Grass-Fed vs Grain-Fed Beef – What’s The Difference?

Couple Buying Meat at The StoreThe way cows are fed can have a major effect on the nutrient composition of the beef.

Whereas cattle today is often fed grains, the animals we ate throughout evolution roamed free and ate grass.

Many studies have shown that the nutrients in beef can vary depending on what the cows eat.

It’s not only important what we eat. It also matters what the foods that we eat, ate.

The Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Cows

Most cows start out living similar lives.

The calves are born in the spring, drink milk from their mothers and are then allowed to roam free and eat grass, shrubs or whatever edible plants they find in their environment.

This continues for about 6 to 12 months. After that, the “conventionally” raised cows are moved to feedlots.

Large feedlots are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which tend to be really nasty places, one of the few things the vegans and I agree on.

There, the cows are rapidly fattened up with grain-based feeds, usually made with a base of soy or corn.

The conventionally raised cows are often given drugs and hormones to grow faster, as well as antibiotics to survive the unsanitary living conditions. The cows live there for a few months and are then moved into the factory for slaughtering.

Compare that to grass-fed cows, which may continue to live on grassland for the remainder of their lives.

Of course, this isn’t really that simple and the different feeding practices are complicated and varied. The term “grass-fed” isn’t even clearly defined.

But generally speaking, grass-fed cows eat (mostly) grass, while grain-fed cows eat (mostly) an unnatural diet based on corn and soy during the latter part of their lives.

Bottom Line: Most cows start out on pasture, drinking milk and eating grass. However, conventionally raised cows are later moved to feedlots and fed grain-based feeds, while grass-fed cows may continue to live on grassland.

Differences in Fatty Acid Composition

Cow

“You are what you eat” applies to cows too…

What a cow eats can have a major effect on the nutrient composition of the beef. This is particularly evident when it comes to the fatty acid composition.

Grass-fed usually contains less total fat than grain-fed beef, which means that gram for gram, grass-fed beef contains fewer calories.

But the composition of the fatty acids is vastly different, which is where grass-fed really shines (1, 2, 3):

  • Saturated and monounsaturated: Grass-fed beef has either similar, or slightly less, saturated and monounsaturated fats.
  • Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fats: Grass-fed and grain-fed beef contain very similar amounts of Omega-6 fatty acids.
  • Omega-3s: This is where grass-fed really makes a major difference, containing up to 5 times as much Omega-3.
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA): Grass-fed beef contains about twice as much CLA as grain-fed beef. This fatty acid is associated with reduced body fat and some other beneficial effects (4).

If you can’t afford or can’t access grass-fed beef, then it is a good idea to eat fatty fish once or twice a week or supplement with fish oil to make up for the lost Omega-3s.

Bottom Line: Grass-fed beef may contain slightly less total fat than grain-fed beef, but a lot more Omega-3 fatty acids and CLA, which are both very beneficial for health.

Red Meat is Highly Nutritious, Grass-Fed Even More so

Meat

Humans have been eating meat throughout evolution and our bodies are well equipped to digest and absorb the nutrients from meat.

Traditional hunter-gatherer populations like the Masai and Inuit got most of their calories from meat and remained in excellent health (5, 6).

This is possible because red meat, even conventional grain-fed meat, is incredibly nutritious.

Regular grain-fed beef is loaded with Vitamin B12, B3 and B6. It is also very rich in highly bioavailable Iron, Selenium and Zinc. Meat contains some amount of almost every nutrient that humans need to survive (7).

Meat also contains high quality protein and various lesser known nutrients like Creatine and Carnosine, which are very important for our muscles and brains.

However, grass-fed beef is even more nutritious than that: (8):

  • Vitamin A: Grass-fed beef contains carotenoid precursors to Vitamin A, such as beta-carotene.
  • Vitamin E: This is an antioxidant that sits in your cell membranes and protects them from oxidation. Grass-fed beef contains more.
  • Micronutrients: Grass-fed beef also contains more Potassium, Iron, Zinc, Phosphorus and Sodium.

