15 November 2015 thumb A Short Guide to the Differences in Grass Fed and Grain Fed Beef

If you’ve been to a farmers market, you have likely passed a number of stands marketing “grass-fed” beef. Or perhaps you’ve gotten lunch at a popular restaurant known for its dedication to local foods and the environment and noticed a note about the beef being grass-fed. Most of us are familiar with the concept of cows as grass eaters. The media is replete with images of these creatures standing in vibrant grassy fields, chewing in circular motions as they stare ahead. So why do these establishments feel the need to label their meats grass-fed?

The long answer is that the demand for beef would greatly exceed the supply if cows were left to their own devices and allowed to eat only grass. In order to bulk up cattle and send them to slaughter faster, many farms feed their cows a fattening diet of grains: usually corn, soybeans, and barley. Grass-fed cattle take up to twice as long to fatten, and normally do not reach the same bulk as their grain-fed counterparts. For this reason, grass-fed beef costs more.

To be more concise: many places go out of their way to use the label “grass-fed” because the majority of the beef we consume is not.

This label can be misleading, however. All cows are initially grass-fed. The difference between genuinely grass-fed cattle and grain-fed cattle is that the former continues this diet throughout its life, while the latter spends its last six-months eating grain. To prevent confusion, many companies have begun to use the label “grass-finished.”

Many concerns exist over the ethics of feeding cows grain. Their bodies are not built to digest it, which is why they are given a steady diet of antibiotics—because their systems would shut down otherwise. An increasing number of books, such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and documentaries, such as Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc., have also begun to shed light on the unsanitary conditions in which grain-fed cattle often live.

Yet it would be misleading to say that grass-finishing is a more eco-friendly way of raising cows. Recent studies show that grass-finished cattle actually produce up to 20% more methane gas than grain-fed. Methane from cattle is one of the world’s largest contributors to greenhouse gases.

But when you set ethics, the environment, and cost aside, perhaps the most salient difference between the two methods is their impact on human health. Because grass-finished beef will always be a leaner cut than grain-fed, this meat is less fatty while simultaneously containing between two to six times more omega-3s. These good fats are excellent for heart and brain health, and reduce your risk for heart attack, high blood pressure, depression, and Alzheimer’s among other diseases. Grass-finished beef also contains conjugate linoleic acid (CLA), which is a trans-fat that may lower the risk for cancer.

The verdict is still out on what benefits grain-fed beef may have compared to grass-finished beef. A study published in 2010 by Dr. Stephen Smith of Texas A&M University’s AgriLife Research Center indicated that grain-fed beef may protect against cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. So far, no other research has appeared supporting these findings.

However, the increased risk of disease in grain-fed cattle, as well as the need to feed them antibiotics is believed to have a negative impact on consumers. With grain-fed cattle storing a large percentage of acid-resistant E. coli in their stomachs, the risk for human exposure to this deadly strain is greatly increased. It has also been noted that regular consumption of meats that have been fed a steady diet of antibiotics may lead to antibiotic resistance in humans, causing common treatments of ailments to fail.

Ultimately, both methods of finishing cattle have their advantages and disadvantages. When selecting which kind of beef to eat it will most likely come down to which concerns you more: cost or health?