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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. We are planting nut trees to use the nuts to feed beef and pork in wintertime (there will be zero corn/soy/silage, just forage, chestnuts, acorns, and honey locust pods). Any hypothesis on what this may do to nutrient content of meat? It is my understanding that this is the appropriate diet for the northern most grazers. unfortunately, we are looking at 10-15 years before we get a good nut crop (best time to plant a tree is 15 years ago? lol)

    • LP Johnson,
      I have been watching cattle graze and fatten in nature for over 60yrs up to 55 degrees north, where chestnuts, hazelnuts and acorns grow naturally. I have never seen them eat nuts intentionally and would suspect they will pass right through unless green and unless they are starving for grass. They do not even browse deciduous leaves normally unless lacking something. Yes they love apples if you want your Orchard destroyed and will debark some trees if hungry enough . They will certainly eat dead fish and squid etc if they have access to salt marsh and a storm tide brings some morsels up onto the grass.
      We farm just above the 45th parallel north with cold winters and late springs. Much later than my native UK. and winters not conducive to growing the nuts you describe. Such may be OK for pigs.
      They will eat stockpiled grass and if climate dry enough get by through the winter nicely on grasses cured on the stalk.They have to be seasonally fat going into winter other wise they may not survive unless given substantial amounts of good hay etc. It takes at least an extra tonne of feed through a normal winter if they do not have some fat cover, just to get them through to spring grass.
      In other words the nuts will not grow to anywhere near the northern out wintering range of cattle.
      Hope this helps. The nuts may have a very good nutrient profile for humans and the long pig(hogs) but would need to be processed like grain for cattle to get real benefit. Horses for courses, but I do not know of any nut courses in Northern climes.
      Please see other comments above.

  2. Our cattle are grass fed 80 percent of the year and then grain fed before butchering for about 6 to 8 weeks not sure why but taste better than anything I’ve ever bought

    • Donna,
      We used to do this until roughly 10 years ago because studies in UK in the 70’s indicated that meat from grass, supplemented off season when feeding conserved fodder gave the best of both worlds. A little of Barley concentrate can boost output by about 20% in daily gain and change the colour of the fat slightly so that they would grade with US corn fed. It is not cost effective to grow grain where we farm but grass is second to none except for parts of Britain and Ireland. This level of 5 lb per day in barley, tempered with water to soften and half sprout the kernel worked well but the cost of imported grain has tripled here.
      All the evidence I can find now seems to show even a little concentrate changes the fatty acid omega 3 profile and ratio to the negative in as little as five days but I suspect, depending on the amount, no more than .05% of finishing body weight for 6 to 8 weeks would only change the 6:3 ratio to still less than 2 to 1 from data on our cattle we have from 1996. This amount of grain is less than 10% of a conventional feedlot grain finishing ration.
      I actually believe that whole plant grains would give about this 05% of body weight, as they would be grazed in situ in nature, in the fall fattening period, before the seeds shell out. In other words during the traditional fall hunting period of big game plant eaters.
      Unfortunately with the price of grain imports so high and the GMO controversy, it is not cost effective to do on farm experimentation. Plus we have evidence that our current feeding protocols give a functional food with Omega 3 levels in the ground beef as good or better than Atlantic whole cod, with much higher CLA and other beneficial fat levels.

  3. I finally convinced hubby to get grass fed beef. We had it once awhile ago, and we didn’t like it. But I’ve been having it here and there. We just had some last night and it was great. And I told him he doesn’t have to feel ‘guilty’ about eating it (he has high BP and Cholesterol). My next project is getting him off those drugs. He’s already lowered his blood sugar to normal levels, thanks to eliminating grains and sugar.

  4. My wife and I were diagnosed with an intolerance to beef, but we’ve found (through our own expirementation) that grass fed beef does not have the same reactions in our bodies as non grass fed.

    Thanks for highlighting all these other reasons!

    • Note, that your “diagnosis” was incorrect. You’re not “intolerant of beef” at all, you’re intolerant of the chemicals, hormones or other crap in factory farm beef. : ) But people accept a doctor’s diagnosis, because….. he’s the doctor. You can tell yours that he was wrong, and you may do many others a favor by doing so.

  5. Great read. I buy grass fed beef for health and performance, but more importantly (being that I majored in economics) I believe that increased demand will increase the farmers margin and influence more farmers to shift capital to grass fed resources. Over the medium term this resource shift should lead to increased supply, thereby lowering the price tag. Amazing that capitalism can foster sustainability. I’m being somewhat flippant in that I think markets make things happen through incentives and there is as of late a market for sustainability.


  6. There was a recently cited research paper that looked at L-Carnitine in beef and concluded that this specific amino was linked to heart disease. My concern is that this research (and it was only one article) looked at beef like it was all the same beef (CAFO or grass-fed). Can anyone comment on this research here? I am all onboard with grass-fed/pastured meats and am looking for ammunition to fight the inevitable nay-sayers.

