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Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed


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grass fed vs grain fed, why grass fed meat is better
There are great benefits to eating grass-fed meat. istock.com/Photitos2016

This article is part of a special report on Red Meat. To see the other articles in this series, click here.

In my recent post on red meat, I showed you why red meat of any kind is a healthy choice, and doesn’t deserve the bad reputation that it’s given by the media and mainstream medical establishment. But although conventional beef won’t give you cancer and is an important source of highly bioavailable nutrients, we can’t ignore the fact that grass-fed meat is still superior to grain-fed.

The classic idiom “you are what you eat” applies just as well to cows as it does to humans, and there are some pretty significant differences in the quality of red meat based on how the animal was fed. I’ve talked about this in the past here, here, and here, but this post will give you a more detailed summary on why grass-fed meat is a better choice than grain-fed.

Grass-fed vs. grain-fed: it goes way beyond omega-3s! Tweet This

Fatty Acid Composition

I mentioned in my previous post that the ratio of saturated to monounsaturated to polyunsaturated fat in beef stays about the same regardless of what the animal is fed. (1)Those ratios might shift slightly depending on the animal’s diet, but the shifts are still relatively small. On average, grass-fed beef tends to have slightly lower levels of MUFA and slightly higher levels of PUFA than grain-fed, but these differences are at most five percentage points, depending on the breed of cattle and the study in question. So regardless of whether your beef is grain-fed or grass-fed, you’ll be getting about 40-50% saturated fat, about 40-50% monounsaturated fat, and somewhere near 10% polyunsaturated fat.

However, the diet of the cow does significantly influence the types of each fat present. Within the broad categories of SFA, MUFA, and PUFA, there are several individual fatty acids with different chemical compositions, and each has unique effects on the body.

Omega-3 and Omega-6

The two fatty acids you’re probably most familiar with are our old friends omega-3 and omega-6, both of which are PUFAs. This might come as a surprise, but the most current research indicates that beef contains consistent levels of omega-6 regardless of diet. (2) This is good news if you can’t afford grass-fed beef, because at least grain-fed beef won’t slam you with more omega-6 than you can compensate for. What you’ll be missing out on are the significantly higher levels of omega-3s found in grass-fed beef. (3) Depending on the breed of cow, grass-fed beef contains between 2 and 5 times more omega-3s than grain-fed beef, and the average ratio of n-6:n-3 in grass fed beef is 1.53:1. In grain fed beef, this ratio jumps all the way up to 7.65:1.

Saturated Fat

While I’m not particularly concerned about saturated fat of any kind, it’s worth noting the differences in SFA composition of grain-fed vs. grass-fed meat. There are three main types of saturated fat found in red meat: stearic acid, palmitic acid, and myristic acid. (4) Grass-fed beef consistently contains a higher proportion of stearic acid, which even the mainstream scientific community acknowledges does not raise blood cholesterol levels. (5) This higher proportion of stearic acid means that grass-fed beef also contains lower proportions of palmitic and myristic acid, which are more likely to raise cholesterol.

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Conjugated Linoleic Acid

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a type of PUFA that is found naturally in milk and meat products, primarily from ruminants such as cows or sheep. As I’ve explained before, CLA exhibits potent antioxidant activity, and research indicates that CLA might be protective against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Beef is one of the best dietary sources of CLA, and grass-fed beef contains an average of 2 to 3 times more CLA than grain-fed beef. (6)This is because grain-based diets reduce the pH of the digestive system in ruminant animals, which inhibits the growth of the bacterium that produces CLA. It’s interesting to note that as a whole, Americans consume far less CLA than people from countries such as Australia, where grass-fed beef tends to be the rule rather than the exception.

Antioxidants, Vitamins and Minerals

Another reason grass-fed meat surpasses grain-fed is that it contains considerably more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, are precursors to vitamin A that are found as pigments in plants. Grain-fed beef does not contain appreciable levels of carotenoids, for the simple reason that grains don’t contain them. However, cows that eat carotenoid-rich grass and forage incorporate significant amounts of these compounds into their tissues. These carotenoids make the fat from grass-fed beef more yellow than the fat from grain-fed beef, so fat color can be a good indicator of how nutrient-rich your meat is. (7)

Grass-fed beef also contains significantly more of the antioxidants vitamin E, glutathione, superoxide dismutase (SOD), and catalase than grain-fed beef. (8) These antioxidants play an important role in protecting our cells from oxidation, especially delicate fats in the cell membrane such as omega-3 and omega-6. (9)

Antioxidants such as vitamin E and beta-carotene also work together synergistically to protect the meat itself from damage during the journey from butcher to plate. (10) These antioxidants are especially important if you choose to fry or grill your meat, because those high-heat cooking methods can be more damaging to meat than wet or low-heat methods such as stewing or braising.