Bottom Line: Even conventional grain-feed beef is highly nutritious, but grass-fed beef contains more Carotenoids, Vitamin E and minerals like Potassium, Iron, Zinc, Phosphorus and Sodium.

Is Grass-Fed Beef Worth The Extra Cost and Inconvenience?

Woman Eating Meat

It is important to keep in mind that even conventional, grain-fed beef is very healthy.

As long as you don’t overcook your beef (which can form harmful compounds) then it is a nutritious food that should be a regular part of your diet.

Grass-fed beef can be more expensive and it may not be worth the extra cost for some people.

Depending on where you live, it may also be inconvenient to access grass-fed beef.

While some people might live close to a farmer’s market or a Whole Foods store, others might need to drive long distances to acquire it.

There can also be subtle differences in taste. Grass-fed beef is often leaner and there may be some differences in texture. Some people prefer grass-fed, others grain-fed, I recommend you try both and see which one you prefer.

Take Home Message

Despite all the controversies in nutrition, most people are beginning to agree that the most important thing is to “just eat real food!”

I’d like to take that one step further…

Just eat real food that eats real food.

25 Comments

  1. I think it is more about what is not in grass fed beef, antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides from GMO corn or soy.

  2. You left out the most important reason why grass fed beef is healthier in my opinion, its vitamin K2 content.

  3. Great summary! How do you think the latest, third kind of beef – artificial lab generated meat would have done in this comparison? My guess is poorly. Being almost no fat you wound’t find much omega 3, CLA, vitamin A & D in there unless it’s added.

  4. Great article! One thing I didn’t see is how the corn and soy that the CAFO cattle are being fed is virtually guaranteed to be genetically modified (GMO). We’re starting to see research as to what GMs could end up doing to our bodies and it’s not good. I love being able to point people to your blog for a deep dive into the truth about our food! Thanks!

  5. For grass fed beef to be good for you, does it have to be 100% grass fed? I’m new to exploring this world. Thanks for the info!
    Maripat

  6. Enjoyed reading this article. We know that grass fed or organic beef really is best for us. Yes, it is more expensive and not all families can afford to buy it. The thought of the laboratory grown beef (or any laboratory enhanced food) is not a pleasant one.

    Unfortunately with the demands being put on this planet it would seem that more and more money is being put into this type of research. Oh, for the ‘good old days’ when there were farmers who could farm as nature intended. Will we ever go back to how it was? I’d like the answer to be yes, but then people would say I’m living in cloud cuckoo land !

    All the best, Jan.

    • GRAIN FED BEEF DOES NOT CONTAIN ANTIBIOTICS OR HORMONES!! If it had those compounds in the animal at slaughter it would be condemned at the slaughter house! Antibiotics are tested for on every carcass down to 1 part per BILLION. If it tests positive, so if 1 part per BILLION it is condemned. Every antibiotic used in farm species is rigorously tested before they can even be used on food animal species to define the proper withdrawal periods so that is NOT present long before they are slaughtered.

      Hormones are in every living thing, including plants, people. Hormones are also proteins, proteins are broken down in your stomach with stomach acids and not absorbed into your system, contrary to popular belief. Do some freaking homework and be a smart consumer and stop listening to sensationalism!

  7. I live in New Zealand and ALL our beef and lamb is 100% grass-fed by default. Here the farmers still let the cows eat grass, they don’t have these CAFO’s here. I hope it stays that way!

  8. Etienne Juneau, PhD(c) says:

    Loved it!

    Thanks,

    -Etienne

  9. How about cattle fed a combination diet? As far as I’ve been told, cattle in Norway is out grazing in summer and fed what they call “concentrate” in winter. I guess this is oily seeds and grains.

    What do they do in Iceland?

    • If the cattle are fed a combination diet, then the health effects should be somewhere in between grass-fed and grain-fed.

      I think it’s similar in Iceland, but they do store a lot of hay for use in the Winter.

  10. Ken Maingot says:

    Love my New Zealand beef! Quick question that maybe you can help with. When I slow-cook a beef stew I normally skim the tons of fat that comes to the top. Now that I’ve switched to grass-fed, is that still necessary?