  7. We eat grass fed beef for three reasons. One is that we do not want GMO in our food supply, so we can be sure that we aren’t getting them in our beef by buying it from a local farmer/rancher that raises them. We can get a half that will last us most of the year.

    Two ~ The way the cows are raised is so much more humane than the huge commercial beef companies.

    Three ~ We want to buy local and support the people around us.

    It is a win-win situation for everyone!!!

  8. We have adopted a strictly grassfed, free-range and organic diet for the most part of about three years now. This among other dietary changes I have made has made a huge impact on our families health. I for one, was suffering from rheumatoid arthirtis that had been affecting me for over 10 years. During the past three years I have eliminated all medications and am living pain free and an active lifestyle. We purchase our grass-fed meat from local ranches who finish the cattle on beef as well.

  9. I buy the frozen bricks of grass-fed ground beef from Trader Joe’s – they’re pretty cheap. I also buy a lot of their animal products that aren’t pasteured, such as eggs, sausages, bacon and organic cream.

  10. I buy grass fed beef because of the humane treatment they receive at the farm where they spend their short lives. They don’t die in terror. However, grass fed beef can be tough, and pasture management makes a huge difference as to the texture and taste of the meat. The beef I buy now is so tender and flavorful that I had doubts that the butcher had given me the wrong beef! The farmer assured me that the steer was 100% pasture fed, but the tenderness is due to the pasture management.

  11. There is a lot of great information in your article, but I think your opening remarks downplay the inherent dangers in eating conventional beef. With the animals being raised in huge feedlots and being fed grains laden with pesticides and requiring antibiotics due to overcrowding I would say that grass fed beef is a whole lot more than a bit healthier.

    I have a friend who is a cowboy and he used to work in a feedlot. We have had some interesting conversations not the least of which is feeding the animals as cheaply as possible. A lot of them are fed soy and because of too much protein it is toxic to their livers. It is also inhumane!

  12. My wife and I recently took a tour of the local farm where we buy our beef, and got to see the herd! They have a self-sustaining 45 head herd that, depending on the weather, basically lives on its own besides being moved to different pastures. There are enough big males to ward off any coyotes, and they live just like cows are meant to: grass, open land, and a solid, genetically diverse group. It was great to get an even better picture of where our food comes from, and be able to be confident that we’re getting it from about the best source possible!

  13. Hi Chris,

    I was wondering if you knew any studies about the iron content of grass fed vs. grain fed beef. I know that all meat is a good source of iron, but was wondering if grain fed would be higher, due to iron fortification of grains. I ask cause I recently had my serum ferriitn tested, and it was pretty high. I’ve had success in lowering it the past few months, but was wondering if iron fortification could be a double whammy for iron loaded individuals. You know, if the iron loaded individual consumes iron fortified grains, and also consumes grain fed beef from an animal that itself was iron loaded?

  14. Hi Chris,

    Another reason why you should prefer grass-fed meat is the quantity of the amino acid Tryptophane which decrease when grains-fed (surely with corn). As you know, Tryptophane depletion can create lot’s of mood-related problems so prefer source of proteins with high level of Tryptophane when possible.

    • Where is your reference for this? I have noticed from nutritional databases that tryptophan is quite a lot lower in mainstream beef than in other protein sources. But these databases don’t give the amino acid profile for grass-fed beef. So I am not sure that grass-fed beef necessarily has more tryptophan (a more complete amino acid profile). Where did you get this information from?

  15. Just a minor correction. In Australia our cattle is primarily pastured but still finished on grain. I have read the benefits can be lost in as little as 5 days. Here the restaurant marketers have campaigned that grain finished for X days means a premium steak so we are trying to reverse this trend to avoid going the same way as the U.S. Particularly here in Brisbane the majority of grocery store (Woolworths, Coles is grain finished and grass-fed (finished) is not advertised on packaging. Our best option is to go direct to farmers but they tend not to market themselves as much as I’d like them to. Paddocks to Plates is a farm I am willing to buy a 1/4 cow from.

  16. I have been eating grassfed meat for about 8ish years. I have done two of my 7 pregnancies (have 8 children, one set of twins) in my 40’s eating grassfed meat & those were my BEST pregnancies of all. I also nurse my children very long term (think years not months) & I can tell the incredible difefrence in my health since I started eating grassfed meat. I had already juiced & done green smoothies & organic produce & organic grains & supplements for years before but it was the meat that made the difference. I also am at my lowest weight ever as an adult. I am almost 46 and can run circles around 20 yr olds. I tell everyone about grassfed meat in my health coaching & am trying to make a difference in the health & lives of other people. I also feed it to me rats (we have a rattery for fancy pet rats) & they have started living longer due to getting raw grassfed meat in their diets & not forming tumors. I just started raising organic chickens & the chicks in the house brooder LOVE the raw grassfed meat every morning. I bet their eggs will taste the best!

  17. Thanks for pointing out the numbers, Chris, very helpful! I hadn’t noticed them yet, and I’ve been reading your site for a while now!