Grass-fed beef also contains higher levels of the beneficial nutrients I discussed in my last red meat post, including zinc, iron, phosphorus, sodium, and potassium. (11) It’s safe to say that grass-fed meat gives you more bang for your buck on all fronts, with its significantly higher levels of omega-3s, antioxidants, minerals, and other important nutrients.

Other Types of Red Meat

Although I’ve primarily referenced research on beef in this post, the benefits of pasture-raised meat extend to red meat from other animals as well. For example, several studies show that the meat and milk of grass-fed lambs is significantly higher in omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid than the meat and milk of grain-fed lambs. (12, 13, 14) Another study shows that the fatty acid composition of grass-fed bison is similar to that of grass-fed beef, and both contain higher levels of omega-3s and CLA than that of grain-fed bison. (15)

I hope it’s clear by now that when it comes to red meat, quality makes a big difference. However, I realize that price is a common concern, and not everyone can afford grass-fed meat. That’s why I made it a point in the last post to focus on why even conventional red meat is a healthy choice. Just remember that grass-fed red meat is more nutrient dense than grain-fed, so even though grass-fed is more expensive, you’re getting more nutritional bang for your buck. And although it wasn’t the topic of this post, it’s always worth considering the ethical and environmental implications of grain-fed vs. grass-fed meat. If you’re looking for an easy, convenient way to purchase great quality meat, I recommend ButcherBox.

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  1. Thanks for the excellent article Chris. You and others like you that are spreading the word of how we need to take responsibility for our own health and become knowledgable about what we put in our mouths, are the reason why I only eat humanely reared grass fed meat.
    This article is not preaching to the converted, remember there are new choir members daily that need such information and it is great to be reminded and read evidence that we are on the right path as it is not always easy.
    A note to Naz, here in the UK things aren’t as brilliant as you seem to suggest.
    The supermarkets offer no information other than on occasions labelling ‘grass fed’ but that is not necessarily the whole story – they will put grass fed even though grain finished/fattened, or re dairy fed over winter indoors on grain – some take the extra mile and feed over winter on hay but most do not.
    Just as outdoor reared pork may just be for a tiny percentage of the pigs life.
    I have also noticed labels recently on fresh meat packs in supermarkets stating ‘contains antigens’
    I ask butchers for info, most don’t have the answers. Better butchers know the farms, and I phone up the farms to answer my questions.
    Here in the UK, farmer’s markets are best as you can usually talk to the farmer re their use of antibiotics, growth hormones etc.
    I buy Water Buffalo from a local farmer, tastes just like beef only better. The farmer started to breed as much hardier so can stay outside through out the year eating grass and don’t seem to get ill, so no antibiotics etc just a turnip for a treat. That’s the info you need.

  2. Hi Chris,
    First of all let my say what a huge fan I am of your work and articles. I love taking on your advice as I believe in the ‘lifestyle’ that goes hand in hand with what you say.
    However I would like to know where you get you information from as some of you post frequently have no references which makes me think the information could really be just ‘hear say’ I tell my friends about the wonderful information I gain from your site and they alway question ‘well who is he anyway and who is he to actually scientifically know all this information or is it just simply what he believes in rather than what is scientifici evidence’.
    Could you please give me some information and evidence of where you get all you information and any studies that have been done on this.
    Kind Regards
    Melinda Best

    • What are you referring to? My posts are extensively referenced. At the end of any claim that requires a reference, there is a parentheses with a number inside, i.e. (2). If you click on the number, that is the reference.

