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Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed - Is There Really a Difference?

written by

Mike Ferguson

posted on

June 10, 2021

In the United States, most cows start living similar lives. In the early spring, calves are born, drink milk from their mothers, and are then allowed to roam free and eat grass or other edible plants they find in their environment. This continues for about 7–9 months. After that, most conventionally raised cows are moved to feedlots. Large feedlots are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). There, the cows are kept in confined stalls, often with limited space. They are rapidly fattened with grain-based feeds that are usually made from a base of soy or corn. Typically, their diet is also supplemented with small amounts of dried grass. The cows live in these feedlots for a few months before being brought to a slaughterhouse. Of course, it’s not that simple. The different feeding practices are complicated and varied. In fact, the term grass-fed isn’t clearly defined. That said, grass-fed cows eat (mostly) grass, while grain-fed cows eat (mostly) an unnatural diet based on corn and soy during the latter part of their lives, and to maximize growth, the cows are often given drugs, such as antibiotics and growth hormones.

"You Are What You Eat", Applies to Cows Too

What a cow eats can significantly affect the nutrient composition of its beef. This is particularly evident when it comes to fatty acid composition.

Grass-fed beef usually contains less total fat than grain-fed beef, which means that gram for gram, grass-fed beef contains fewer calories. However, the composition of fatty acids is also different:

  • Monounsaturated fat. Grass-fed beef contains much less monounsaturated fat than grain-fed beef.
  • Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats. Grass- and grain-fed beef contain very similar amounts of omega-6 fatty acids.
  • Omega-3s. This is where grass-fed makes a major difference, containing up to five times as much omega-3.
  • Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Grass-fed beef contains about twice as much CLA as grain-fed beef. This fatty acid is associated with more than a few health benefits.

In short, there are some significant differences in the composition and amount of fat in the grass and grain-fed beef. Moreover, the breed and cut of meat considerably affect the fat composition of beef.

Grass-fed beef may contain less total fat than grain-fed beef, but a lot more omega-3 fatty acids and CLA, which are both linked to health benefits.

Grass-fed beef is more nutritious

Both grain- and grass-fed beef are highly concentrated sources of nutrients. Beef is loaded with vitamins B12, B3, and B6. It’s also rich in highly bioavailable iron, selenium, and zinc. In fact, meat contains almost every nutrient that you need to survive.

It also contains high-quality protein and various lesser-known nutrients, such as creatine and carnosine, which are very important for your muscles and brain. But even though the difference isn’t great, grass-fed beef generally contains higher amounts of certain nutrients.

Compared with grain-fed beef, grass-fed is much higher in the following vitamins:

  • Vitamin A. Grass-fed beef contains carotenoid precursors to vitamin A, such as beta carotene.
  • Vitamin E. This antioxidant sits in your cell membranes and protects them from oxidation

Grass-fed beef also tends to be richer in other antioxidants.

As They Say, "The Science is Settled"

Despite all the controversies in the field of nutrition, most people agree that the most important thing is to eat real food. Some people like to take this idea a step further and only eat real food that eats real food. After all, grasses and herbs are a more natural diet for cows than corn and soy. At the end of the day, the choice depends on your preferences and values.

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