You may have read about the benefits of grass-fed beef—like nutrition and taste—and are wondering whether it’s better and where to buy grass-fed beef. Here’s what we know.
Two guys walk into a gastropub. The first guy orders the 1/3-pound ground sirloin burger with a slice of artisanal cheese on a brioche bun. The second guy orders the same but pays $2 extra for grass-fed beef. Which guy is getting the better burger?
Unlike most riddles, there’s no real right answer to this one. It all depends on your personal tastes and values. Americans have been eating primarily grain-fed (mainly corn-fed) beef since the end of World War II, but there is a growing movement these days toward a return to the grass-fed beef our ancestors ate.
What Is Grass-Fed Beef?
For starters, the beef industry refers to it as grass-finished beef. According to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, most cattle spend the majority of their lives in pastures eating grass and other forage (such as alfalfa) before moving to a feedlot for grain finishing, while grass-finished cattle remain on a pasture and forage diet for their entire lives. So what’s the difference, and why are most cattle grain-finished? Mostly, it has to do with time…
Few regions in North America have the growing season to allow beef cattle to graze on forage year-round. A lot of grass-finished beef is imported from Australia and New Zealand, where grass grows all year long and is more abundant than feed corn. A growing number of American farmers, however—especially organic farmers—shelter their cattle in the winter and feed them hay and silage to keep them grass-fed all year long.
Also, beef cattle are typically brought to market weighing between 1,000 and 1,250 pounds. Grain-fed cattle pack on weight more quickly than grass-fed cattle, so they’re ready for market sooner…and much of that weight is in the form of fat. And while leaner can certainly be a good thing, grass-fed cattle will not have the kind of marbling (intramuscular fat) that makes the finer cuts of beef so tender and juicy. This makes grain finishing a win-win: for the farmer whose animal grows larger more quickly, and for the consumer who wants the most tender, juicy steak possible.
Of course, grass finishing can be a win-win in its own respect: as in organic agriculture, the farmer who invests the time and expense in grass finishing can be rewarded with a higher price per pound for his beef because consumers who want it are willing to pay more for what they feel is a more nutritious product.
Grass-Fed Beef Nutrition
So, nutritionally, what’s the difference between grain-fed and grass-fed?
As mentioned earlier, grass-fed beef is leaner. It’s lower in calories, contains more vitamins A and E, higher levels of antioxidants, and up to seven times the beta-carotene. And then there are the quality fats; grass-fed beef contains more alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an omega-3 fatty acid), as well as more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a natural trans fat purported to have cancer-fighting properties (though there is little to no evidence to support this).
However, skeptics are quick to point out that the benefits of these fats in beef are much ado about not much: Because grass-fed beef is so much leaner than grain-fed, there aren’t enough of the good fats to get excited about. Beef is not a primary source of omega-3s, which are much more prevalent in plant foods. And the vitamin E content of a serving of grass-fed beef is still only 4 percent of the recommended daily intake (compared to almonds, which provide 24 percent). Ditto the beta-carotene, which you will find in much higher concentration by eating vegetables.
Skepticism aside, the fact that grass-fed beef is so much leaner than grain-fed is something to get excited about when considering it as a protein source. Plus, many people really like its flavor.
How Does Grass-Fed Beef Taste?
Grass-finished beef is often described as having a distinctively different taste from grain-finished (“meatier,” “intense,” “purer,” “gamy,” and “more mineral” are some of the more common descriptors). The Cattlemen’s Beef Board cites a series of taste panels conducted by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in which consumers rated domestic grain-finished beef significantly higher than Australian grass-finished beef for flavor and tenderness. However, those who preferred the grass-finished beef were willing to pay more for it.
Given the lack of fat in grass-fed beef, it requires extra care when cooking; steaks can be chewier than what you’re used to and could benefit from shorter cooking times or marinades.
Another consideration is whether you like aged beef. Remember those omega-3 fatty acids? They’re volatile and have a tendency to oxidize, creating “rancid” or “off” flavors. Aging too long is part of the reason grass-finished beef has a reputation for intense, “gamier” flavor.
So What’s the Deal? Should I Buy Grass-Fed Beef?
Despite some of the caveats mentioned above, grass-fed beef certainly has its advantages. One we didn’t mention is the fact that cattle prefer to eat grass, and are much happier in a pasture than on a feedlot. Their bodies are simply designed to process grass, which is why they grow fat on grain. Grain is “people food,” and it is much less efficient to give it to animals than it is to let them eat what they were designed to eat.
Grass-fed beef’s leanness is certainly a plus, and what little fat is there tends to be on the healthier side. If you eat a typical amount of beef, you’ll save thousands of calories over the course of the year…and pay a few hundred dollars more if you’re eating prime cuts. But, as mentioned earlier, grass-fed beef may not be the best choice for prime cuts like tenderloin or rib eye anyway—especially if you want an aged steak with all the juiciness and tenderness you expect.
Probably the best way to experience the advantages of grass-fed beef is to try it in a burger. Tenderness is not an issue with ground beef, nor is aging. With less fat, the burger will shrink less on the grill, leaving you with a bigger, beefier burger with fewer calories and a bit more nutrition.