Even though chicken recently overtook beef as the most popular meat in the United States, beef remains a dominant player in the meat industry. In 2015, the U.S. consumed 24.807 billion pounds of beef, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
But all that beef is not necessarily created equal. Beef can be affected by what the cow is fed during its lifespan. If the cow is fed grass, as opposed to grains like corn, the resulting beef may be safer, healthier, and tastier for you, though it will certainly be more expensive. Here’s what you should know before making the switch to grass-fed beef.
What is grass-fed beef?
The term “grass-fed” is slightly ambiguous and difficult to authenticate, which might explain why the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service withdrew its marketing claim standard on grass-fed beef in 2016. This means that the government no longer has an official definition of the term “grass-fed,” according to Business Insider.
And because all cows eat grass, at least initially, industry experts have said for years that the term “grass-fed” is cryptic and possibly deceitful, Business Insider adds.
The American Grassfed Association, which has developed its own independent grass-fed certification program, defines grass-fed animals as those that have eaten nothing but grass and forage from weaning to harvest, have not been raised in confinement, and have never been fed antibiotics or growth hormones.
This contrasts with most conventionally raised cows, which are moved to large feedlots after about 12 months. They are kept confined and are fed grain-based feeds, usually made with a base of soy or corn. A cow may be fed grass for part of its life, but then it may be “finished” with a grain-based feed. This would disqualify it from receiving the grass-fed label.
Farmers first made the switch from grass to corn because corn and grain feeds allow them to fatten up their cattle faster, according to NPR. This helps the farmers save time and money.
Difference between grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef
Grass-fed beef contains more carotenoids, vitamin E, and minerals like potassium, iron, zinc, phosphorous, and sodium than grain-fed beef, according to Authority Nutrition.
The composition of the fatty acids in the two types of beef is also different, and grass-fed beef contains about twice as much conjugated linoleic acid, a fatty acid thought to aid in weight loss, as grain-fed beef.
A review published in <a href="http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/690/art%253A10.1186%252F1475-2891-9-10.pdf?originUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fnutritionj.biomedcentral.com%2Farticle%2F10.1186%2F1475-2891-9-10&token2=exp=1486068192~acl=%2Fstatic%2Fpdf%2F690%2Fart%25253A10.1186%25252F1" target="_blank">Nutrition Journal compared the fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
According to this review, research spanning three decades supports the argument that grass-fed beef has a more desirable saturated fatty acid lipid profile as compared to grain-fed beef. Again, the research supports the claims that grass-fed beef is higher in vitamins A and E and cancer-fighting antioxidants, and tends to be lower in overall fat content.
Consumer Reports tested 300 samples of beef purchased at stores across the United States and determined that beef from conventionally raised cows was three times as likely as grass-fed beef to contain bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics, posing a food poisoning threat.
But not everyone supports the notion that grass-fed beef is inherently healthier and safer than grain-fed. Some research indicates there is no substantial difference between the two and because of that, grass-fed beef might not be worth the extra money for the consumer. In some instances, grain-fed beef has even been found to be better.
Research from Texas A&M University compared the fatty acid composition of ground beef from grass-fed and grain-fed cattle. The research found that grass-fed contains more omega-3 fatty acids, but grain-fed beef contains more oleic acid, a fatty acid that may improve fasting blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. Grain-fed beef also contains less total saturated and trans fat, they found.
Overall, based on randomized clinical trials of men who consumed both types of beef over five weeks, the study found that neither type of ground beef had negative effects on risk factors for cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes, but the ground beef from the grain-fed cattle provided more positive health benefits by increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
“So, at this point, there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that ground beef from grass-fed cattle is a healthier alternative to ground beef from conventionally raised, grain-fed cattle,” Stephen B. Smith, PhD and lead author of the study, writes.
Scientists from Penn State Extension also argue that antioxidants, which are present in grass-fed beef, aren’t proven to thwart cancer, and that the beef’s beneficial fats drip off during cooking, anyway. They also claim that bacteria often sneak into the meat during the processing, grinding, and packaging process.
And those on the frontlines, namely the farmers and ranchers, have a different perspective, too. One rancher says that cows benefit from a combination of grain and grass in their diet.
“Sure, a cow can survive on grass alone, but he flourishes when fed the proper balance of grass and grain,” Mike Brannon, a rancher with Roseda Beef, told the Bon Appétit Management Company. “That certainly doesn’t mean feeding the cow 100 percent grain, but it also doesn’t mean feeding it 100 percent grass, either.”
Key benefits of grass-fed beef
Again, research indicates that beef from grass-fed animals has higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are better for cardiovascular health, according to The New York Times. A grass-fed steak may have as much as twice the amount of omega-3s as a typical grain-fed steak. People with a diet rich in omega-3s are also less likely to suffer from depression, schizophrenia, hyperactivity, or Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, omega-3s may slow the development of some cancers and keep them from spreading, the website Eatwild notes.
Meat from grass-fed cattle, sheep, and bison is also lower in total fat, according to the website Eatwild. This translates to fewer calories. For example, a six-ounce steak from a grass-fed steer can have 100 fewer calories than a six-ounce steak from a grain-fed steer, Eatwild notes. So, switching from grain-fed to grass-fed beef might be an easy way to cut calories without making a dramatic change to your diet.
Grass-fed beef is also higher in key vitamins, including vitamins A and E.
“When people go to their retail store and see yellow fat, they think there’s something wrong with it,” Glenn Nader, an emeritus livestock and natural resources farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension, told the Times. “That’s not some bad piece of meat. That’s actually vitamin A you’re looking at.”
