The Important Differences Between Grass-Fed and Conventional Meat
Have you ever found yourself standing in front of the meat section at the grocery store wondering if that package labeled “grass-fed beef” was worth the higher price tag?
Let’s explore the distinctions between grass-fed beef and conventional beef, whether or not grass fed can make a difference when it comes to your health, and how to choose the best meat for you and your family.
What is the difference?
Imagine two plates in front of you. Both have a nice juicy steak on them. They look relatively the same, and you wouldn’t guess just by looking at them that there was any difference between the two. But one steak is from a grass-fed cow, and the other is from a conventionally-raised cow.
Here’s what that really means. The steak from the grass-fed cow comes from a farm where the animals eat grass for their entire lives. When you eat a grass-fed steak, you are eating real food that also eats real food – closer to how nature intended it.
A conventionally-raised cow from a factory farm, on the other hand, is fed grain in a feedlot for much of its life. The grain feed is usually made of corn (often GMO corn), soy, and other additives. Conventional farmers can also give antibiotics and growth hormones to their cows to promote faster meat production.
Conventional feedlots are often overcrowded, dirty, and look nothing like a classic farm out of a children’s book. Grain feeding in feedlots is meant to help cows to gain weight fast and be ready for slaughter more quickly, so that the farmers can produce more product and make more money.
Feedlot practices have harmful effects on the animals themselves, the humans who eat them, and the environment we all live in.
The health benefits of grass-fed meat over conventional meat
Because the cattle are raised differently and consume different diets, the nutritional content of grass-fed meat compared to conventional meat is also different. In general, grass-fed beef is considered to be a healthier option.
Here are some of the health benefits of eating grass-fed meat:
1. You get more healthy fats into your diet, like omega 3s
The fat profile of grass-fed beef is not the same as conventional beef. For example, it tends to have lower levels of saturated fat and higher levels of healthy unsaturated fats.
Most importantly, grass-fed beef contains higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids compared to beef that is grain fed. In fact, it can have up to five times more omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional beef.[1,3,4]
Cows eating grass-based diets also tend to produce meat higher in a fat called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is known to have several health benefits.
2. You’ll get higher amounts of certain nutrients
Grass-fed meat also contains higher amounts of certain nutrients like vitamin A and vitamin E. It is also rich in other nutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin B6, selenium, iron, and zinc.[1,3]
3. You’ll up your antioxidant intake
Grass-fed beef has more antioxidants in it than grain-fed beef. Antioxidants are beneficial to the human body because they help to keep your cells healthy and fight off harmful cell damage that can lead to serious health concerns.[1,5]
4. You can reduce your exposure to antibiotics and growth hormones.
Animals kept in feedlots are prone to disease and health issues, which means they are often heavily treated with antibiotics. On the other hand, animals who get to forage (especially on natural fields full of diverse plants) don’t typically need as many antibiotics and drugs to keep them healthy. Conventionally-raised cows are also pumped with growth hormones to promote faster growth, whereas grass-fed are not.
In addition to choosing grass-fed beef, you should also look for organic on the label if you want to steer clear of these kinds of harmful drugs making their way into your food.
The environmental impacts of grass-fed vs. conventional meat
If you do choose to eat meat, is grass fed better for the planet than conventional? In almost all cases, yes.
There are many environmental benefits of putting cattle out to pasture and raising them there rather than in feedlots. Doing so can restore soil health, adding microbial diversity to the land. It can help strengthen the land against issues like flooding and drought. It can support a more balanced ecosystem. And, very importantly, it can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.[2,6]
The plants used in the fields where grass-fed beef is raised can actually absorb the harmful carbon that the cows produce and can prevent greenhouse gasses from being released into the atmosphere.[2,6]
So in many ways, grass-fed farming practices can be hugely beneficial for improving the health of our soil and our environment.
Ultimately, the more natural the environmental the better; animals who get to graze on pastures of diverse foliage on a farm that is managed with regenerative agricultural practices are best when it comes to environmental effects.
Choosing the best meat for the health of you, the animals, and the plant
Buying organic, grass-fed beef is a positive place to start; getting to know a farmer who’s approach you can support and get behind is even better.
The American Grassfed Association is a great resource for finding pasture-raised beef that is fed 100% grass. Meats that carry their seal of approval were raised on pasture; ate 100% grass diets; were never treated with antibiotics or hormones; and lived on farms managed with regenerative farming practices that are designed to support healthy land, water, and air quality. EatWild is a another resource that can help you locate grass-fed meat near you.