So I woke up this morning and decided to do a little research on grass fed beef vs grain fed beef , if you are a beef lover or a AAA beef lover you might be surprised.
For the most part, all cows start on grass. Well, calves drink milk, obviously, and then “milk replacement” (which appears to be a sort of high-powered protein shake made of milk proteins, lard, lactose, added minerals, and several choice supplements) upon separation from their mothers, but even the most CAFOed out cow probably started with grass before being switched to concentrated feed. Concentrated feed can mean any number of things, but the base food is always a grain slurry, typically of corn and corn byproducts (husks, cobs), soy and soy hulls, spent brewery grain, spent distiller’s grain, and other cereals. CAFO nutritionists can get pretty creative, though, sometimes including cotton byproducts, old candy, beet and citrus pulp, and peanut shells in their cows’ diet.
The grass-fed cow, which eats from a pasture and is not “finished” on a diet of grains and supplements for rapid weight gain, is said by its promoters to be better for the planet (less energy goes into growing grass than grain); better for the beef eater (less overall fat, and more omega-3s and other “good” fats); and better for the cow (critics decry feedlot practices as inhumane).Price may be the first thing you have noticed about grass-fed beef: In supermarkets, small-production, grass-fed meat can be a lot more expensive than your average grain-fed beef, just as artisanal cheese costs more than industrial cheddar. But the cook will notice that the meat often looks different, too — sometimes a lot darker, often with less of the coveted fat-marbling you see in the highest-grade grain-fed meat.
All cows do graze on pasture for the first six months to a year of their lives, but most finish at a feedlot on a concentrated mix of corn, soy, grains, and other supplements, plus hormones and antibiotics.
This growth-spurt formula is the backbone of a hugely productive U.S. beef industry. A feedlot cow can grow to slaughter weight up to a year faster than a cow fed only forage, grass, and hay.
“That’s one year that you don’t have to feed the cows in the feedlot,” notes Eatwild.com founder Jo Robinson, who spent the past decade examining scientific research comparing grass-fed and grain-fed animals. “Conventional factory meat is so cheap because they’ve done everything to speed growth and lower the cost of feed.”
The feedlot process not only speeds the animal to slaughter weight but also enhances fat marbling, which is one factor that determines a cut of beef’s USDA rating — the more fat within the red meat, the richer the taste, the higher the grade.
Most supermarket beef is Choice, which is one step below Prime, the top grade typically found in steak houses. Boosting fat levels changes the nutritional composition of the meat, of course, and, from a health point of view, not for the better.
Three decades of research have found that beef from pasture-raised cows fits more closely into goals for a diet lower in saturated fat and higher in “good fats” and other beneficial nutrients.
Grass-fed beef is lower in calories, contains more healthy omega-3 fats, more vitamins A and E, higher levels of antioxidants, and up to seven times the beta-carotene
To say grass-fed cows eat grass isn’t telling the entire story. It’s more accurate to say they eat graminoids, which comprise hundreds of different species of sedges (found in wild marshes and grasslands; a famous sedge includes papyrus), rushes (a small but plucky family of herbaceous and rhizomatous plants), and true grasses (cereals, lawn grass, bamboo, grassland grass – the type of grass that produces the leaves Walt Whitman writes about). And that’s just the graminoid. Cows will also nibble on shrubs, clovers, and random leaves if they can get to them. Basically, they’ll eat whatever’s in reach, green, and leafy. Legally, grass-fed cows may also eat cereal grain crops in the “pre-grain stage,” hay, silage, and non-grain crop byproducts
While the omega-6:omega-3 ratio in CAFO beef is worse than the ratio in grass-fed beef, it’s not because the omega-6 content of beef fat skyrockets with grain feeding; it’s because the omega-3 content is basically nonexistent. The absolute totals of omega-6 in grass-fed and grain-fed are roughly similar. Grass-fed is even richer in PUFA by percentage, owing to the increase in omega-3s. As long as you’re avoiding or limiting the real big sources of linoleic acid in the diet, like seed oils, bushels of nuts, and conventionally raised poultry fat, the omega-6 content of conventional beef fat won’t throw your tissue ratios off by much (if at all). What will, however, is the lack of omega-3 fats in grain-fed. Eat some fatty fish or take some high quality fish oil to round it out.
Grass-fed beef is also higher in B-vitamins, beta-carotene (look for yellow fat), vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol), vitamin K, and trace minerals like magnesium, calcium, and selenium. Studies show grass feeding results in higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid, the “good” naturally occurring trans fat. Studies also typically show lower total levels of saturated,monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats in grass-fed cows, but that’s just looking at the trimmed cuts. If you look at the whole carcass post-slaughter, you’ll find it’s encased in a thick shell of saturated animal fat that gets removed because consumers are scared of it and many grass-fed producers love to market their meat as low in “bad fat” and low in cholesterol. Kurt Harris, who regularly hunts “lean” wild bucks and miraculously discovers ample stores of body fat, just put up a post dealing with this exact issue. Long story short: grass-fed beef has plenty of fat, it’s just distributed differently. More subtle marbling and more subcutaneous deposition.
Grass-fed truly shines in the micronutrient profile for one reason. Grass-fed cows get more nutritious food. Remember: they aren’t munching on monoculture lawn cuttings (let alone soy and corn). They’re eating a wide variety of (often wild) grasses, sedges, rushes, shrubs, and herbs, each with its own nutrient profile. Of course, how nutritious those graminoids are depends on the quality of the soil, or the terroir. If we care about what our food eats, we should also care about what the food that our food eats is eating, right? Grass-fed isn’t just miraculously higher in selenium because of some magic process; it’s higher because grass grown in good wild soil patrolled by plenty of mobile, self-perpetuating organic fertilizer machines contains more selenium than soybeans or corn grown on nutrient deficient land. It should follow that pastured, grain-supplemented beef raised on good soil by good ranchers also contains higher levels of micronutrients when compared to the CAFO cow, albeit not as high as the purely grass-fed.