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What Is the Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef?

By Jiří Kaloč

Quality plays a major role when it comes to meat and health. Everyone knows that meat from organically farmed animals is better than its conventionally farmed counterpart. But what is the difference in terms of nutrition? Is it worth paying extra for grass-fed and organic?

We used to hunt wild animals, now we’re chasing discount

What we consider meat today is likely very different from what it used to be for our ancestors. In the past, any meat we were able to put on our table/cave floor came from wild animals, which were moving, eating and living naturally. Conventionally raised animals don’t have this luxury. They are kept in high densities, without the possibility to move or eat as they would in the past. Lifestyle is a big health influencer, not just for humans but also for all animals, and as a consequence of this unnatural lifestyle animals get sick and are treated with antibiotics regularly. This results in tissue with a substantially different composition.


What does it mean to be grass-fed?

Conventionally farmed cattle do not see a single leaf of fresh grass in their life, despite it being their preferred natural food. They are fed a special mix of grains that allows them to grow more quickly with more mass. So, cattle that actually eat what they’re supposed to, fresh grass, had to get a special name.

It is also a common practice to feed grains to bulls towards the end of their life because it will still fatten them up, thus making them more profitable. So, if you really want to go all out, then look for beef that was both “grass-fed” and “grass-finished”.

What’s the actual difference?

Based on a study from 2010 that compared tissue composition of grain-fed and grass-fed beef, we know about several key differences. Grass-fed meat has a healthier fat composition with a higher percentage of a benign stearic acid and lower percentage of palmitic and myristic acid that could be considered potentially harmful. It also contains 2x to 5x more of those much needed omega-3 fatty acids, and 2x to 3x the amount of CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid), which is an important fatty acid that works as an antioxidant and helps protect against cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Other studies also show that grass-fed beef has significantly more antioxidants and vitamins. You can spot this difference with a naked eye. Cattle that eat fresh grass get a lot of carotenoids from it (precursor for vitamin A) that colors their fat with a slight hint of yellow, whereas grain-fed cattle have strictly white fat.


Pay for quality

Similar differences were observed in studies comparing organic versus conventional lamb, bison, and chicken, but I dare say it’s valid for all animals. The abundance of meat today simply comes at a price. You can either decide to pay in cash for quality or pay with your health for a discount.