Grass-fed vs. grain-fed – the answer is not as straightforward as it seems. But it can have big implications for your health… … and your wallet.
There are tradeoffs and many factors to consider when making a decision, and there are pros and cons to both varieties.
It all comes down to one question: does it matter what our food is eating?
Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed Beef: What is the Difference?
Grass-fed. Grass-finished. Grain-fed. Pasture-raised. Organic. Meat eaters have been hit with a deluge of new terms and very few resources to make sense of them all.
It’s cryptic. It’s sometimes even deceitful.
Well, I’m here to help you cut through the noise. Which beef is better? You’d think that the answer would be crystal clear, but it’s not. There are a number of factors to consider when determining what beef to buy.
A lot of the confusion starts with a regulation controversy in 2016. Call it Steak-Gate.
2016 Regulation Controversy
In 2016, the agricultural marketing service (AMS) withdrew its beef standards, leading some people to believe that the USDA no longer cared to regulate beef. Fret not – I’m here to tell you that’s not the case.
Unlike use of the term “organic”, there’s no rigorous certification process required to use the term “grass-fed.” However, beef producers still need to apply to the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) if they want to label their beef grass-fed. This requires robust documentation to certify that the beef is actually grass-fed.
This begs the question: what is the actual difference between grass-fed and grain-fed beef? Well, let’s start at the beginning.
Cow’s Early Life
All cows essentially start off eating the same things. After birth, calves drink their mother’s milk. Lest we forget, cow’s milk was originally made for cows… not humans.
The mother’s first milk, or colostrum, gives young cows the nutrition they need and strengthens their immune systems. Calves that don’t feed from their mother are fed a milk replacement — think of this like Gerber’s for cows [*].
After the first few months of feeding, the majority of calves are allowed to forage on local ruffage. Both grass- and grain-fed cows feed on the shrubs around their birthplace, so early life for grass- and grain-fed cows is nearly identical.
The difference starts when cows are 1 year old.
What it means: the cow is fed grain at some point in its life.
Grain-fed cows are fed by their mothers and remain off the pasture until they reach 650-750 pounds.
At this point, they’re moved to a feedlot. This is where they transition to a diet of concentrated feed. Concentrated feed can mean a number of things, but it typically includes grain, corn, soy and other cereals.
There, young cows spend 3 to 4 months eating this fattening diet until they grow to over 1200 pounds. Farmers try to fatten cows up to increase meat yield as well as the intramuscular marbling that so many customers desire. Think of this stage like McDonald’s for cows.
The best way to achieve results, unfortunately, is not always by creating the best environment for cows. Some feedlots are brutal: cows are often kept in uncomfortably close quarters and fed unnatural diets. Because they are not eating a natural diet, they are prone to illness and must be fed antibiotics to keep them alive. Honestly, it sounds a lot like the US population.
However, with that being said, there are some grain-fed farms with much better living conditions. Consumers should not just assume that grain-fed means terrible.
What it means: the cow is fed 100% grass for its entire life.
Grass-fed cows, on the other hand, continue to forage on pasture for their entire lives.
Providers hoping to use the “grass-fed” label need to document the agricultural processes they use and provide evidence that the cow has been fed 100% grass for its whole life.
After the AMS backed out from certifying grass-fed beef in 2016, the USDA no longer inspects beef facilities in person. Instead, they require four signed documents to verify the grass-fed diet. This has prompted some skepticism that farmers are indeed following the best practices, but given that the FSIS requires signed affidavits, I personally trust the USDA certification.
There is some public confusion surrounding the difference between the terms “grass-fed” and “grass-finished.” Many people are under the impression that “grass-fed” can apply to cows that are fed grass in their early life but grains at the end.
However, according to the USDA, beef that earns the official grass-fed label must come from cows that are 100% grass-fed throughout their lives. The USDA also allows for partial grass-fed claims, i.e. an “80% grass-fed” label. However, if you see 100% grass-fed or just grass-fed, you can trust that the cow was fed a more natural diet for its entire life.
