Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed | Chris Kresser

Why Grass-Fed Trumps Grain-Fed

by Chris Kresser

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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.

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.

Now I’d like to hear from you. Do you purchase grass-fed beef? If so, what are some of your reasons for choosing grass-fed rather than grain-fed beef? Share in the comments below!

175 Comments

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  1. I was wondering if the same benefits of Grass Fed meat could apply to wild game? I would obviously like to assume so, but was wondering if there is any hard evidence on the nutrition of wild game such as venison, pheasant, ducks, etc. versus factory farmed (other than the fact it is so much more lean and higher in Omega 3).

    I made a commitment a few years ago to quit buying and eating factory farmed meat for health reasons. Lucky for me, my husband is an avid hunters and we hunt for all of our protein. Everything we eat is either wild game, or vegetarian.

    I would love to see more research on the topic of wild game!

    • Hi Danielle, I also believe in wild game and think it is a super healthy source of food. However, as I wrote in a blog this week, I react very strongly to GM fed meat and if the wild game is eating GM crops, I’ve gotten sick. An example of that is I live in the Blue Ridge mountains, and we have a lot of deer. I am usually fine with the deer near my farm, but I’ve had deer that were near 200 acres of GM corn that I got sick from the meat. My article goes into how GM proteins are found in the meat and animal products if you want more info: https://www.devonabell.com/single-post/2017/02/20/Reactions-from-GM-fed-Meat-Animal-Products

  2. Which cuts or organs of the cow are most identifiable as from a grassfed cow if a person is unsure or doubtful that their meat might have been switched in the butchery? Are tbere pics available that compare grassfed cuts/organs/fat to educate me what to loom for? Any other advi e would be greatly apprecited.

  3. Hey,
    Interesting blog about grass fed vs grain fed, I worked as a fitness trainer for 12 years but now making the change to farmer. I am producing grass fed lamb, but wondering where you found the information to support your post? do you know who are comparing the meat nutrition contents?

    Many thanks

  4. And I just wanted to add that using skincare products made from grass fed beef fat or tallow is one of the healthiest ways to feed your largest organ…your skin. I personally hand render our tallow three times to ensure there is no beefy scent, then combine with essential oils and my goodness, is it nourishing to your skin. I love that this article exists and encourage more of us grass-fed loving folks to speak up and speak out. The more folks know, the better choices they will make…or so I hope.

  5. You never mentioned that grass-fed beef is not only healthier but most grain-fed beef is from GMO grains, which is extremely bad for your health. I know I only eat organic foods and grass-fed beef for my health and it’s made a huge difference for extremely better health in the 4 years I’ve been doing it.

  6. Just wanted to add that if you live in the Southeast US, Earthfare has tremendous deals on grass fed beef!! PS – I am completely unrelated to Earthfare.

  7. I have been on a low carb high fat and protein diet trying to improve my health. I’m trying to get off of the supplement bandwagon. I believe there’s potental for imbalance due to the synergistic characteristics of vitamins and minerals. Would we get all of our calcium and magnesium needs from grass fed only animal meat? I would assume that the animals assimilate these minerals from the grass and we in turn assimilate them from the meat. I can’t use dairy because of candida and other viruses and fungus which thrive on the milk sugars. What is your opinion?

    • I have battled candida, leaky gut, AI’s, etc for a long time. Though this is me, I have never had candida issues because of dairy. It was always other sugars, fructose mainly, from fruits and veggies that was the main issue.

    • An excess of sugar may feed candita but trying to fight candita by any kind of sugar reduction is like pealing off the vinyl siding off a nurning house so the fire will not be so hot.

      Foods high in chitinase and chitiase suppliments are the only way to get through the chitin coating of candita fungus. Once the coating is breeched other enzymes can finish the job. Unfortunately very few of the natural candita cures contain any chitinase.

      It is more important to avoid shell fish, shrimp, etc as they have an anti-chitinase inhibitor. A list of chitinase high foods can be found easily. They are not strong enough for a cure but can be preventatine.