  11. Do you have any references for reading about grain-finished beef? In our town we have two local farms we like to get meat from. One raises 100% grass-fed beef. The other raises grass-fed but then finishes on non-gmo grain near the end of its life. I prefer 100% grass-fed but have read arguments for grain-finished as well. The grain-finished is a tad cheaper plus they offer a CSA which makes it even cheaper. Thoughts?

  12. I have been farming for the past 3 years, did a lot of homework before starting out. Located in Ontario Canada, our winters can be frigid. We raise Angus beef crossed Charolais, completely grass fed on our own organic pasture. We sent our first young beef to the butcher last month, I am impressed!

    Very tender and full flavoured, well worth the wait… no hormones or grain. And hair sheep, at first I liked the no shearing and parasite resistant factors. Just this month we butchered for our own consumption, I have to say, the meat is very tender and low in fat. The biggest surprise was the fact that the odour when cooking lamb was almost undetectable. Most of all these guys were grass fed and when put in at night I feed them organically grown alfalfa. No grain!

  13. I was in Western Australia for work and I tried dry climate grass fed beef. The texture was not great but the flavor was just insanely good. I have never tasted anything as good, anywhere else. The pasture is really dry and the grass is brown in summer.

  14. In response to Kat, who told us that “hormones are also proteins” and that we need to “do some freaking homework.” There are several classes of hormones, not all are proteins. Peptide hormones are protein hormones. Examples include growth hormone and insulin.

    The arguably more concerning hormones are lipid based hormones like sex hormones, cholesterol, and cortisol. Cows are often injected with pellets containing steroid hormones including testosterone propionate, estradiol, and trenbolone acetate.

    Although some hormones may not be absorbed in the stomach, some certainly are. Often times it becomes the liver’s job to break down these compounds. Hopefully it breaks everything down and nothing harmful begins to circulate through your bloodstream.

    But this process does place additional strain on your liver. So even if nothing enters circulation, it will still have been unnecessarily taxing on your body to filter.

  15. Years ago, my husband and I purchase half a cow from a local farmer, and it was grain fed. The cows did have the opportunity to go out in the pasture. When we received our meat it tasted a lot like horseradish, and we didn’t enjoy it. If there are weeds and herbs in the pasture, can it affect the taste of the meat?

  16. I think Kat needs to do her homework!

    I live with a farmer and one if the first things she learnt in her agricultural degree is the difference between grain and grass fed cows. The famous marbled meat is a side effect to grain fed cows, they only way to sell the meat without getting consumers to question and panic at the sight of this strange looking piece of meat was to charge double the price and get the food industry to brag about it… Grain is changing how fat sits in a cow’s body.

    Also I know for a fact that cows and pigs are fed mars bars and jelly snake lollies before they are killed here in in Australia.

    Pays to know people in the industry! Grass fed is the best way to go from what I have learnt!

  17. I think there is an important message about the sustainability and welfare implications of grass fed beef. What we spend our money on dictates how we rear our animals and grow our food.

    http://www.paleoandprimalliving.com/1/post/2014/01/grass-fed-meat.html

  18. If anyone has questions about beef, why not ask the person who raises it. Actually talk to the person who is grain finishing and ask why they are doing what they are, instead of some blogger. “Conventional” grain finishing is not always done in a CAFO. Not all CAFO’s are “really nasty”. A CAFO is a term used to describe the size of the operation more than anything.

    You can have grass fed beef that was raised in a CAFO. Think about it, cattle feeders make their LIVELIHOOD by feeding cattle. Why would they jeopardize that by not being good stewards. An animal in a “really nasty” environment most likely is not going to gain weight very well. Which is how the feeder makes money.

    Grain is not changing the way fat sits in a cows body lol. The degree of INTRAmuscular fat (marbling) in meat is determined mostly by the animal’s genetic propensity to do so. Feeding it grain can help it reach its genetic potential but never exceed it. It is similar to a woman and her eggs.

    This fat is healthy for you. The external fat covering isn’t quite so. Not surprisingly, the intramuscular fat is what makes meat taste good. Thus, the higher the deposition of intramuscular fat the higher the quality grade. All (good) beef has marbling, grass-fed or otherwise.

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