The below is directly from the USDA. Now, I know some of us here don’t trust the government much. But in this department, the distrust may be going a bit far.
If farms want to take an extra step beyond the USDA guidelines, they can pay an independent third party such as American Grass Fed to review their claims.
Whereas grain-fed cattle go to market after approximately 15 months of life, grass-fed cattle take longer to reach maturity and typically go to market after 20-24 months. This means that raising grass-fed cattle requires more time and investment [*]
However, keep in mind that grass-fed does not mean the same thing as organic.
What it means: the organic designation is more about what the cow doesn’t do than what it does.
“Organic” means that the cow was raised on certified organic land without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or GMOs. The animals must also have year-round outdoor access and be fed a diet free of hormones or antibiotics.
Organic cows are much healthier, but it’s possible for a cow to be grass-fed and not organic or vice versa. This is a special label you need to look out for.
Meat cannot be marketed as organic unless it’s certified by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.
10 Factors You Need to Consider When Choose Grass Fed vs Grain Fed Beef
Now that we’ve cut through some of the noise around these terms, which meat should you choose?
The answer is not so straightforward.
When it comes to a diet high in animal sourced-products, such as a carnivorous or ketogenic diet, the answer is even more nuanced.
From a moral perspective, the answer is clear. Cows living in their natural circumstances and eating their natural diets are much happier and healthier.
They are allowed to roam freely, exercise more, and eat the foods they were made to eat.
Living on a well-managed farm is key. Technically, a cow can be grass-fed and still live in a feedlot. That’s why I look for grass-fed organic beef from cows raised on well-managed farms that I trust.
Verdict: Grass-fed organic
Grass-fed and organic beef tend to cost much more, namely because they take up more space and live longer. Picture adult kids still living rent-free with Mom and Dad – these cows cost a lot more to their farmers.
It’s possible to find grass-fed beef that’s fairly close to grain-fed in price — especially if you buy in bulk — but on average it will cost anywhere from 50% to 100% more.
What the cow eats changes the meat’s taste in a number of ways. Diet influences the flavor and biochemical richness of foods.
Laboratory analyses can distinguish between a number of compounds in the flavor profile of beef based on what the cow eats. For instance, tannins in a cow’s diet can change the meat’s flavor by reducing bacteria that produces “off flavors”.
Some studies show adding garlic or essential oils from juniper, rosemary, or clove to the diets of lambs and calves improves the flavor of their meat [*].
The same is true when it comes to fat. One of the goals of grain-fed production is to fatten cows, so grain-fed cows tend to offer much more marbling and fat.
Unfortunately for us, health doesn’t equate to taste. A healthy cow is not exploding with fat, just like a healthy human. Nonetheless, fat does improve the flavor profile.For cows, at least – can’t vouch for humans here.
When it comes to eating the fat of the animal directly, my opinion is that grass-fed fat itself tastes much better. Frankly, it’s like comparing dessert to cardboard.
That said, most Americans are raised on grain-fed beef. In taste panels, grain-fed beef tends to come out victorious [*].
So if you’re choosing a ribeye just for taste, grain-fed most likely wins. With that being said, there are some people who think grass-fed tastes much better.
#4 Vitamins and Minerals
You are what you eat. The same holds true for cows: what they eat changes their nutrition profile.
Ruminants are magical creatures in that they can ferment cellulose,a substance that’s indigestible to humans. They are the world’s greatest machine, taking in garbage and turning it into ribeye. How cool is that?
The rumen, or the cow’s first of several stomachs, extracts nutrition from the grass that they can use. Not only are they creating a new form of energy for themselves, but for humans too.It also increases the bioavailability of minerals it extracts from the soil.
The verdict is clear: the closer a ruminant’s diet to its natural diet, the more it forages on a nutrient-rich environment — the more nutrients it will have.
However – and this is a big however – the differences are much smaller than people make them out to be.