  8. I wanted to add the perspective of a rancher. Most of the ranches I know (I have lived in Colorado and Wyoming) sell calves or yearlings to CAFO’s of course. However, almost all of us take our own grass fed heifer or steer to a local custom butcher, and ONLY eat our own grass fed meat. And everyone seems very proud of their own home-grown beef. I know a number of ranchers including my parents that sell grass fed beef to a number of their friends by a half or a whole beef. If you live in an area where you could make an arrangement like that, it is a VERY reasonably priced way to eat grass fed beef. Of course you have to invest in a large freezer and have the space for it. I would love to sell more grass fed beef, but there is an issue for producers in northern/colder climates. Grass fat beef is best when the cattle have been on fresh grass rather than hay, which limits the time of year you can butcher and have optimal meat. Hence the need for a freezer. Also grass fat meat should, in my opinion, always be aged at least two weeks, preferably three. It is tougher than grain fat beef because it is not as fat, but if you age it and cook it right, it is delicious and has so much more flavor than grain finished beef. All the people we sell it to love it because of the stronger flavor. However, I also know people that think grass fat beef is terrible. It may take getting used to if you are very attached to grain fed beef.

  9. Hi, I’m looking for some help, possibly an answer.

    I am doing a paper on which is better, grass-fed or grain-fed. I’m having trouble deciding on which is better for both the animals, farmers, and the economy. Seeing these posts and comments hasn’t helped much. Once I see one thing, there is another that completely contradicts it. I am not sure what to believe or what to write. Any comments or facts would be much appreciated. Thank you in advance.

    -high school ag student (:

    • Welcome to the world of research! This is completely normal.

      You have to start off with a specific question, or questions, Research projects have to be designed.

      You seem to have three distinct questions:
      1. Is grass-feeding better for beef animals than confinement grain-feeding?
      2.Is grass-fed beef better than grain-fed beef for humans?
      3. Is grass-feeding better than grain-feeding for the economy?

      Each of these involves subquestions, and you have to clearly identify your markers.

      For question 1, how would you measure the health of the animals? Would you look at conditions like laminitis and acidosis? Would you compare the incidence of respiratory infections? Freedom to move around? Cleanliness? You could get some of this information from the internet (pick your sources very very carefully), but it would be more interesting for you and sounder practice if you actually visited at least one example of each kind of feeding operation. Have your proposal clearly formulated before contacting owners to ask if you can visit and ask questions; make it plain that you don’t have an agenda and are not an undercover PETA agent. Get a letter from the teacher who will be grading your project.

      For question 2, how would you measure the health of humans eating the two kinds of beef? You could create a poll and ask permission from forum owners to post it. You could ask questions about, say, experience with switching from one kind of beef to the other – did specific markers like homocysteine levels or blood pressure change? Be aware that most of your information will come from people who are fiercely partisan to one or the other kind of beef, so poll both sides.

      For question 3, how would you measure the health of the economy? Would you look purely at the number of dollars earned by producers of grassfed beef versus those earned by CAFOs? Would you deduct the hidden costs of CAFO beef – the subsidies paid to corn and soy growers as well as to feedlot operators? Would you look at the costs of cardiovascular diseases, and try to ascertain what percentage of these diseases are attributable to each kind of beef? This last could be very tricky because of all the possible confounders, like age, sex, ethnicity, smoking, local pollution, and general diet.

      I’d discuss this project with your teacher, because you may be being over-ambitious in trying to cover all three questions in the limited time at your disposal.

  10. I Would like to thank you for the great article on grass fed beef.I have been a butcher for 28 years and I will say there is a big difference in grass fed versus grain fed beef.Grass fed beef is a lot more petite or smaller than grain fed beef it has a tendency to dry out a lot faster and has nowhere near the taste that grain fed beef has.Here is something to think about why is grass fed beef so much more expensive if there is no labor involved in raising it no grain cost no transport cost just left alone to eat grass.

    • One reason grass-fed beef is more expensive would be that they take longer to raise then a grain fed animal. So, you have to take them through winter which means (in most parts of the country) you have to provide hay). Our animals are born in February/March and butchered the following year in October. Hay is not cheap to raise and bale up! We put up about 60 tons a year for ourselves and provide hay for neighboring horse farms. Even at our raised prices we barely make a profit. Most grass fed farmers are small local people doing because they love living the farm life and it’s typically not their only source of income to live off of! Support your local farmer people!!!

    • I agree with everything that Kevin says except for the flavor comment.

      Grass finished beef is much richer in flavor than grain finished beef. In fact you can actually taste differences in the beef depending on the mix of the species of forage fed to the animals. It exhibhits ‘terroir’ as the French term it I believe.

