Grass-Fed Beef vs. Grain-Fed Beef: What are the differences?

Grass-Fed Beef vs. Grain-Fed Beef: What are the differences?

The consumption of red meat is often denigrated. Many consumers have been convinced that meat is simply meat. To be precise, that no matter what an animal feeds on, or how it is reared, the nutritional value of its products remain unchanged. However, this is not the case. The diet of an animal can have a profound impact on the nutritional content of its products. Poles apart from being the heart-attack triggering food it is believed to be, grass-fed or pasture-raised beef is actually a source of many nutrients and should be included as a part of a healthy diet. 


Prior to discussing the advantages of including grass-fed meat in your diet, it is important to define what we are talking about. “Grass-fed” means…well exactly what it sounds like! These cattle are raised on a diet of variety of grasses, other vegetation and pretty much anything you would naturally find in a field. While this may sound absurd, surely all cattle eat grass? The reality is that most cattle who are raised in the US begin their lives eating grass, and as they mature and it comes time to fatten them up, they are moved and live on a diet of grains and other feed, not grass. 

There are a number of reasons why many farmers choose to feed their cows grains. Namely that it is profitable for them. Grains are higher in calories than grass and therefore lead the cow to grow to slaughter weight at a faster rate. The result of more profitability for the farmer is lower costs for the consumer. Grass-fed beef may be more expensive for the consumer, but there are a number of reasons why we would recommend at least supporting it if not consuming it:

Nutritional Values 

There is a striking difference between grass-fed and grain-fed animal products. 


That old maxim “you are what you eat” concerns cows too! What cows consume can have major consequences on the nutrient composition of the beef produced. This is outstandingly apparent when it comes to the fatty acid composition. Grass-fed beef is typically lower in fat than grain-fed beef. Because meat from pasture raised animals is lower in fat than meat from feedlot-raised animals, it is also lower in calories. (Fat has 9 calories per gram, in comparison with only 4 calories for protein and carbohydrates. Consequently, the greater the fat content, the greater the number of calories.)


In addition to being lower in both fat and calories, it is the structure of the fatty acids in grass-fed cattle that really makes it stand out! 


Omega-3s: This is where we can really see the difference with grass-fed meat that can contain up to 5 times as much Omega-3. Omega-3 fatty acids have a fundamental function in every cell and system in your body. People who consume a high amount of Omega-3 show signs of lower blood pressure, lower chances of depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit disorder, or Alzheimer’s disease. Another benefit of omega-3s is that they may reduce your risk of cancerThe reason that grass-fed cattle produce beef with higher Omega-3s than grain-fed is due to the fact that Omega-3s are formed in the green leaves (the chloroplasts) of plants. (Note that while grass-fed beef contains about 50% more Omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed it is still advised to include some fatty fish in your diet to obtain recommended levels of Omega-3). 


Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) It is not merely the superior proportion of the Omega-3 fats that makes pasture-raised beef a more healthy option.  Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is another element found chiefly in animals that have been raised on grass pastures. CLA’s have a host of great health attributes, such as aiding in the prevention of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and inflammation. 


Antioxidants, Vitamins and Minerals A further reason grass-fed meat outshines grain-fed is that it contains substantially more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. 




Not only is grass-fed beef better for you, but almost all taste tests performed prove that it tastes better too! Grass-fed beef has a distinctly different and “grassy” flavor in comparison with grain-fed beef. On the flip side however, it also costs more.


Animal Welfare 

Free range or grass-fed cattle roam on open fields for the entirety of their lives. They do not receive any hormones and live at an entirely natural pace. Comparatively, conventional or grain-fed cattle may commence their lives on small ranches but they are eventually "finished" in huge factory feedlots where thousands of cattle are hurried to slaughter in less than 15 months on a regular diet of antibiotics, hormones, and grains. Additionally when grasslands are well managed, beef production is less energy-intensive, pollutes less, and is more humane than feedloprocedures.


Summing it Up

In conclusion, grass-fed beef is important! From a nutritional stand point it is superior, it is more environmentally viable, it avoids the use of antibiotics and it also involves a more ethical treatment of animals. All of these benefits also result in health benefits for the consumer. Unfortunately however, it is significantly more expensive. There are ways to buy more economical grass-fed beef, if you buy your grass-fed meat directly from a farmer, or at a coop. Also look for budget friendly cuts. 


Whenever possible, purchase directly from a local farmer, which will allow you to authenticate the health of the animals and support the local economy. In many areas, it is possible to find farmers who will sell beef by quarter or half of the cow and this is also the most economical choice. Please note that if a product is grass-fed that does not automatically mean that it is organic too. So if you are really after the most natural, cleanest beef possible, buying organic, grass-fed is undeniably the way to go!


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Stephanie Contomichalos
Stephanie Contomichalos - Author

Stephanie Contomichalos is a sports enthusiast. She is an avid crossfitter, wakeboarder and has recently qualified as a Level 1 CrossFit coach. She is also an advocate for women’s sport and for using sport as a tool for development. She is currently living in Athens, Greece. To connect with Stephanie, follow her on Twitter (@ssconto) or on Instagram.

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