Let’s briefly discuss.
Studies show that grass-fed beef tends to contain higher levels of beta carotene, vitamin E, vitamin C and vitamin K2 than grain-fed beef. However, the levels of these vitamins in both forms of beef pale in comparison to those of other animal proteins. Liver, for instance, has 275 times more Vitamin A than steak. Grass-fed fats like suet and tallow are superior sources of vitamin E, while liver and ghee can provide more K12.
Takeaway: red meat, regardless of feeding regimen, is highly nutrient dense. Grass-fed fat is higher in nutrient concentration, but grain-fed beef tends to have more fat. Since fat stores many of these nutrients, this may even things out.
Therefore, grass-fed beef likely has a better general nutrition profile – but as I’ll describe below, if you’re eating other nutritious foods, it doesn’t matter.
Verdict: Doesn’t matter for muscle meat and beef. Grass fed organs and fats have more nutrients.
To increase their size and improve flavor, grain-fed cows are fattened up beyond what’s natural or healthy for a living thing. After all, if they were fed like normal animals, they’d only grow to a normal size. Better for the cow, less ideal for the rancher’s wallet.
When you feed cows an unnatural diet, it raises the acidity of their rumen. Combine that with insufficient exercise and tight, sometimes unsanitary living quarters – not exactly the picture of perfect health. The cows get sick and farmers have to ply them with antibiotics [*].
Some sources suggest over 70% of the antibiotics in the US are given to animals. In fact, over 30 million pounds of antibiotics were given to American livestock in 2011.
The question is, do these antibiotics hang around?
It is against the law to sell meat containing antibiotics. In fact, less than 0.5% of all meat tested in 2018 contained detectable antibiotic levels. If antibiotics are detected, the meat is discarded.
When an animal is treated with antibiotics, there are strict federal guidelines regulating how long providers must wait before selling the animal’s meat.
All in all, do not fear antibiotics in your meat, regardless of whether it’s grain-fed, organic or grass-fed.
Verdict: Don’t worry about antibiotics
Okay, so we’re safe from our cows’ antibiotics. But what about hormones? Farmers often use hormones to make cows grow larger and faster, and technically both grain-fed and grass-fed cows can be fed hormones.
However, grain-fed cows tend to contain more. The good news is, unlike kale, ruminants are actually able to expel a substantial amount of these hormones. Ruminants are like athletes who dodge everything you throw at them. Kale is like the worst dodgeball player on the team.
Compared to other foods in your diet, beef contains relatively low hormone levels.
This study below showed that if hormones are present at all, they tend to concentrate in the fat [*].
If you’re worried about hormones in your food, stick to grass-fed fats. But don’t fret the meat.
Verdict: Lean, grain-fed beef is most likely not an issue. Opt for grass-fed, organic fats.
One of the most damaging substances in the human diet is the pesticides often hiding in our plant foods. Two pesticides are major concerns: glyphosate and atrazine.
Both grass-fed and grain-fed cows may consume these pesticides. Glyphosate is linked to cancer. Atrazine, which is sprayed on corn feed, can induce chemical castration in frogs. While this doesn’t necessarily suggest the same results for humans, I don’t see people lining up to volunteer to find out.
Here is where ruminants shine – unlike something like kale, which has no choice but to drown in the pesticides it’s exposed to, the ruminant digestion system can expel glyphosate. According to this study, there is no evidence that the glyphosate cows consume bioaccumulates in the cow’s meat [*].
Unfortunately, there are no credible studies regarding atrazine. However, given the fact that it’s fat soluble, it shouldn’t be a concern with lean meat.
Verdict: Lean, grain-fed beef is most likely not an issue. Opt for grass-fed, organic fats.
#8 Omega-3 vs. Omega-6 Ratios
“You should eat grass-fed beef because it’s higher in omega-3s.” I hear this all the time.