    • We used to always finish our cattle with grain but unfortunately my husband has a heart condition and we found that he could not have very much beef without it greatly elevating his cholesterol levels and triglycerides. We heard about grass fed beef and so decided to not feed any grain to our next steer. The beef was TENDER , even round steak, ( could cut it with a plastic knife) flavorful and not greasy. The best part was when my husband has had his cholesterol and triglycerides checked the have been Okay. We did notice that it cooks much quicker. We raise a cross of Angus, black polled limo. and char.

    • Grass fed doesn’t taste nearly as good. But it is much better treatment of the animal. So it depends on what you prefer. Great steak houses do not use grass fed because of taste. Simple as that. You will not see Ruth’s Chris EVER use grass fed because there isnt enough salt and butter on the planet to make it taste the same or better, I have a grass fed Angus in my freezer now and the steaks are average at best. You must also change your entire cooking method. Slow cooking and a very quick sear is the only way to cook grass fed or you have grass fed jerky.

    • Gourmets will tell you grass fed beef is far tastier than grain fed. It is more expensive as it takes longer for the animal to reach the correct size for consumption and farmers like anyone else have to make a living from their work. You can’t have a huge herd on fields like you can in a closed in operation. That is for the economics of it. Then consider how grain is farmed with great expense of fertilizers and various weedkillers, bug killers…which impact on our water, air… The intensive grain fed chain is just not sustainable.
      And we must not forget our poor cattle. Even if we agree with the necessity to abridge their life to feed us this is no reason not to let them live a fairly normal animal life in the open while we wait for that fatal time.

    • I thought the price of grass fed beef seemed excessive, until I began to produce and selling grass fed beef myself. The real cost associated with grass fed beef is the extra land that is required to feed grass fed animals, or conversely, a reduction in the amount of beef that you can produce from a given amount of land with grass fed beef compared to corn fed beef.

      I sell corn fed beef as well as grass fed beef. I produce grass fed beef from our young nursing calves which are getting a lot of protein and energy from their mother’s milk. The supplemental energy from the milk helps to fatten the calves and ensures that the calves are not stressed from inadequate nutrition (stress would cause the beef to have an off-flavor, an undesirable quality in the beef). To produce grass fed beef we feed a nursing calf for 7 months, but we also have to feed the calf’s momma cow for an entire year. This requires about 6 acres of improved pasture (to feed momma and calf) to produce a 700 pound grass fed calf. We can take this same calf and begin feeding it corn after we wean it. We’ll feed the calf for another 7 months, adding another 700 pounds to the calf, on a diet consisting mostly of corn. The total amount of corn that we feed to a calf (from weaning until the calf goes to market) will require about one-half of an acre. So the first 700 pounds of grass fed animal requires about 6 acres of land to produce, while the second 700 pounds of corn fed animal requires about one-half of an acre of land. This is because corn has so much more energy than grass. Whether it is because corn is more efficient at storing energy from the sun, or because there is more energy input into the corn in the form of synthetic fertilizers (probably both of these contribute) corn creates much more energy per acre of land. By feeding corn, we can double the amount of beef that we produce from one animal. And because corn is relatively inexpensive per unit of energy compared to pasture and hay, the beef that is produced with corn is much less expensive than the beef produced from grass and hay. That is why feedlots exist, and that is why corn fed beef is less expensive than grass fed beef. It is the economics of energy from pasture grass versus corn.

      • Wow! That was very helpful in understanding it all.

        Although an established ranch may have little leeway here, I’m curious about the difference in the “quality” (?) of land used (or can be used) between pasture/grazing land and arable/crop land?

        Vegetarians and vegans are always going on about how we use too much land to raise cattle compared to crops. Although we don’t, as a population of 7 Billion plus, want to wipe out nature, and I wish we could get our population down to 2 Billion again, I’m curious how “rough” land can be feeding cattle as opposed to arable land.

        Any thoughts on that?

        Thanks! 🙂

  11. I would be curious to know how many of you know for sure what the beef you are buying is actually being fed. I have seen something lately that completely disgusted me and fortified my belief in raising my own beef for slaughter. I have seen family farmers, not corporate farmers, feeding cattle chicken feces along with grazing them. The cattle love it and it makes them gain weight for higher sales price. This is no joke, I have seen it with my own eyes. So be careful when someone tells you that the beef you are buying is grass fed only.

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