Which is Superior: Grass Fed Beef vs Grain Fed Beef
Since the advent of modern farming, most beef cows have moved from being purely pasture-raised to being raised in feedlots on a diet that contains more and more grain, especially corn. In response to this, in recent years some people have started to value the rarer grass-fed beef. Partly to justify their valuation and partly because of marketing by people who sell grass-fed beef, a narrative has risen up describing grass-fed beef as better in many ways. It's healthier, they say, and it's better for the environment. Not only that, but it's tastier, they claim.
But are these claims true? Is grass-fed beef really superior to grain fed? Let's break it down in several categories.
Is Grass-Fed Beef Healthier?
One of the biggest claims for grass-fed beef is that it's healthier than grain-fed beef. But is it?
The short answer: no, not really.
Claims of better nutrients in grass-fed beef don't hold up. Grain is nutritious for cattle, so the meat of grain-fed cattle is also good for us. Essentially, most of the nutrition profile is either exactly the same or the grass-fed beef has only a negligible advantage. The biggest potential benefit from eating grass-fed beef is in the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Both types of beef have about the same amount of omega-6 fatty acids, but grass-fed beef has significantly more omega-3 fatty acids. In a top sirloin grass-fed steak, one of the cuts that has the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids, there are 65 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, compared to only about 43 in a steak of grain-fed beef. This seems like a big difference until you realize that even the cost-effective fish of choice these days, tilapia, contains more than twice omega-3 as much as the grass-fed beef (more than 130 mg per serving). So it seems that someone really concerned with their omega-3 fatty acid intake should be looking for other sources.
Another potential argument in favor of grass-fed beef is that it generally contains less fat than grain-fed beef, making it a leaner source of protein. A 100-gram serving of grass-fed ground beef might have 13 g of fat, compared to a typical serving of grain-fed beef, which contains about 19 g of fat. And since much of the difference is in saturated fats, one of the fat types worst for your health, there's the possibility that you might be healthier on a diet of grass-fed beef. A 100-g serving of grass-fed beef also has about 19 g of protein, compared to 17 g of protein in grain-fed beef. That seems like a good trade-off, but, again, if you're looking for a lean protein source, consider fish, which might give you 25 g of protein for just 3 g of fat. Plus, many people recommend adding fat to grass-fed beef to make it tastier (more on this later).
Is Grass-Fed Beef Better for the Environment?
But perhaps grass-fed beef is better for the environment. After all, it seems like it would be more environmentally friendly to let cows graze grass rather than trucking in grain for them to eat. In reality, though, grass-fed grain isn't much better for the environment.
In practice, it's hard to feed beef cattle entirely on pasturage. This means that for much of the year, cattle feed on hay or silage. This roughage has to be collected, processed, and shipped, which diminishes the environmental benefits of grass-fed beef.
It's true that with proper pasture management, you can sequester carbon in animal pastures to combat global warming. However, this is actually a very small amount compared to the large amount of warming emissions that come from cattle operations globally. And with proper field management, farmers can sequester a similar amount of carbon in their grain field. The environmental benefits of grass-fed beef diminish even further because grass-fed cows take longer to mature, giving them more time to produce methane and cause other harmful effects to the environment.
Does Grass-Fed Beef Taste Better?
More than anything else, it's the taste that distinguishes grass-fed beef from grain-fed. However, most people will say that it's grain-fed beef that tastes better than grass-fed. Grain-fed beef has a sweeter taste, a softer texture, and more marbling, which helps the steak taste better. It's also highly consistent from steak to steak, with only relatively minor variations in taste.
Grass-fed beef, on the other hand, tends to have a gamier taste. They contain more minerals, which makes for a stronger taste. In addition, the texture is chewier. Plus, the low fat level can make grass-fed beef seem dry. It is so dry that even people advocating for grass-fed beef also recommend adding butter to the steak to try to improve its taste. If you're adding fat back in to try to make it taste better, you are losing some of the very health benefits you're trying to gain by switching.
On the other hand, some people do enjoy the gamier taste of grass-fed beef. They also like the chewier texture. And they like the fact that grass-fed beef has more variation in taste. Like connoisseurs of wine, they appreciate the challenge to their taste buds of detecting and identifying the exact flavors in their mouths.
Is Grass-Fed Beef More Expensive?
Grass-fed beef is definitely more expensive than grain-fed beef. Depending on where you get it from, grass-fed beef costs about twice as much as grain-fed beef. The challenges of keeping a cow on an all-pasture diet and supporting them for longer due to their slower maturation rate, means that farmers have to charge more for grass-fed beef.
Which Is Superior Depends on Your Taste
In terms of any of the objective measures of quality: healthiness, environmental friendliness, and price, there is no clear advantage to grass-fed beef. The big difference depends on the taste. If you like the gamey quality of grass-fed beef and are prepared to pay the difference in cost, it might be the superior beef for you. However, for most people grain-fed beef remains superior.
Takeaway for Farmers and Ranchers
Although it seemed for a while that grass-fed beef was going to become a major money-maker for ranchers, the grass-fed beef craze has largely died down. It doesn't make sense now for ranchers to try to adapt their operations to raise and sell grass-fed beef. Instead, it makes more sense for farmers to look for ways to maximize the efficiency of their grain-fed cattle businesses, especially with roller mills that can help make it cheaper to process grain. Roller mills also help cattle stay healthier on a grain-based diet.
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