Grass Fed vs. Grain Fed Beef

You know that the food you eat is important. You work hard to eat a balanced diet and make healthy choices. But it can be easy to overlook the fact that the food your food eats is equally as important. This is particularly true when it comes to beef.

It’s no secret that figuring out what kind of beef is healthiest isn’t always simple. Navigating the sea of labels can be overwhelming. Should you choose:

  • Grass-fed?
  • Natural?
  • Organic?
  • Conventional?
  • Grain-finished?

It’s all a bit confusing. But knowing the difference in these labels is crucial to your health – and may make you look at your steak a bit differently.

There was once a time when all of these labels weren’t necessary. All meat was fully grass-fed and organic, so there was no need to label it or differentiate it from other products. That all changed when we began changing the way cows were raised and fed in order to produce more meat faster.

The Shocking Reason We Feed Cows Corn

After WWII, there was a surplus of nitrogen in the U.S. from making weapons and bombs. The nitrogen was then used by the agricultural industry and added to their corn crops, which resulted in abundant amounts of corn. Around 1952, they decided to start feeding this excess corn supply to animals. And by 1970, grain-fed animals became the norm, since the vast majority of cattle in the U.S were being raised on a diet of corn and other grains.

Today, nearly all the beef found on grocery store shelves comes from grain-fed animals. This shift in the way cattle were raised and fed has created an entirely different food source than the beef our grandparents grew up eating.

The Scary Truth Behind Conventionally-Raised Beef

When you think about cows, you might imagine an idyllic scene where they are grazing in an open pasture. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further than the truth for most cows raised in the United States. About 95% of the beef consumed in the U.S comes from cows raised in concentrated animal feeding operations – also known as CAFOs.

Most calves begin life with space to roam and are allowed to graze as they are weaned off their mother's milk. But once they reach 7-9 months old, their lives change drastically.

Cows that are raised conventionally are loaded up into trailers and shipped off to crowded feedlots. Here they are fattened up as quickly as possible before being slaughtered.

They are confined in pens with thousands of other cattle, typically in unsanitary and gruesome conditions. They are no longer allowed access to grass and are fed an unnatural, grain-based diet with the intention of fattening them up as quickly and cost-effectively as possible.

Their typical diet includes corn, soybeans, and grains which are generally genetically modified and laden with pesticides.   

The feed may also include a variety of “creative” and seemingly inedible waste products. Animal feed manufacturers and farmers have experimented with feeding their animals the remains of other slaughtered animals, dehydrated food garbage, peanut shells, manure, leftover fat from restaurant fryers, and stale candy — you read that right. An overturned truck of Skittles® recently gained national attention when people found out that candy was on the way to feed cattle.

And to top it off, there’s one more ingredient that goes into the feed of conventionally raised cows — hormones. Cows are given synthetic growth hormones, estrogen, and testosterone to help them grow larger, faster.

So what impact does all of this have on the cows?

Cows are designed to eat grass, shrubs, and plants — not grains — and certainly not any of the other questionable food products.  

A cow has 4 stomachs that operate at a certain pH in order to digest and assimilate nutrients properly. They are meant to spend most of their day grazing. When cows are fed a grain-based diet, it completely alters the pH of their stomachs and creates a more acidic environment. This not only changes the entire physiologic makeup of the animal, but it also disrupts the cow's natural digestion and often causes numerous health issues.

To compensate for the health issues caused by their unnatural diet and crowded filthy conditions, they are often given low-level antibiotics to keep them healthy enough to eventually slaughter.

The lives of conventionally-raised cows are a far cry from that green pasture most people envision when they think of cattle. But the cows aren’t the only ones that suffer the negative effects of these unnatural conditions. When cattle suffer, you also suffer.

How Conventionally-Raised Beef is Dangerous for Your Health

Aside from the ethical implications of the way conventionally-raised cattle are forced to spend their lives, there are also some serious health implications associated with consuming these animals.

As the old adage goes, “You are what you eat.” And in this case, “You are what you eat, eats.” From old gummy worms to garbage, the foods eaten by these animals are used by their bodies to grow and develop until they ultimately become the food that we consume.

When conventionally-raised cattle are fed unnatural, nutrient-poor foods, are inundated with pesticides and GMOs, and injected with antibiotics and hormones – those substances inevitably travel up the food chain and are passed onto you when they end up on your dinner plate.

What is even more alarming is the bacteria often found in conventionally-raised beef.

Studies have found that nearly half of the meat that comes from animals raised by conventional methods contain one or more multi-drug resistant bacteria including 1

    • Campylobacter species
    • Salmonella species
    • Enterococcus species
    • Escherichia coli
    • Staphylococcus aureus

The crowded, unsanitary conditions paired with the routine use of antibiotics in farming has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The emergence and spread of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” mean once easy to treat infections are now becoming more serious and even deadly. It is estimated that methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) kills about 11,000 people in the U.S. every year and Salmonella claims about 450 lives along with causing an estimated 1.2 million illnesses annually.2

And if these scary statistics aren’t enough, it gets even worse. What a cow eats directly impacts the types and amounts of nutrients you get from eating it. The differences created by the animals’ diet is far from subtle and can have a serious impact on your health. Decoding the labels that indicate how an animal was raised is crucial.

