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Updated on September 15, 2021
The Startling Difference Between Grass-Fed and Grain-Fed Beef
You know that the food you eat is important...
So you work hard to eat a well-balanced diet and make healthy choices.
But have you ever considered that the food your food eats is equally important? This is especially true when it comes to beef.
Figuring out which beef is healthiest can be overwhelming. Should you choose...
Yes, it’s confusing. But knowing the difference in these labels may save your health—and give you a whole new perspective on that burger you’re eating.
The Shocking Reason We Feed Cows Corn
After WWII, there was a surplus of nitrogen in the Unites States from making weapons and bombs.
The nitrogen was then used by the agricultural industry and added to their corn crops, resulting in an abundance of corn. Around 1952, they decided to start feeding this excess corn to animals.
By 1970, grain-fed animals became the norm throughout the U.S.
The next time you visit your grocery store, head to the meat aisle. Odds are, you’ll see “conventional” or “grain-fed” beef outnumbering “organic” and “grass-fed” beef.
The Sad, Short Life of Grain-Fed Cattle
When you think about cows, you might imagine a picturesque scene where they’re grazing in an open pasture.
Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
About 95% of the beef consumed in the U.S comes from cows raised in concentrated animal feeding operations—also known as CAFOs (1).
Grain-fed calves begin life with ample space to roam and are allowed to graze as they are weaned off their mother's milk.
But once they reach 7 to 9 months old, their lives drastically change…
They’re loaded up into trailers and shipped off to crowded feedlots.
Confined in pens with thousands of other cattle—typically in unsanitary and gruesome conditions with no access to grass.
Fed an unnatural, grain-based diet to fatten them up as quickly (and cost-effectively) as possible.
The Diet of Grain-Fed Cattle
This diet of grain-fed cattle includes genetically modified pesticide-laden corn, soybeans, and grains.
What’s worse, 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 (2).
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?
The Anatomy of a Cow
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 (3). They’re 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 also disrupts the cow's natural digestion and often causes numerous health issues.
To compensate for these health issues, they’re 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.
Here’s the catch: The cows aren’t the only ones that suffer negative health effects. When cattle suffer, you suffer too.
Why Grain-Fed Beef Is Dangerous for Your Health
Aside from the ethical issues that go hand-in-hand with grain-fed cattle, there are serious health implications linked to the consumption of these animals.
As the old adage goes, “You are what you eat.”
And in this case, “You are what you eat, eats.”
What’s even more alarming is the bacteria often found in conventionally-raised beef...
Studies have found that nearly half of the meat that comes from conventionally-raised animals contains one or more multi-drug resistant bacteria including (4):
- Campylobacter species
- Salmonella species
- Enterococcus species
- Escherichia coli
- Staphylococcus aureus
The crowded, unsanitary conditions—paired with the routine use of antibiotics—have contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
This means that the infections that were once easy to treat are now becoming more serious and even deadly.
It’s estimated that methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) kills about 11,000 people in the U.S. every year and Salmonella claims about 450 lives, in addition to causing an estimated 1.2 million illnesses annually (5).
As if these statistics aren’t scary enough, it gets worse…
What a cow eats directly impacts the nutrients you get from eating it. That’s why decoding the labels on your meat products is absolutely necessary…
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.
Deceptive labeling and intentional misguidance are all too common in the food industry...
After 2005, loopholes in agribusiness altered the requirements for “grass-fed” beef.
The updated version of grass-fed states that the animal has to be on a grazing diet for a minimum of 140 days prior to slaughter.
AKA, as long as the 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”...
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 these frustrating loopholes, 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 Does “Organic” Beef Entail?
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.
4 Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef That Might Surprise You
1. 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 (5).
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 beef.
3. Grass-Fed Beef Is Better for the Environment
According to a report from the CDC, large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (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 (6).
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.
4. 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. Thus, grass-fed beef boasts a higher nutritional value…
4 Impressive Nutritional Benefits of Grass-Fed Beef
When you allow cattle to graze on pasture, you benefit from an entirely different end-product.
4 significant differences include:
1. Grass-Fed Beef Has Higher Levels of Cancer-Fighting CLA
- Aiding in fat loss,
- Increasing muscle mass,
- And decreasing the risk of diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Grass-fed beef is full of health-promoting CLA. Studies show that grass-fed beef contains anywhere from 2 to 3 times higher CLA content than grain-fed animals (12).
Because CLA requires green plants to make it, and there’s nothing green in corn or grains.
2. 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.
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 (15, 16).
3. 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.
Compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef contains a higher level of vitamins and minerals including:
- B vitamins
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
- Trace minerals
4. Grass-Fed Beef Is Higher in Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants
Antioxidants play an important role in protecting our cells from oxidation.
Thanks to the antioxidant-rich diet of grass-fed beef, it’s chock-full of antioxidants such as (18):
- Superoxide dismutase (SOD)
5 Places Where You Can Buy High-Quality 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 typically costs more per pound than industrial meat, but it’s well worth the investment.
Here are 5 places where you can find high-quality, grass-fed beef:
1. Local Farms
Locating a local farmer that raises grass-fed beef is one of the best and healthiest options.
Do your 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.
EatWild is a comprehensive online directory to help you locate grass-fed, pasture-raised animals in your area.
3. US Wellness Meats
US Wellness Meats is 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.
4. Butcher Box
Butcher Box is an online shop dedicated to producing only the highest quality, humanely raised meat. They deliver 100% grass-fed, antibiotic and hormone-free beef right to your doorstep.
5. Grocery Stores
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.
Swap These Products Out for Grass-Fed, Too
Beef isn’t 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.
1. Dairy Products
Products derived from cows’ milk reflect their diet, too.
Milk, cheese, and butter that come from 100% grass-fed cows are significantly more nutritious than their grain-fed counterparts.
2. 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.
3. Collagen Supplements
Collagen supplements are typically sourced from cows (look for “bovine” on the label).
Since supplements tend to be a highly concentrated source of nutrients, quality matters even more.
When choosing a hydrolyzed collagen supplement, reach for the one that's 100% pure grass-fed so you can get the most of its anti-aging benefits.
4. Beef or Bone Broth
Beef and bone broth are made from simmering 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 this case, the beef.
100% grass-fed beef is hands down the winner when choosing your beef—or any meat for that matter.
The next best choice is grass-fed, grain-finished meat. And if you’re able to, avoid conventional meat entirely.
As always, do the best you can with the knowledge and resources that you have!
Dr. Chad Walding
As a doctor of Physical Therapy, Senior Wellness Expert, and co-founder of NativePath, Dr. Walding has helped millions of people improve their quality of life from the inside out—by speaking, writing, and educating others on how to live life a little more #OnThePath.
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.