Two guys walk into a gastro pub. The first guy orders the ⅓ lb ground sirloin burger with a slice of artisanal cheese on a brioche bun. The second guy orders the same but pays $3 extra for grass fed beef. Which guy is getting the better burger?
Unlike most riddles, there’s no real right answer. Grass fed vs. grain finished beef, both sides have their advocates. Grass-fed proponents say the beef is healthier and leaner, and grain-fed say the beef tastes better because of the marble fat at half the cost of grass-fed beef.
Food shopping used to be so simple. You would just go to the supermarket, grab what you needed, and that was it. No one would really think about where it came from, how it got to the shelf or what was really in the food you intended to buy. Much less thought was given to how the animals spent their lives or what they had been fed before being placed behind the butcher glass or reaching your grocery shelves.
Which is better: grass-fed or grass-fed, grain-finished beef?
The debate over grass-fed vs. grass-fed, grain-finished beef is becoming a subject of keen interest for folks wanting to know more about their meat and where it comes from. For many, the two labels represent a kind of dueling scenario:
- On the one side you’ve got a healthy, wholesome product which is raised with environmentally sound practices (grass-fed meat).
- On the opposite end there exists the realities of a highly mechanized industrial food system that commoditizes animals, often with the addition of antibiotics and hormone implants, to produce cheap, plentiful meat that ends up in the meat cases of most grocery stores across the country (grain-finished meat).
But is that really the whole story? Like many things in life, there are key differences which need to be defined in order to find the truth.
Let’s start by getting our definitions straightFeeding Labels
Since January 16, 2016, the USDA continues to evaluate and approve claims that cattle are grass-fed, but no longer defines the term “grass-fed” by strict criteria. This means that claims on food labels that the meat was grass-fed are a little more open to interpretation than they used to be. Here’s how we define it:
- Grass-fed cattle are fed mostly grass and forage from weaning until harvest, without any antibiotics, growth hormones, or confinement. When an animal is fed only grass and forage from start to finish without any supplementation, this is called 100% grass-fed and/or grass-finished.
- When an animal is fed mostly grass and finished with a combination of grass and grain for the final two to three months, as we do at the Hagen Cattle Company, this is called grass-fed, grain-finished. Roughly 90-95% of our cattle’s diet consists of grass with the remaining 5-10% coming from grain supplementation.
One of the most important considerations here, regardless of which feeding label applies, is whether or not the animal was raised, from start to finish, on the same ranch. Sometimes animals are sold from the ranch into the conventional factory farming system. The former represents a chain of transparency where you, the consumer, can ask specific questions, often having direct contact with the person who raised the animal. The latter results in an anonymous package of meat that may have originated in a different country but still labeled “product of the USA” due to industry loopholes that exist to mislead consumers.
The reality is that the vast majority of cattle in our country are raised on grass and pasture up until the point of being moved or sold into a conventional system. This means the last few months of that animal’s life are spent in a feedlot, standing on dirt and eating a diet of forced corn pellets and some cheap by-products. The cattle are then killed and processed in enormous facilities that can handle many hundreds or even thousands of animals per day.
This is how a vast majority of beef is raised and finished, and this is what most people think of when they hear the term grain-fed beef. It is a product of the conventional system. So what’s the problem with conventional grain-fed beef? Simply put, it results in a product which is:
- Cheaply made
- Produced in massive quantities
- Evaluated on a superficial level which removes transparency
This is not to mention the reality that environmental stewardship is likely sidelined in pursuit of profit in this final stage. It’s kind of like the difference between a cheap candy bar and a really good piece of artisanal chocolate. One is made in a factory with cheap ingredients and the other is crafted in smaller batches, better representing the true nature of the product. One is about quantity, the other is about quality.
Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Finished: Nutritional Differences
Pat Lafrieda, America’s most celebrated butcher, in his book called Meat writes: “In recent years there has been a lot of misconception about grass-fed vs. grain-finished meat due to the information and misinformation in the media. The two most widely held misconceptions are that it is healthier for the animal to eat an all grass diet and that cattle fed on an all grass diet have a lower carbon footprint than those fed grain. Both of these beliefs are wrong.” (page 168)
To understand the impact of grass vs. grain on nutrition, you’ve first got to know what we mean when we say grass or grain.
- Grass refers to plants from the grass family in their vegetative state. You can think of it like a salad bar. Lots of leaves and vegetable material but not much in the way of seeds.
- Grain on the other hand, is the seed of a grass plant. So grass and grain technically both come from the grass family, but represent different stages of the plant’s maturity: corn is still technically a grass, though it has been selectively bred to produce something quite different from the typical grasses which grow in most pastures.
So what’s the point of feeding grain? Grain provides condensed energy, energy which leads to a more consistent flavor and fat profile in regards to the culinary quality of beef.
Is it possible to produce the same quality and flavor with only grass in its vegetative state? Absolutely, but it depends on many different factors, most of which are not easily repeated on a consistent year round basis. Much of the grass-fed beef in the United States is imported from other countries which have different seasons and more favorable growing conditions for extended periods of time (and as mentioned above, is still labeled “product of the USA” despite being of foreign origin).
Common Health Misconceptions
Grass-fed beef is healthier than grain-finished beef. Not exactly.
There are a number of claims around beef. One is about the grass-fed beef’s omega-3 fatty acids profile, and another about it being a better vitamin source. Overall, it’s true there are some nutritional differences between grass-fed beef and grain-finished beef. The question though is: do these nutritional differences actually make a difference? Will we be healthier because of them? Let’s review.
