The topic of beef consumption conjures strong opinions. Many people tout its meaty nutritional content while others believe it is unhealthy and wrecking the environment. However, folks in this latter group likely are not considering the differences between conventionally raised meat and grass-fed beef.
Discover the difference between conventional and grass-fed meat and the numerous benefits of grass-fed beef to decide whether it fits in with your individual nutritional goals.
Differences Between Grass-Fed and Conventional Beef
According to the American Grassfed Association (AGA), grass-fed products are defined as "ruminants, including cattle, bison, goats, and sheep, as those food products from animals that have eaten nothing but their mother's milk and fresh grass or grass-type hay from birth to harvest for all their lives."
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classification further denotes after weaning, ruminants must solely graze on grass, forage, and cereal grains in their vegetative, pre-grain state. They must also have continuous access to pastures during the growing season.
Furthermore, the addition of 'USDA Organic' further signifies and validates the absence of GMOs, growth hormones, and antibiotics. In essence, this practice dismisses commodity agriculture and shifts the focus from quantity to quality beef that can exert positive health benefits.
Conversely, conventionally raised cows typically eat an unnatural diet based on corn and soy in addition to receiving antibiotics and growth hormones that further impede their health.
In fact, conventionally raised cows often live quite sad lives. Calves are born in the early spring, drink milk from their mothers, and then they are allowed to generally roam free and eat grass and other edible plants within their environment.
After 7-9 months of this the cows are moved to feedlots, also called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where they are kept in confined stalls with minimal space. It is here that they are rapidly fattened with grain-based feed and small amounts of dried grass. They are then brought to a slaughterhouse.
In summary, grass-fed cows almost solely eat natural grass whereas conventionally raised cattle eat grains based on corn or soy which then has implications for human health.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Better?
Let's take a look at the potential health benefits of grass-fed beef, along with the cost, access, and more of choosing grass-fed cattle.
What a cow eats significantly affects the nutrient composition of beef that humans eventually consume. However, there are other factors beyond cost to consider.
Due to the different nutrient compositions of grass and grain-based feeds, grass-fed beef typically contains less total fat, which also means it has fewer calories.
Furthermore, grass-fed beef contains up to five times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids as grain-fed and at least double the amount of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). These healthy fats are associated with heart and brain health benefits among others. Interestingly, grass-fed contains less monounsaturated fat and about equal amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.
In addition, grass-fed beef tends to have higher levels of the antioxidant vitamins A and E. The higher antioxidant content offers numerous longevity benefits.
However, despite the controversy, all beef is generally a very concentrated source of nutrients. In fact, beef contains nearly every major nutrient that someone needs to thrive. It boasts high amounts of B vitamins and bioavailable zinc, selenium, and iron. Many Americans struggle with iron deficiency, and would likely benefit from adding more red meat to their diet.
Both grass-fed and grain-fed beef contain very bioavailable protein as well as nutrients that are important for brain and muscular health like creatine and carnosine.
Cost and Access
Grass-fed beef is typically more expensive than grain-fed. Yet, this is not necessarily a negative for everyone.
Some people do not mind paying extra for a higher quality product. Others, however, may not deem the differences between the two types of beef as significant enough to buy the higher price tag.
In addition, not everyone has easy access to markets and stores that offer grass-fed options. Nowadays, even grocery stores like Aldi typically carry at least one variety of grass-fed beef, but this may not be the case in food desserts.
Undoubtedly, grass is more nutrient-dense for the animals compared to corn and soy. Cows' digestive systems are better equipped to handle and extract the nutrients from their natural feed. It is also suggested to refrain from giving cows hormones and antibiotics as these alter metabolic functions of the cows and then can leach into humans once eaten.
The planet may also benefit from moderate grass-fed beef consumption. Cattle, compared to plants and some other animals, require the most feed, fossil fuels, and water. However, the intake of grass-fed beef is suggested to restore and improve natural ecosystems that house living wildlife. It should also be mentioned that ethically raising grass-fed beef creates fewer environmental burdens compared to conventionally raised cows.
Finally, from less food waste to cultivating healthful relationships, supporting local family farms can assist in the maintenance and growth of rural communities. Switching from grain to grass-fed may also heighten agriculture quality while subsiding cost, as less time and money is required to upkeep the farm and nurture the cattle.
The Bottom Line
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting red meat consumption to 1-2 servings a week, where a serving equals three to four ounces to reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers. Thus, beef and grass-fed beef can certainly fit into a balanced diet.
Grass-fed beef is considered more nutritious than grain-fed cows due to its higher omega-3 content, lower saturated fat composition, and increased antioxidant activity. It is also less harmful to the environment and moderation of farming and consumption can bolster wildlife habitats and local communities.
Nonetheless, grass-fed can be more expensive and less accessible than conventional red meat. But both grass and grain-fed beef are considered nutrient-dense foods and contain ample amounts of bioavailable protein, iron, selenium, zinc, and other vitamins. Ultimately, preference boils down to the individual and their unique values and goals.
With that being said, when choosing red meats in general, additional recommendations suggest "lean" and "extra lean" and any sort of "loin," such as tenderloin and sirloin to keep the fat content minimized. Round and flank cut and chuck cuts that are equal to or greater than 90% lean are solid second options and do not add as much cholesterol or saturated fat.
Finally, prioritize plant foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and some whole grains alongside moderate portions of animals to create a balanced diet. Although animals and especially beef include many nutrients, plant foods contain numerous polyphenols that offer additional health and longevity benefits.
Balance and moderation remain key to unlocking full health potential!
Gunnars K. What's the Difference between Grass- and Grain-Fed Beef? Healthline. Updated December 4, 2019. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/grass-fed-vs-grain-fed-beef#grassfed-beef-benefits.