Deceptive Labeling: Understanding the Difference Between “Fed” and “Finished”

It’s not enough these days to seek out grass-fed beef. When you ask for “grass-fed,” you may actually be getting grass-fed, grain-finished meat. Unfortunately, deceptive labeling and intentional misguidance are not uncommon in the food industry.

Thanks to loopholes in agribusiness, after 2005, the term “grass-fed” changed to mean that the animal had to be on a grazing diet for a minimum of 140 days prior to slaughter. This means that as long as an animal is grass-fed for a minimum of 140 days, it can then be transferred to a commercial feedlot to eat grains, corn, soy, and other questionable feed and still legally be allowed to be labeled as “grass-fed.”

These loopholes and “gray areas” are why it is important to understand the difference between “fed” and “finished.” Arming yourself with the knowledge to look past tricky labels is the best way to ensure you really know the source of your meat.

What Does it Mean if Beef is Grass-Fed but Grain-Finished?

Grass-fed, grain-finished cows are usually allowed access to grass for part of their lives but are then fed grain to fatten them up. While this may be marginally better than eating grain for the entirety of their lives, finishing a cow on grain drastically changes the nutritional profile of the meat they produce.

Due to the loopholes in the term “grass-fed,” much of the beef labeled grass-fed actually falls into this category.

How Do I Know if Beef is 100% Grass-Fed?

Grass-fed, grass-finished beef comes from cows that are raised on pasture, eating grass, shrubs, and plants for their whole life—the way nature designed it to be.

If animals are grass-fed and grass-finished, it should be reflected on the label. Look for labels that specify “100% grass-fed,” “grass-fed and grass-finished,” or “pure grass-fed.”

What About Organic Labels?

The term organic typically has nothing to do with whether a cow was grass-fed or not. Organic beef indicates that the animals are not given growth hormones, and they are only given antibiotics when they are sick.

Their feed will also be organic and free of pesticides. But organic does not mean that an animal was 100% grass-fed by any means.

Buying organic beef is a much better choice than conventional beef. However, it will still have an inferior nutritional profile than meat from cows raised entirely on grass.

Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef That Might Surprise You

Grass-Fed Beef is Safer

Studies have found that grass-fed and sustainably-raised beef are significantly less likely to contain antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” and contain fewer bacteria overall.2

Grass-Fed Beef Tastes Better

The difference in taste between grass-fed and grain-fed beef is up for debate.

But many people agree that grass-fed beef has a distinctly different taste compared to conventionally-raised grocery store beef.

Grass-Fed Beef is Better for the Environment

According to a report from the CDC, large scale CAFOs are estimated to produce approximately 1.37 billion tons of waste annually. These large scale feeding operations negatively impact air and water quality, account for about 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and are a breeding ground for dangerous pathogens that can spread to wildlife and humans.3

And while the impact of grass-fed beef on the environment is still up for debate, some studies have suggested that grass-fed beef has the opposite effect and actually benefits the environment. This is a result of increasing the biodiversity of plant life in areas where cows graze, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving the quality of run-off water when pastures are well-managed.

Grass-Fed Beef Has More Nutritional Value

It can be easy to assume that the differences between grass-fed meat and grain-fed meat are marginal. After all, they come from the same animal. They look the same, smell the same, and taste similar.

But the truth is, from a nutritional standpoint, they are two completely different foods.

The Impressive Nutritional Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef

Cattle allowed to graze on pasture are generally healthier, free of hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides. Living in a way they were designed to creates an entirely different end product. Some significant differences include:

Grass-Fed Beef Has Higher Levels of Cancer-Fighting CLA:

CLA stands for conjugated linoleic acid and is a type of fatty acid. CLA is associated with numerous health benefits including:4, 5, 6, 7, 8

  • Aiding in fat loss.
  • Increasing muscle mass.
  • Decreasing the risk of diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Grass-fed beef is full of health-promoting CLA. Studies have found that grass-fed beef contains anywhere from 2-3 times higher CLA content than grain-fed animals.9

Why? Because CLA requires green plants to make it. There’s nothing green in corn or grains.

Grass-Fed Beef is Chock-Full of Heart-Healthy Omega-3 Fatty Acids:

Not all fats are created equally.

Both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are essential to our bodies. However, consumption of a high grain-based and processed food diet yields a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

This is problematic because the human body evolved consuming a 1:1 to 2:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Today, we consume closer to a 10:1 and up to a 30:1 omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

The ratio between omega-6 to omega-3 is important because omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory and in high doses cause a number of detrimental shifts in the body.