But from an omega-3/omega-6 perspective, it’s not necessary. Grass-fed beef is indeed higher in omega-3s, but the absolute differences are miniscule. If you’re really concerned about omega-3s, you shouldn’t be getting them from beef anyway. You need salmon roe, bone marrow and fish instead.
Omega-6s are higher in beef too, but the absolute numbers are again miniscule, especially compared to other foods in most people’s diets.
The omega-6 quantity in beef is dwarfed by the amount in the other foods in most people’s diets. By cutting out foods like tofu, walnuts and soybean oil, your omega-3/omega-6 ratio will be better than 99% of the population.
Verdict: Doesn’t matter. Your choice.
Conjugated linoleic acid is another way ruminants rule.
Ruminants take the unstable fatty linoleic acids from plant foods and are able to transform them into CLA. This is nature’s magic. Ruminant fats are one of the richest sources of CLA.
CLA has a number of benefits:
- The CLA in beef tallow may protect against metastatic breast tumors. Relatively low levels of CLA are required for mice to experience these benefits. In this study, mammary tumor growth was suppressed when researchers replaced vegetable fat with beef tallow.
- Additionally, studies in rats have shown that a 10% beef tallow diet suppresses colon cancer [*]
- Weight loss
- Insulin sensitivity
There is more CLA in grass-fed beef fat than grain-fed beef, but it’s concentrated in the fat once again. Therefore, especially for lean beef, this doesn’t matter.
Verdict: Grain-fed muscle meat is fine. Eat grass-fed fats for CLA.
No tease here… There’s a clear winner, and it’s grass-fed.
Properly raised cows not only have minimal negative effect on the environment, but they can actually improve it. Cattle that roam and graze freely can increase the carbon-carrying capacity of the soil by restoring critical nutrients to depleted soil. Whereas monoculture crops (including corn and soybeans grown to feed grain-fed cattle) destroy topsoil and increase greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, holistically grazed cattle can actually help soil sequester more carbon, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions.
That’s right – eating the right beef can actually help reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
Show me fake meat that can do that.
In this regard, responsible ruminant agriculture is pivotal for the future of the human race.
My Verdict: How I Do It
Beef is just one part of the carnivore food pyramid. If you’re eating a properly formulated carnivore diet, your choice of grass-fed or grain-fed beef matters much less from a health perspective.
Most nutrients that are higher in grass-fed beef are stored in the fat. If any toxins bioaccumulate, they do in the fat too. So when it comes to muscle meat, the contents are extremely similar.
However,, when consuming direct fat (like bone marrow or beef tallow) and beef liver, you should eat grass-fed.
Vitamins A, D, E and K are all fat-soluble and thus are largely stored in the fat of the animal.
Grass-fed fats are higher in CLA, saturated fat and omega-3s. Grass-fed beef tallow is one of the most nutritious foods in the world.
Additionally, Vitamin A retinol is converted from the carotenoids in plant matter, but most of it is stored in the liver, not the muscle meat. Therefore, to ensure adequate vitamin A retinol levels, I recommend eating grass-fed beef liver.
All in all, here’s my recommendation: buy what you can afford.
If you can afford buying grass-fed versions of everything, do it. Support a local farmer. Help the environment. Vote with your dollars to help ensure cows are raised humanely.
But if you can’t, do not worry about it. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Ruminants are magical creatures, and grain-fed beef is one of the healthiest foods in the world.
However, if you stick to grain-fed beef, I advise you to still opt for grass-fed fats and organ meats.
Where to Buy Grass-Fed Beef?
So you want to pony up the money for grass-fed? Where should you go?
Because of the spike in interest, there is now a wide variety of places to buy grass-fed ruminant products.
Your local grocery store should have grass-fed beef, but you can also go to online retailers such as US Wellness Meats, Slankers and White Oak Pastures.
Additionally, you can use the site eatwild.com to source meat directly from a local farmer.
Hopefully, I’ve helped crack the cryptic code around grass-fed and grain-fed beef.