Is there a difference between grain-fed and grass-fed beef? Or is this just debate with no evidence to back it up?
Yes, there are many differences between grain-fed and grass-fed cows. It has to do with the differences in the diets of the cows, the conditions in which these cows are raised, and the difference in taste.
To start off, grain-fed cows are cows that consume a grain and corn based diet. These cows are raised on farms when they’re calves for the first 6 to 12 months of their lives before they’re moved to feedlots, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).
This is where the larger problem lies. CAFOs aren’t necessarily known for their cleanliness. In fact, the cows living in them are often in an extremely unsanitary environment (dense populations of any species tends toward higher disease and . So unsanitary that the cows have to be given antibiotics to survive the harsh living arrangements.
Along with the antibiotics, the cows are also given drugs and hormones used to rapidly fatten them up and make them grow up to a year faster than grass-fed cows. (Note: the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics to cause weight gain in cows just became illegal in January 2017.)
That’s a little unsettling, isn’t it? Aside from all of that, the cows are consuming an unnatural grain-based diet. This happens for a few months before they are moved to a factory for slaughtering.
Because of the way these cows are raised on feedlots, fattening up at a faster rate, there is more fat in the beef, giving it a higher grade. But, containing higher levels of fat isn’t really a good thing because the way the composition of fatty acids is different.
Cows that are grass-fed live on farms their entire lives, consuming a grass-based diet. Hence, the term grass-fed. Note that the exact definition of what grass-fed beef is varies. Because the cows start out eating grass and some either fatten up and eat grain and others finish eating grass, they are sometimes referred to as grass-finished.
Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms in Virginia has had much to say about this topic. Not only does his farm have the cows eating grass only, he feels it is important to keep the pastures his animals are in clean and safe. In addition to that, his cows are moved to a new pasture everyday in order to heal his land and reduce weeds, keeping pathogens away and increasing the nutritional quality of his meat.
Sapp, Williams and McCain (1998) found that cows consuming fresh, green grass and forage had elevated levels of vitamin E in the beef after finishing because the grass is high in vitamin E. Makes sense, right? After all, it’s been said that we are what we eat.
Nutritionally, grass-fed beef contains less fat than grain-fed but, the fats the beef does have are associated with reduced body fat because of the Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) in grass-fed beef. Grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A and E, and antioxidants, but lower in calories. Red meat is very nutritious to begin with, even the conventionally grown beef. Grass-fed beef contains more nutrients and the animals live in a natural environment.
Many people argue that there is no difference in taste between the two. Some say that grass-fed beef has a grassy taste. When it boils down to it, grain-fed beef has more saturated fat (grains are converted to saturated fat and stored – this happens with humans who overeat carbs, too). Grass-fed beef is leaner and that may be what impacts the taste.
A study on beef in Australia found that grain-feeding decreased functional lipid components and produced more trans and saturated fats than grass-feeding (Ponnampalam, Mann, & Sinclair, 2006).
While grass-fed beef sales have gone up over the years as more people are becoming proactive about their eating habits and where food comes from, they still only meet roughly a quarter of conventional sales for beef.
What can you do to help? Support local farmers and butchers who raise the animals themselves OR only provide fresh grass-fed beef. There are many local places that have grass-fed beef. To name a few:
- Cherry Hill Ecological Farm – Located in West Springfield, Pennsylvania
- The Savvy Shop – Located on State Road in Ashtabula
- Rennick Meat Market – Located on Bridge Street in Ashtabula
- Na*Kyrsie Meats – Located in Geneva, Ohio on Austin Road
- Smokin’ T’s Smokehouse – Located in Jefferson, Ohio
- Havenwood Farm – Located in Ashtabula, Ohio
- Moores Heritage Farm – Located in Plymouth Township
Visit the Ashtabula Local Food Council’s farm directory for more!
Ponnampalam, E., Mann, N., & Sinclair, A. (2006). Effect of feeding systems on omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acid and trans fatty acids in Australian beef cuts: potential impact on human health. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition,15(1), 21-29. Retrieved March 7, 2018.
Salatin, J. (2003). Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal. Acres, USA: A Voice for Eco-Agriculture,33(9), 1-4.
Sapp, P., Williams, S., & Mccann, M. (1999). Sensory Attributes And Retail Display Characteristics Of Pasture- And/or Grain-Fed Beef Aged 7,14 Or 21 Days. Journal of Food Quality,22(3), 257-274. doi:10.1111/j.1745-4557.1999.tb00556.x