In the past, all beef was grass fed but in recent years, most beef has been grain-finished, which means that cows spend the last months of their life gorging on grain in a feedlot.
Grain-fed beef is a brighter red, while grass-fed beef is a more auburn shade, but the differences between the two go beyond color.
Research has shown that grass-fed beef is higher in health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids, as well as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which studies suggest may protect against cancer, heart disease, and diabetes as well as helping to reduce overall body fat (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2010).
Grass-fed beef is also higher in antioxidants (which may protect against cancer, heart disease, and other health problems) and lower in cholesterol than grain-finished beef (Will, 2011).
Grass-fed beef is typically raised without antibiotics, hormones, or animal by-products, which makes it better for public health.
Grain-fed beef, by contrast, creates a number of public health issues. Cows evolved to eat grass and an unnatural grain diet increases the acidity in their guts, putting them at risk for an acid-resistant strain of E. coli that can infect their meat when carcasses are contaminated with feces, a common occurrence.
Despite inspection procedures, E. coli sometimes goes undetected. For example, a 1993 outbreak left 600 people sick and 3 children dead in Seattle. USDA research has shown that over 50% of grain-finished cattle have acid-resistant E. coli compared to 15% of those consuming hay (Roosevelt/Grandview, 2006).
Mad cow disease is also a risk with grain-finished beef because beef tallow is permitted in grain-based cattle feeds. In addition, the use of antibiotics with grain-fed cattle contributes to the development of superbugs – antibiotic-resistant bacteria that kill many people each year.
Grass-fed beef can be less tender than grain-finished beef if it’s not cooked the right way.
Julie Simpson, owner of the Culpepper, VA, Food for Thought market, recommends marinating and roasting for longer times at lower temperatures and only cooking steaks to medium-rare to bring out the best in grass-fed meats (cited in Sagon, 2006).
The flavor of grass-fed beef also varies based on the type of pasture in which the cows are raised, whereas grain-fed beef tends to provide a consistent flavor, though many argue that grass-fed meats taste better overall.
- Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, “Grass-Fed Beef Foraging for a Niche,” 12 December 2010.
- Krasner, D., “All You Need to Know to Eat Good, Grass-Fed Meat,” Mother Earth News, June/July 2012.
- Roosevelt/Grandview, M., “The Grass-Fed Revolution,” Time Magazine, 11 June 2006.
- Sagon, C., “Grass-Fed Beef Called Healthier,” The Washington Post, 15 March 2006.
- Will, O.H., III, “Yet More Proof That Grass-Fed Meat Is Better,” Mother Earth News, June/July 2011.
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