference in total saturated fat content, although the types of saturated fats can differ; grass-fed beef contains more stearic acid. This implies that grass-fed beef contains less of the other two saturated fatty acids (palmitic and myristic acid), which may be associated with adverse effects on blood-cholesterol levels.

  • Grass-fed beef contains an optimal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) are essential fatty acids, meaning we must consume them through diet since we cannot make them ourselves. Omega-3s are associated with protective mechanisms (anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, etc.), and although essential, excess omega-6 is typically associated with promoting inflammation and modern chronic diseases. The typical Western diet far exceeds the necessary intake of omega-6s, while under consuming omega-3s. Grass-fed beef can contain up to five times more omega-3s than grain-fed beef. Grain feeding has also been shown to increase omega-6 levels.

  • Grass-fed beef contains two to three times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

    Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a type of PUFA, which preliminary research shows may offer some great health benefits, such as improved glucose regulation, insulin sensitivity, and protection against cardiovascular disease due to its anti-hypertensive effects. CLA can be found in the meat of ruminant animals and is produced by a specific bacterium that lives in rumen, the first of four compartments of the cow’s stomach. The way it’s produced is highly reliant on the pH of the rumen. Grains create an acidic environment that prevents the activity of these bacteria and therefore reduces the amount of CLA produced. In fact, grass-fed beef contains roughly two to three times more CLA than grain-fed beef.  

  • Grass-fed beef contains more beta-carotene.

    Beta-carotene is the precursor to retinol (vitamin A), a very important fat-soluble vitamin for proper vision, bone health, reproduction, immunity and various cellular functions. In addition, beta-carotene has protective properties primarily through its antioxidant activity. Grass-fed cows contain up to seven times more beta-carotene in their tissues than grain-fed cows, which makes sense since grains are far less beta-carotene rich than grass. In fat, the reason the fat in grass-fed beef has a yellow tinge is due to its high beta-carotene content.

  • Grass-fed beef contains more vitamin E.

    Grass-fed beef contains considerably more vitamin E than grain-fed beef, in the form of α-tocopherol. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant, meaning it can protect our cells from the potentially damaging effects of cellular stress. Vitamin E also extends the shelf life of meat, delaying the deterioration and oxidation of lipids, which is important for maintaining the integrity of the omega-3 fatty acids found in grass-fed beef. It’s worth noting that beta-carotene combined with vitamin E promotes increased antioxidant activity.

  • Grass-fed beef contains higher antioxidant enzymes

    Glutathione, and the two enzymes, superoxide dismutase and catalase, have all been found in higher concentrations in grass-fed beef compared to grain-fed beef. This is important because, just like beta-carotene and vitamin E, these enzymes reduce potentially damaging free radicals that can cause cellular damage by oxidizing lipids and attacking proteins. These antioxidant enzymes may also offset and protect us from any free radicals produced during cooking beef, as high temperatures can produce free radicals by oxidizing fats, such as those found in beef.         

The Final Word

Altogether, grass-fed beef provides higher levels of nutrition than grain-fed beef: better saturated fat profiles, more omega-3s, less omega-6s, more CLA, more beta-carotene, more vitamin E, and more antioxidant potential. Fortunately, these benefits are being realized, making grass-fed beef relatively easy to find at your local farmers market, grocery stores, and supermarkets. In fact, now grass-fed beef can even be delivered straight to your doorstep by services such as ButcherBox, Nose-to-Tail, U.S. Wellness Meats, and TruLocal for the Canadians. It may cost a bit more than conventional beef, but grass-fed beef provides far more nutrition and an overall positive impact on the environment. 




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