But if you are looking for a rich source of omega-3s, grass-fed beef isn’t the answer.
For example, a 100-gram serving (about 3.5 ounces) of grass-fed top sirloin contains 65 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, according to the <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/is-grass-fed-beef-really-better-for-you-the-animal-and-the-planet/2015/02/23/92733524-b6d1-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html?utm_term=.211bd14138c5&noredirect=on" target="_blank">Washington Post.
Compare that 65 milligrams to good sources of omega-3s, like fish. 100 grams of tilapia contains 240 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, and 100 grams of Atlantic salmon contains 2260 milligrams, according to nutritiondata.self.com.
“Grass-fed beef is fine, but it’s not a good source of omega-3 fats,” Alice H. Lichtenstein, a professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, told the Post.
And while grass-fed beef is generally about 50 percent higher in omega-3s than grain-fed beef, that statistic can be misleading. Because grain-fed beef is so low in omega-3s, grass-fed beef is still not a rich source of omega-3s on its own.
So, the debate is ongoing about whether the nutritional value of grass-fed beef justifies its higher cost.
“Generally, the less additives and processing a food has, the better,” said Jessica Gibbons, CDE and certified nutritionist. “However, to keep animals and plants healthy, they may need some sort of antibiotic or drug or pesticide delivered at some point, and these have been created carefully over the years due to need. Agriculture folks will tell you a steak made from a cow fed grass isn't any better for you.”
Differences between grass-fed beef and organic beef
The USDA standards for organic beef specify that the animals cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics, that they must be given access to the outdoors, and that they can only eat organic, vegetarian feed, according to the website Health. However, that feed can include grains, which aren’t part of a cow’s natural diet.
So, organic doesn’t necessarily mean grass-fed. But according to WebMD, certified organic livestock generally graze on open-range land three to six months longer than conventionally raised livestock to reach market size, they note.
How to cook grass-fed beef
Beef that comes from a 100-percent grass-fed cow has a different flavor and texture than most people are used to. It may have a more distinct “grassy” flavor and is usually tougher and chewier, though some prefer its taste.
Since it’s lower in fat, grass-fed beef runs the risk of drying out or becoming overcooked much quicker than grain-fed beef, according to the Whole Foods Market blog. They offer several tips for keeping grass-fed beef moist while cooking:
Add in flavor by adding ingredients that will keep the dish moist while cooking, like chopped onions, shredded vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, mustards, or grated cheese.
Lower the heat on the stove or grill to better control the doneness.
Grease your pan or grill with a little bit of cooking oil or spray to make sure that the meat doesn’t stick.
Do not poke or turn the meat with a knife or fork to avoid losing moisture. Use tongs instead.
Check for doneness earlier than usual. On average, grass-fed beef needs about 30 percent less time to cook than grain-fed beef.
Don’t try to cook it well done because grass-fed beef can get dry and tough when overcooked. Go with medium or medium-rare steaks and try the carryover cooking method, which means letting the meat continue to cook for a few minutes after it is removed from the heat source by covering it loosely with foil.
The American Grassfed Association says very lean cuts of beef like New York strips and sirloin steaks can benefit from a marinade. They also suggest using a tenderizer to break down the tough connective tissue of the meat.
They advise never using a microwave to thaw grass-fed beef but instead letting it thaw in the refrigerator and then letting it sit at room temperature for no more than 30 minutes.
When roasting, sear the beef first to lock in the juices and then place in a pre-heated oven. Reduce the roasting temperature by 50 degrees Fahrenheit, they add.
Grass-fed beef buyer’s guide
It important to carefully read the labels on the packaging before you buy meat. For example, meat simply labeled “grass-fed” could mean that the cattle ate a grass diet, but only for a short period of time. Meat labeled “!00% grass-fed” is a much better indication that the cow ate only grass for the duration of its life.
Price is another huge factor when considering 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, according to CNN.
In the Consumer Reports analysis of 300 packages of ground beef in different stores and cities across the United States, the researchers paid an average of about $2.50 to $3 more for grass-fed beef per pound than for conventional supermarket beef. That means that if you bought 2 pounds of ground beef each week, it would cost you an additional $260 to $310 per year to switch to grass-fed, they note.
The reason grass-fed beef is pricier is related to beef producers’ profit margin. It is more expensive and takes longer to produce grass-fed beef.
“Conventional factory meat is so cheap because they’ve done everything to speed growth and lower the cost of feed,” Jo Robinson, founder of Eatwild.com, told CNN.
You might consider buying the meat in bulk to save on costs, and you may need to avoid the supermarket entirely to do this. Many people buy bulk grass-fed beef from local sources, like farmers’ markets or local ranchers. You can go online to locate a pasture-based farm in your area or look for a farmers’ market at LocalHarvest.org.
You may be able to find out more about beef that comes from these sources. Cooking Light notes that most grass-fed-beef producers welcome questions about their meat.
If you are still unsure how buy meat this way, consider seeking out a CSA, or community-supported agriculture group. These are a way for people to band together and buy locally produced farm foods. There are CSAs in many cities and many of them deliver meat on a weekly or monthly basis.
You can purchase different forms of grass-fed beef, such as beef jerky, liver, or ground beef.
In the end, the health benefits of grass-fed beef may too minimal and unproven for you to justify the cost. And it’s important not to be fooled by the healthful reputation of grass-fed beef—overconsumption of beef, of any kind, is not ideal.
“Teaching people to eat well, choose meat from reputable retailers, and eating red meat sparingly is the way to go,” said Gibbons, “Organic or grass-fed is up to you. If you can afford it and feel strongly that is the right thing to do, it certainly won't hurt.”
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