      • Thank you very much for this reply and all the information you are providing. Through this medium you are helping ancient ancestral truths in modern times, move from the last few decades of ridicule back to the self evident stage(Arthur Schopenhauer )
        I and many others involved in grassland livestock husbandry have known the truth that we evolved from the ‘fat of the land’ and a predator/pray to a husbandry, synergistic, symbiotic relationship with cattle. This is throughout the civilized world to the ends of the annual greening where grass and vegetation will sustain cattle because they are the most climatically adapted to survival from 15 below to 75 above Fahrenheit without artificial shelter in the natural world. It is not just their fat that keep us alive but their hides and skins that have and still do benefit.
        I have been collating the evidence against ridicule for years and I check all yours out if it is new to me and can say it is scientifically corroborated even if I do not wholly agree with the implications.
        The biggest problem is new to the industry ignorance and band wagon marketing fraud. It is buyer beware and some publications with cute pictures intensely annoy, whilst others,I laugh at the ignorance. Buyers reliance on government and other certified production schemes is fraught with danger and encourages scam artists in my opinion and comments are full of such people who have been duped. Eventually it will be realized that high select/ low choice or Canada A plus or equivalent only has sufficient fat cover and that a outcome protocol or standard denoting above a specified Omega 3 level of say 180mg/100g can only qualify as a functional food. This would need to be correlated to vitamin D levels etc denoting outdoor grazing, vegetative consumption.
        Finally to a number who have stated the omega 6:3 ratio is more important than the amount are very wrong and gives credibility to the naysayers and cheats. To those who have no concept of formulating rations and correlating ‘as fed’ to dry matter content, I would point out that H2o or water is a ratio.1 glass where a minimum of 3 are needed is not comparable.
        One suggestion Chris. Please post pics of harvestable, ‘grass fat’ young cattle of grass fattening types. This would lend greater credibility for those who know the real stuff. There is a huge difference between being led to suspect, led to believe and those who actually know and live the exprience .

  3. My wife and I are advocates of eating grass fed/free range animals (she is a meat cutter at an organic abattoir) as well we enjoy harvesting and eating game meat such as moose, venison, caribou (going for my first bison this year as well)
    Campaigning to support small independent farmers is key to sustaining the ecosystem and educating people to the harm that ones does to themselves and the environment by eating gmo and frankenfoods.
    We often find ourselves shaking our heads at the dumbed down ideology that the mainstream media has infected upon most of our friends and family and thoughtfully encourage one and all to enjoy real food as it was intended.
    Support your local farmers, grow your own and remember, you are what you eat!

  4. For all the reasons that Annie said at 8:19 on 3/29, I buy grass fed and free-range. Goat milk too.

  5. I haven’t seen vitamin K2 mentioned in this discussion. Grass fed animal products have a much higher level than conventionally fed because of the bacteria created through rumination. K2 works with D3 for calcium absorption and deposition, helping to prevent soft tissue calcification. It’s an essential nutrient that doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar yet…

  6. the other day I was in a super rush, had no food at home, so i bought some veggies and a conventional steak at the grocery and cooked it up quick… i swear to you the steak tasted like i bit into corn on the cob!!!! it was unbelieveable! from now on if im in a pinch i will just fast.

  7. I have been purchasing grass-fed for 10 years. I don’t even look at the crap at grocery stores. I can barely even trust Whole Foods when it says “grass-fed”, especially their ground “grass-fed” meat because HOW DO I KNOW that it wasn’t switched with the grain fed? And… Is the meat grass-finished? There are so many questions! I order my meat from North Star Bison and have been doing so for as long as I can remember (10 years)… Mary, the owner, is truly dedicated to supplying her customers with the best of the best and I have to say, I have never had BETTER MEAT! She offers beef, ostrich, elk, bison, venison, goat, lamb, turkey and chicken. When I get her boxes, man, it’s like XMAS morning! Ha Ha. So delicious. And I am happy to report, I am extremely healthy because of something so delicious!

  8. Another significant benefit of grass-fed-finished beef is that it and grass-fed butter are some of the few sources of vitamin K2 in the modern North American diet. Grain-fed beef is not a good source of K2, which is important for the proper utilization of calcium in the body and the removal of calcified material from tissue and arteries. K2 helps protect heart health while also building stronger teeth and bones. In Japan, people get their K2 from eating Natto, fermented soy beans.

    • @Barbara

      A good indicator of vitamin K2 in beef is if the fat has yellowish tint. Grain-fed beefs usually have a clean, white fat; whereas grass-fed beefs have a slight yellow hue in the fat. It is in this yellowish fat (not the muscle) where the K2 is located.