Omega-3s, on the other hand, are anti-inflammatory and not only mitigate the effects of omega-6s, but also have a number of positive impacts systemically.10, 11

Thanks to their highly concentrated and unnatural diets, grain-fed meat contains an unnaturally high omega-6 content and little to no omega-3s. Beef from cows that are 100% grass-fed, on the other hand, has an excellent fatty acid profile containing up to five times the amount of omega-3s as conventionally-raised beef.12, 13

Grass-Fed Beef Has More Beneficial Vitamins and Minerals:

It doesn’t take an expert to come to the conclusion that fresh grass and shrubs contain more beneficial nutrients than the array of questionable feed given to feedlot cattle. And naturally, those nutrients are passed onto you.

Grass-fed beef contains higher levels of a number of vitamins and minerals compared to grain-fed beef such as:

  • B vitamins
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin K
  • Trace minerals

Grass-Fed Beef is Higher in Inflammation Reducing Antioxidants:

Antioxidants play an important role in protecting our cells from oxidation. Thanks to their antioxidant-rich diet, grass-fed beef is chock-full of antioxidants such as:14

  • Carotenoids
  • Glutathione
  • Superoxide dismutase (SOD)
  • Catalase

Where to Buy Grass-Fed Beef

Remember, when buying grass-fed beef, look for labels that specify “100% grass-fed,” “grass-fed and grass-finished,” or “pure grass-fed.” Most labels should also indicate that the beef is free of hormones and antibiotics.

Grass-fed beef is typically more costly per pound than industrial meat, but it is well worth the extra cost. Here are some places to find high-quality, grass-fed beef:

Local Farms:

Locating a local farmer that raises grass-fed beef is one of the best and healthiest options. Just do some research and ensure that their cows are raised in open pastures, fed only fresh and/or dried grasses, and are never given antibiotics or hormones.

Eat Wild:

Eat Wild is a comprehensive online directory to help you locate grass-fed, pasture-raised animals in your area.

US Wellness Meats:

An online network of farmers and ranchers committed to sustainable, humane farming practices. They produce 100% grass-fed organic beef and other animal products that can be shipped directly to your home and are available in some retail locations.

Butcher Box:

An online shop dedicated to producing only the highest quality, humanely raised meat. Butcher Box delivers 100% grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone-free beef to your doorstep.

Grocery Store:

Fortunately, more and more grocery stores are responding to the demands of informed consumers and beginning to offer grass-fed beef. If you do opt for purchasing at the grocery store, do a little research and ensure that you are purchasing from a reputable company.

You can also look for labels from The American Grassfed Association—an organization that certifies grass-fed producers.

Other Grass-Fed Beef Products

Beef is not the only cow-derived product that you should be looking for 100% grass-fed. There are a number of cow-derived products that, just like your steak or burger, are drastically changed depending on the animal's diet.

Dairy products:

Just like meat, products derived from cows’ milk reflect their diet. Milk, cheese, and butter that comes from 100% grass-fed cows are significantly more nutritious than those of their grain-fed counterparts.

Protein Supplements:

Protein powder has become a popular supplement and meal replacement. If you opt for beef protein powder or a powder sourced from dairy such as whey, purchasing quality products that come from grass-fed cows is well worth the additional cost.

Collagen Supplements:

Collagen supplements are typically sourced from cows. And since supplements tend to be highly concentrated sources of nutrients, quality matters. That’s why Native Path’s Collagen Peptides are sourced from the highest quality animals and are always 100% pure grass-fed.

Beef or Bone Broth:

Beef and bone broth are made from boiling the meat and bones of animals. While finding 100% grass-fed broth can be a little more challenging to find in your grocery store, there are several good brands available online.

Final Thoughts on Grass-Fed Beef: Is it Really Healthier?

The proof is in the pudding—or in the beef in this case. 100% grass-fed beef is hands down the winner and gold-star standard when choosing your beef — or any other meat for that matter. Grass-fed, grain-finished meat is the next best choice. And you would be wise to go out of your way to avoid conventional meat entirely if possible. And as always, do the best you can with the knowledge and resources you have!

Here at Native Path, we are on a mission to help you discover the exact way of eating, thinking, and moving that is right for YOU. If you’re ready to take your health to the next level and truly thrive in just the way that nature intended, sign up for our free weekly newsletter. Our best and most valuable tips are delivered straight to your inbox each and every week. Just enter your name and email address below!

References

  1. https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/52/10/1227/478217
  2. https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/food/how-safe-is-your-ground-beef
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/ehs/docs/understanding_cafos_nalboh.pdf
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16924272
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11110851
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22648724
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23475478
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21762028
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/
  10. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/70/3/560s/4715011
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12442909
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20807460
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18641180
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/

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