Beef is one of the best protein sources and can certainly be eaten regularly as part of a healthy diet—along with plenty of fresh veggies, of course. However, there is a major difference between conventional, grain-fed beef and natural, grass-fed beef. Eating the latter whenever possible will seriously increase the health benefits you’ll get from beef.
Table of Contents for Better Choices: Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef
What is Grain-Fed Beef?
Beef that you typically buy at your local grocery store—unless labeled otherwise—is raised in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), which exists to raise a large volume of cattle in as short of a timespan as possible, therefore increasing profits.
While cows’ natural diet is grass, these feedlots give the animals grains in order to fatten them up quickly. Sadly, these operations often have very inhumane and unsanitary conditions where animals have little or no room to move around, and diseases can spread quickly. This is why it’s not uncommon for grain-fed beef to also have been given antibiotics and/or other drugs, and many health experts agree this can pose a real danger to humans who consume their meat.
What is Grass-Fed Beef?
Almost all cattle from birth—grain- and grass-fed—begin their life eating grass and roaming (somewhat) free. Between 6-12 months of age is when the CAFO-raised cattle begin eating grains, whereas grass-fed cattle continue eating grass. Grass-fed cows tend to have living conditions that are far more humane, and their meat is higher in anti-inflammatory fatty acids, vitamins and minerals.
What are the Nutritional Differences?
Whether your reasons for switching from grain- to grass-fed beef come from an animal rights or nutritional perspective (or both), the health benefits of grass-fed beef are inarguably superior. Consider the following:
Fatty Acid Composition
This is the primary difference between grass- and grain-fed beef, and it is a big one. A high-volume grains diet produces beef that is much higher in omega-6 fatty acids, which have been shown (when eaten in excess, as is common in the American diet) to be linked with high levels of inflammation and increased risk of chronic diseases.
Grass-fed cows, on the other hand, have a far higher percentage of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids—the ones we hear about a lot when discussing fish like salmon. These are important for cognitive function and a reduced risk of disease. Also, grass-fed beef is twice as high in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is linked to a reduction in body fat.
Both grain- and grass-fed beef offer an impressive amount of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), but grass-fed beef offers more. All beef is a great source of B vitamins, zinc, selenium and iron, but grass-fed beef is far higher in beta carotene, vitamin E, potassium, phosphorus and sodium.
All beef has been shown to provide major health benefits—such as increased muscle mass, improved athletic performance, anemia prevention and decreased inflammation. However, grass-fed beef undoubtedly goes above and beyond, especially in terms of decreasing inflammation.
NOTE: Keep in mind that meat should always be paired with plenty of fresh vegetables, so strive for at least half of your plate filled with veggies and a 3-4 ounce serving of meat.
Where Can I Buy Grass-Fed Beef?
Depending on where you live, grass-fed beef might be easy to find, or it might not. In most major cities, you can easily find grass-fed beef at a Whole Foods Market or any other local health food store or co-op that sells meat. If this isn’t an option, research if there is a cow share in your area, which can make grass-fed beef both accessible and more affordable (although you’ll probably need a lot of freezer space). Grass-fed beef is a bit more expensive, but is definitely worth the cost, if you can swing it.
Does Grass-Fed Taste the Same?
Yes, grass-fed beef has a very similar taste to grain-fed. Usually it is naturally lower in fat, so it is best to cook it at a slightly lower temperature for a longer period of time, to make sure it doesn’t end up dry and/or tough. Other than that, its taste is similar (if not better) and can be used exactly the same way in recipes calling for beef.
Remember that all beef can be a healthy part of your diet, but substituting grass-fed for grain-fed will allow you to reap the maximum health benefits possible from your beef.