- Fatty acids: You may have heard that grass-fed beef has a better omega-3/omega-6 profile than grain finished beef. This is actually true and supported by studies. But because beef is not really a source of omega-3s and omega-6s, this grass-fed benefit becomes inconsequential and/or irrelevant. As the Washington Post illustrated in a recent article: “A 100-grain serving (a little under four ounces) of grass-fed top sirloin contains 65 milligrams of omega-3 fats but that is only about 22 milligrams more than that for grain-finished beef and still far below levels in low-fat fishes such as tilapia (134 milligrams) and haddock (136 mg). The omega-3 powerhouse is salmon at 1,270 milligrams.”
- Fats: Setting the omega-3/omega-6 situation aside, the picture of which beef is best gets more complicated as we examine the facts. A 2014 study found that grass-fed beef had significantly less content of MUFA (monounsaturated fat: good fat, just like olive oil) and researchers at Texas A&M found it had more saturated fat and trans fat than grain-finished beef.
- Vitamins: Grass-fed beef does have a higher A and E content, however this doesn’t seem to make a difference. Quoting Food Insight, a non profit education company: “Several sources have highlighted that grass-fed could be beneficial in having more Vitamin A&C than grain-finished beef. Actually neither beef provides Vitamin A. Grass-fed provides only .02mg more of Vitamin E, per serving than grain-finished, so if you’re concerned about your vitamin intake, you will be much better off looking towards carrots, almonds, and fortified products.”
What grass-fed beef advocates fail to mention: grain finished cattle may be better for the environment. Grain-finished cattle gain weight faster, which makes cattle operations more productive, using less resources and lessening their carbon footprint.
Utilizing grass forage as the primary source of feed also increases the carbon footprint because forage diets produce more methane gas emissions from the animal’s digestive tract than high-energy grain diets. Methane is 28 times more potent, trapping heat in the earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
Generally, the grass-finished cattle will reach market in 12-16 months weighing 1,100 with an average carcass of 832 lbs. It’s grass-fed counterpart will take 20-26 months to reach market and will weigh 1,100 lbs with an average carcass of 638 lbs.
According to the USDA’s per capita beef consumption data, this means that a grain-finished animal can feed approximately 10.4 people as opposed to a 8 for the grass-fed animal.
Sara Place, an assistant professor of sustainable beef cattle systems at Oklahoma State University has stated: “The combination of a higher-energy, lower-forage diet, less time spent on feed in finishing and heavier carcass weights translate to a 18.5% to 67.5% per capita lower carbon footprint.”
The numbers support that grain-finished animal practices are sustainable and reduce environmental impacts.
Quality is an important factor to consider when talking about grass-fed beef vs. grain-finished beef as it relates to the culinary aspects. Many of these considerations are subjective, up to individual preferences. Some folks prefer learner meat while others want that delicious fat which helps keep a steak moist and juicy.
Much of the grass-fed and grass-finished meat available in stores is on the learner side. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but fat is an important part of the overall culinary equation. A lean piece of meat has a small margin for error in the cooking process and can quickly overcook if not watched carefully (that’s why some cooks resort to using butter or oil) similar to wild game.
Fat is a flavor. Natural animal fats have been part of the human diet for a long time, unfairly blamed for the damage that modern, industrial-processed foods have inflicted in the population. Having an adequate amount of fat with the meat is going to produce more predictable results when cooking. Controlled grain supplementation provides the necessary energy for the animals ensuring that they have what they need to strike the right balance.
To state again, it is certainly possible to fatten animals on nothing more than grass, and there are some really amazing ranches out there doing just that, but they are the exception not the rule. It is very challenging and, in the end, we believe our way produces a delicious product that is also sustainable.
But let’s also be clear: there is a big difference between an animal which is fattened quickly with the use of antibiotics (we only use antibiotics in a sick animal to lessen pain or save their lives), added hormones, and other questionable practices, and the animal of the rancher who maintains control of the quality and nutrition of their animals, keeping intact their natural environment and ability to graze while being supplemented with additional energy.
What’s In a Name?
Just like “garden-fresh tomatoes” sounds better than “tomatoes,” “grass-fed beef” sounds more attractive than “beef.” This is a commonly used restaurant trick: use savory adjectives and the food sounds more delicious.
Grass-fed beef is more expensive at the supermarket, trying to convey quality, but it’s actually more expensive because it takes 52% longer to grow up to a certain weight. Grass-fed invokes an image of a happy cow roaming in the green fields, and we erroneously assume that only grass-fed beef gets to play outside.
Here is Pat Lafrieda again, “Ask a grass cattle farmer what he feeds the cattle in the winter, or what he does when the cattle have trampled all their paddocks and the grass hasn’t grown back. They all do the same kind of supplementation. In any case, I am in the business of providing customers with the most flavorful meat available and that is not grass-fed.”
What ultimately matters are the overall conditions in which the cow was raised. The best way to ensure wholesome quality is to purchase directly from ranchers who care for the animals themselves, and are therefore able to disclose the exact conditions under which they raise their beef. Regardless of the precise dieting balance, the most important factor (for consumer transparency) is that the animal was ranch-raised from the beginning to end in a natural setting. Hagen Cattle Company is committed to ensuring that our animals have everything they need to live a healthy, natural, stress-free life. Please call us and try our grass-fed, grain-finished beef that is both rich in flavor and very tender.