  9. Deborah,
    I cook grass-fed beef on lower heat. It preserves the delicate omega 3’s and 6’s and makes the meet more tender. Seasoning well helps also. I cooked a chuck roast recently in a crock pot for 8-9 hours–delicious!
    The amount of omega 3’s etc is not as important as the ratio. Where grass-fed beef is the ideal 4:1 ratio,
    grain fed beef can be 20:1–which is un-natural and unhealthy.
    Check out http://www.BeyondOrganic.com with Jordan Rubin on grass-fed beef issues. He is selling his own beef–but highly researched and healthy. Just fyi. 🙂

    • Naz says that the suprmarkets in UK offer grass fed meat but she should be made aware of the fact that most if not all the meat on offer is actually FINISHED on concentrates, ie cereals and soya (GM?) after a period of grazing.Here in England the public are only just waking up to the benefits of pasture fed food and the recently formed Pasture Fed Livestock group are moving things forward (with help from The AGA)
      There is certainly no premium for our product over here but interestingly the focus is probably more on the environmental benefits rather than health.
      We are using the shorthorn breed with some success with growth rates up to 1.6 kg per day later in the season.In 2012 we managed to slaughter steers at around 650kg at 20 months, this year rates are poorer due to our last dismal summer.

    • Thanks, Sherry for making the important point about ratio being more important than amount when addressing the omega 3/6 issue. A healthy diet depends on this balance.

  10. The next steps, after eschewing grain fed and switching to grass fed AND grass finished beef, are to buy local, direct from the rancher, and witness the slaughter. This puts you in touch with the environmental, ethical and economic aspects of eating meat. It also, at least for me, provides a chance for reverence and respect for the animal whose life was taken to nourish mine.

    I have watched the last three of our steers (we buy sides or quarters) “harvested”. The first time (USDA inspected, university affiliated Meat Sciences Lab) I clutched my husband’s arm tightly. The next time was also at a USDA inspected abatoir, a small meat company that is certified humane. It got easier to watch. This past fall I went 12 miles from our house and the steer was taken outdoors by mobile slaughter, next to the field where the animal was born and raised. Very little, if any, petroleum was used in this pastured beef! I brought a five gallon bucket and got the heart, liver, kidneys, tongue, tail and a small cut of meat (diaphragm) that didn’t need hanging for tenderness. They were all still warm from life. Now, watching the process no longer dismays.

    When I cook the meat or organs from this animal, there is not an ounce of this former vegetarian that feels any guilt. This animal had a good life, was killed quickly without trauma of transport, and every last bit is being consumed.

  11. I eat primarily grass-fed bison, because I love the taste and am usually trying to protein up as much as possible. Pan fried in coconut oil, a little garlic and other seasoning. Flavor is incredible.

  12. What about beef that is grass fed, but grain finished for the final two weeks or so. How much do you feel that negates the grass fed benefits?

  13. Two major NJ supermarket chains- ShopRite and Stop and Shop – have begun. selling grass-fed beef from Australia at attractive prices. This seems like great news.

  14. Thoughts on grass-fed vs grass-fed/grain finished?
    A butcher shop just opened by my home and all they sell is locally raised grass-fed/grain finished meats. I would love to support them, but also want to understand exactly what this means as far as health benefits.

    • It is my understanding that finishing them with grain destroys the optimal 3 to 6 ratio that makes grass fed more desirable. I used to buy my beef from U.S. wellness meats before I made friends with a local farmer. Per their faq:

      Are the cattle finished with grain?

      Never. From the moment our animals are weaned from their mothers, they consume high quality forage for the rest of their lives. Not only is grain-finish counter to the values of grass-fed farming, but a change to a starchy grain diet can undo omega 6:3 ratios and CLA values in 30 days.

      Not a scientific answer, but these people are professionals. Worth checking out too if you don’t have a local source for grass fed beef.


  15. I am interested in the sources of this information, particularly stuff that is well documented from a reliable organization. Several of my friends are arguing that this is all crap and show me proof… It’s so annoying.

    • Pam, I’ve found it is better to not argue with my friends that argue “this is all crap”. I tell them I am not going to argue with them, and I encourage them to do their own research. If they want to keep sabotaging their own health and supporting brutal inhumane treatment to the livestock that is on them, not me.

