Beef has been a staple of the American diet since, forever. It has been controversial and hotly debated on the health spectrum both for human consumption and health of the environment. I believe it can be included in a healthy diet in moderation, as it provides a good source of protein (essential amino acids), vitamins A, B6, B12, D, E, and important minerals, including iron, zinc, and selenium. But what’s the difference between these meats and what makes grass-fed stand out against grain-fed or grass-finished meat? Let’s investigate.
What does Grass-fed beef mean?
At Foodkick & FreshDirect, we define our grass-fed program as cows that were 100% grass-fed, never fed grain or corn. However, the term grass-fed is no longer regulated by the USDA, so can be used if any percentage of the cow’s diet is grass; meaning cows can be fed a mix of grain and grass, but still be called grass-fed. Cows that are not 100% grass-fed do not have the same taste profile, nutritional breakdown or environmental benefits as 100% grass-fed beef. 100% grass-fed beef has a more earthy flavor profile and different cooking instructions to optimize taste. The flavor of grass-fed beef can vary based on the pasture and time of year, whereas grain-fed can taste the same no matter where it was raised or when it was slaughtered. Chefs will talk about how grain fed tastes more like the fat of the meat, and grass-fed has more of an earthy, heartily beefy taste to it.
What are the benefits of grass-fed cows?
Differences in cattle diet change the nutrients in the finished product, most importantly in the fat composition. Grass-fed meat usually has less marbling throughout and can be a leaner product, depending on the cut. When looking at overall saturated fat, there is very little difference between grass and grain-fed beef, but the differences appear when you dive into the types of unsaturated fats of each:
- While there is very little difference in concentration of omega-6 fatty acids, grass-fed beef has higher omega-3 fatty acids, and the ratio of Omega 6: Omega 3 is more favorable than in grain-fed or grain-finished (3:1 versus 7:1). We recommend that you aim for a ratio under 4:1 of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids for heart health, so lean grass-fed beef fits more into that health requirement.
- When looking specifically at the omega-6 content, grass-fed beef has more conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), omega-6 essential fatty acids (the body doesn’t make them) that are associated with reduced cardiovascular disease risk, shown to reduce cancer risk and may play a part in weight maintenance/fat maintenance. There are about 300% more CLAs in grass-fed than grain-fed beef.
- If a grain-fed beef consumer wanted to achieve similar intakes of both omega-3 and CLAs, they would have to eat higher fat, larger portions, which would add saturated fat and calories into the diet.
And lastly, grass-fed beef has been shown to have higher levels of antioxidant pre-cursors, especially vitamins A & E, which is beneficial both for a slightly longer shelf life and consumer health benefits.
Cows more naturally digest grass, and thus a grain or corn feed is harder for the digestive process. The difficult digestion of grain makes the digestive tract a more acidic environment, which is more welcome to E. coli and also has a higher greenhouse gas impact, especially from methane gas into the environment. This argument is still being studied, as grain-fed cattle have shorter lifecycles, thus shortening the methane timeline. Additionally, the manure concentration of a feedlot (which could also be a grass-fed feedlot, but is less common), adds more nitrogen into the environment in a concentration that can be dangerous for both the ecosystem of the farm and the aquatic ecosystems affected by the runoff. Furthermore, the grain used to feed cattle in feedlots is often grown in a chemical-intensive agriculture system that produces chemical runoff and decrease in the biodiversity of the land.
Additionally, it is common for purely grain-fed cattle to require antibiotics because the acidic environment in their stomach causes acidosis, which basically means the lining of their stomachs/rumens degrade and can develop holes, like ulcers. Conventional cattle are then given antibiotics and steroids to manage the inflammation and tamp down the illnesses that will likely arise, and eventually end up in our water and food supplies.
Conclusion: Grass-fed beef has some nutritional benefits over grain-fed or grain-finished. When eating meat, focusing on moderation is the key, 4oz portions of lean beef – meaning cuts that are 10% fat or lower, whether it’s grass-fed beef or pasture-raised or partially grass-fed/partially grain-fed, can be part of a heart-healthy diet.
FreshDirect’s 100% Grass-Fed Local Beef program is made up of a group of family-owned farms in the northeast that strictly follow a humane and sustainable agricultural model. The herd is raised without hormones or antibiotics and is exclusively grass-fed, which means they’re never given grain or corn. This not only benefits the farmer, the animals, and the environment, but also the consumer, as genuine, grass-fed cattle results in meat that’s leaner, more tender, more flavorful, and remarkably juicy. Because we request the absolute highest quality from our farmers, we have exclusive access to the cream of the crop, which we’re now able to provide to our customers 365 days a year.