      It seems kind of common sense to me. These animals are designed by nature to eat grass and other leafy greens that grow on meadow land. When we force feed them of the cheapest grains available it makes them sick. That is why they must be pumped full of antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to fatten them up on grain and growth hormones. The grain fed meat we buy so cheaply in the grocery stores comes from a bunch of very sick, poorly treated their entire lives cows. It is sad really. And folks will buy this meat to “save a couple of dollars” per pound. Never mind the health benefits. Who wants to eat the flesh of sick animals who have spent almost their entire lives standing in their own feces and urine?

  16. At first I was led to believe by this article that paying three times more for grassfed has been a big waste, but then I remember many of the reasons I started being this selective. These reasons all are reflected in many peoples’ comments attached to this article.

    Grain finished may be okay, but we have to be sure we are not supporting animal cruelty and GM crops and hormones and antibiotics. It’s a disaster out there in the food chain and we have to be careful what we support, for reasons beyond our immediate health concerns.


  17. Another reason to eat grass fed is that the animals live a much more pleasant life in their natural environment. The grain fed cattle live in concentration camp like conditions. Eating unnatural foods (grain), standing in their own feces and urine. It can’t be a pleasant existence. Just because I eat them doesn’t mean I can’t care about their quality of life while they are here.

    • This is the reply I was waiting for. Cows are among the animals which have evolved to eat grass. When they are fed grain their bodies do not need the multi-stomach digestion. This leads to ulcers and other maladies which is a primary reason for all the antibiotics. As Jeff points out, this is an awful life for the cattle and creates a less healthy product for us.

  18. I think that grass fed beef versus grain fed beef should be pretty far down the list of things you can do to live healthier. I also think that a post like this is more likely to push orthorexia than to have a positive effect.

    One of the reasons you cited was that the saturated fat profile is better in grass fed, but I thought we weren’t even worried about saturated fats and cholesterol levels.

    The relevance of this article is similar to post-marathon nutrition advice. I just think there’s a lot of habits that people could improve on before they insist on buying expensive beef. How are people getting this beef? If you drive your car to the supermarket to get grass-fed beef, is the beef really the number one thing about that action to improve? You might be better off by riding your bike or walking, you might also be better served to get it at a farmer’s market.

    The emphasis on grass fed versus grain fed also tends to miss the point that you should really just be trying to eat the best specimen of cow that you can. A potato grown in Michigan can have a vastly different nutritional profile than one grown in Florida, so saying that grass fed beef has this nutritional profile and grain fed beef has that nutritional profile might be inaccurate.

    • To clarify on my second paragraph, I’m not saying cholesterol and saturated fat are entirely moot, but I’d be surprised if we ever found Chris Kresser saying that you shouldn’t eat beef because it has too much palmitic acid and it might raise your cholesterol 10 points.

    • No need to clarify Dylan. I think you lost us all at “orthorexia”.

      This was a great BLOG post. Even if I didn’t learn too much from the post itself (I’ve been doing this stuff for a while now), this type of post keeps things organized and guides those of us who might otherwise stray. This post was never trying to be a profound statement on new research.

      On top of that, when people post *constructive* comments, like Jerica and Beefeater have for this post, the learning can get pretty intense! How lucky I am as a reader for Jerica to share her intimate knowledge of grassfed beef raising — it never would have happened without a helpful post like this to provide the opportunity.

      Essentially, you have every right to make your point, but there’s no need to argue with the reasons behind the post to do so.

      Chris, I don’t know if you’re reading (god knows I’d have a hard time if I were you), but please count me as a *very* grateful reader (albeit one who maybe woke up on the wrong side of the bed) who appreciates all the help you’ve freely dispensed, and all the research that goes into it. You’ve helped me way more than any doctor ever has.

  19. I grew up and spent most my adult life in Australia, until I moved to the U.S. about 2 years ago… well actually now I’m in the UK! Anyway back in Australia I never heard the whole grass-fed vs grain-fed debate, probably because most of the meat there is grass-fed anyway, it just wasn’t an issue. When I was in the U.S., I kept hearing/reading people talk about it so when I was there I definitely made sure to get the grass-fed and pastured meats, even though sometimes these were more expensive.

    Again here in the U.K it doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue. Even in regular supermarkets the meat says grass-fed and the pork is outdoor reared etc.